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Income Inequality: When Inequality Increases, Communities Lose Trust.


When differences in income widen, trust disappears. The above chart shows how unequal societies have lower percentages of people who trust others in their communities.  Wilkinson & Pickett found that using a measure of trust (International data on trust from the European and World Values Survey), that the differences between countries were large. If you look at the chart you will see a cluster of Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands which score high on levels of trust. This group of countries also appears to be ‘Low’ in ‘Income Inequality’. As a group they register at levels of trust between 60 and 80% of people agreeing that others can be trusted. The U.S.A. registers on the other side of the chart at only 40% of the people agreeing that others can be trusted. The U.S.A. also scored ‘High’ on ‘Income inequality’.  For review, here is a chart comparing modern ‘democracies’ for their level of income inequality:


The U.S.A. is second from the bottom with a more than eight times richer top 20% than the poorest 20%.  Again, note the cluster of Scandinavian countries at the most equal top of the chart (the smallest income gap). Japan is the most equal in incomes, with a ratio of slightly more than three times greater incomes for their top 20%.

The quality of social relations is much lowered in high income inequality countries. “Inequality is divisive, and even small differences seem to make an important difference.” Even within the United States there are fourfold differences in trust levels between States.


You can see in the far upper left on the chart how North Dakota’s level of trust is between 60 and 70%. That places North Dakota at the same level of Sweden in the international chart. Mississippi shows that only 17% of the population believe that people can be trusted.


The extreme example  which the authors use to demonstrate the impact of income inequality on trust was that of the crisis of Hurricane Katrina and the racial discrimination against blacks in the subsequent days after the flooding:

Wilkinson & Pickett recognized that prejudice is corrosive and increases the impact of income inequality. Being excluded from educational and job opportunities further increases income inequality differences, then flowing into worse health and social outcomes. In introducing their evidence of the connection between income inequality and levels of social trust in communities, they cite the Katrina example of abandonment of poor, blacks in New Orleans as the breakdown of a flooded city, due to its extreme class and racial divisions. The prejudices on display when police suspected blacks of ‘looting’ and whites of ‘looking for food’ are given as definitions of inequality. The lack of empathy shown for victims of the flooding was a stunning display of racism and inequality. The authors make sure that the readers understand that racism is often the product of inequality and always involves dehumanization of the ‘other’. The exploitation of prison labor in American Gulags is an ongoing example of racism, dehumanization and extreme income inequality.

The authors ask how it must feel different to live in highly equal and highly unequal countries. (Of a thousand scenarios I picked out two for simplicity’s sake.)

Two scenarios.

Recently, I heard of a person with extreme chest pain who did not have insurance or Medicaid, who went to the ER,  was not treated for their condition, was given inadequate diagnostic tests and billed for thousands of dollars without having received care. Had they lived in a more income equal country they would have received correct diagnostic procedures, correct treatment, and would not have been sent to a collection agency for predatory exploitation of their meager resources. Their care would have been unrelated to their finances. They would not have been ‘stabilized’ and released untreated in order to avoid the hospital providing care. If you are an American, and cannot afford health insurance, it is terrifying in the U.S. to get sick and to need medical care. In an income inequality country, people live in fear of their own natural human needs for medical care.

On the more equal end of the spectrum, imagine going on a camping trip in one income equal country, where the law permits campers to use all open spaces as community property for the purposes of camping.  A camper could camp every night for free for as long as they wanted to (as long as they were considerate and did not interfere with the property owners activities or disrespect the environment by leaving garbage behind). That open community camping right could only exist where the social cohesion and civic engagement is high. Respect for others is expected and reciprocated in more equal countries where the majority of people see other people as just like themselves. Kind of like being with Occupy occupations.

Conversely, the predatory healthcare system in the first example can only exist where internationally respected human rights to medical care have been ignored and where healthcare has been commodified and exploited for profit.

Directionality: Inequality>Distrust.

In order to determine whether income inequality creates distrust or whether distrust creates income inequality, Rothstein & Uslaner showed that increases in inequality from 1960 to 1998 resulted in decreasing levels of trust in the U.S.A. from 60% to around 40%. Inequality increased, mutuality decreased; people felt like they were on their own; more silo-ing resulted in more reported distrust.

Income Inequality and Women’s Status.

As further proof that income inequality results in increases in social distance, the authors reported studies from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research which measures the status of women in the U.S.A.. The IWPR researchers established that in less income equal States, women’s status was lower. Those charts are not available to me, but they are published in The Spirit Level book. Where income inequality is the norm, women participate in politics less, make less than men do in income, and complete fewer college programs. Pickett & Wilkinson put together an international measure of women’s status, combining measures of income, education, and political office holding to render their own index: They found that in more income equal countries, women did much better.

Donations and Foreign Aid.

Individuals and nations who have high levels of trust appear to give more to others and to other nations. In a chart of the percent of national income spent on foreign aid, highly unequal countries spent much less on foreign aid than did their counterparts from highly equal countries. Highly income equal countries  spent as much as 1 per cent of their national income (about five times as much as did the U.S.A.) on helping other nations.

Summing Up.

This post did not explore the other powerful issues of high homicide rates, much lower life expectancies, high imprisonment rates, and high rates of health problems which are also related to income inequality.  Future posts will explore those issues. The validity of the connection between income inequality and health and social problems was argued here.

Income inequality brings a loss of trust and increases in social distance,  deterioration of social cohesion, loss of civic engagement, reduced generosity toward others, reduced foreign aid between nations, lowering of women’s status, dehumanizing others, racism and class discrimination, and a sense of being on one’s own. The relationship appears to be one way: With an increase of income inequality, over time, trust is lost.

My apologies in advance for any errors in representing the ideas of the authors of The Spirit Level. For more information go to  You will find more evidence/research there which you can download and read.

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