Canada's growing economic inequality will inevitably lead to social problems, poorer health and a shorter lifespan, says acclaimed British author Richard Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, in his first speaking engagement in Canada, told an audience of economists and civil servants in Ottawa that wealthy countries with wide gaps between rich and poor are rife with social ills. These can include high rates of teenage pregnancy, crime, imprisonment and mental illness.
And Canada, traditionally in the middle of the pack in terms of economic inequality, seems to be heading in the wrong direction.
"As Canadian income differences increase, I think they'll have more of these problems," he said in an interview.
Wilkinson has researched social and health policy for decades but has become a sudden celebrity with his book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.
He and co-author Kate Pickett show how in developed countries, inequality is linked to poor health, obesity, teenage pregnancy, crime, mental illness, child mortality, life expectancy, drugs and homicide rates.
'It's the differences between us that count.'— Richard Wilkinson
They argue that inequality doesn't just hurt the downtrodden. Rather, it harms an entire society because it's the gap between rich and poor that is destructive, not just the presence of poverty.
"Average income levels are no longer the issue," Wilkinson said. "It's the differences between us that count."
In countries with large equality gaps "something goes wrong with the quality of social relations," he said. "What we're looking at is a general social dysfunction because of inequality."
Nations with more equality have fewer social problems
Conversely, social problems in more equal societies such as Sweden and Japan are far less severe, he says.
Equality benefits the poor the most, he and Pickett found, but it benefits every social class to some extent.
"The differences are bigger at the bottom, but even at the top, there are some benefits," he told the audience.
The Spirit Level has gone viral, seizing the attention of the British Labour Party and even, briefly, of Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The study has also ignited a heated international debate about the researchers' methodology, the validity of their conclusions and what the appropriate public policy response should be.
The authors advocate policies that make advanced countries more equal, including higher taxes and pay limits for the rich.
Corporate culture is key
But Wilkinson also says corporate culture is key. Companies that embrace employee ownership or have flat internal structures produce healthier work environments and foster more comfortable communities. Such corporations have also shown higher productivity and strong ethics.
"We need to change the way business is done," Wilkinson said in an interview, criticizing the "bonus culture" that heavily rewards those at the top, contributing to society-wide inequality.
His first visit to Canada is timely. In the last few weeks, a raft of studies has shown that the super-rich in Canada — mainly corporate leaders — have entrenched their position while the middle class has stagnated and the poor have struggled to deal with the recession.
Food bank use is up to all-time highs. The ability for newcomers to Canada to make a decent living is deteriorating. And single, young men have become the new post-recession face of destitution in urban Canada.
Wilkinson held court with a wide variety of parliamentarians and their staff Thursday morning and was to meet with deputy ministers. He is travelling across Canada on a speaking tour.
But few who listened to Wilkinson's message felt there was any chance of his ideas gaining traction with the federal Conservative government.
Rather, the federal response to recent recommendations on how to deal with poverty and inequality has been to point to provincial responsibility in many areas of social policy.