The Common Good
June 2011

Bridging the Wealth Gap

by Andrew Bradstock | June 2011

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Bloomsbury Press.

The God weencounter in scripture is none too keen on unequal societies. Okay, the Old Testament has its fair share of wealthy patriarchs and monarchs, and more than a few slaves, widows, and orphans existing alongside them. But when some live in opulence while others can't even meet their basic needs, God takes a dim view. Indeed, as biblical archaeology shows, it's at those times that the prophets speak most urgently.

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Actually, both testaments are clear on this. Whether it's a passage about the provision of manna in the wilderness, or the requirements of the Jubilee, or the apostle’s call to the Corinthians to share with a poorer fellowship, or the practice of the Jerusalem church in Acts 4, the message is the same: A community where the gap between rich and poor is entrenched, and where even one person becomes dependent upon others, is bad for all in that society.

What about our societies today? As the gulf between the haves and have-nots continues to widen, within nations as well as between the developed and developing world, are churches speaking a prophetic, healing word? They should, because the biblical writers don't advocate narrowing the wealth gap just for its own sake. They know that societies are stronger and safer when that happens.

But perhaps we were waiting for some scientific as well as biblical evidence for this? Well, now we've got it, in the form of a well-researched, authoritative, and clearly written study by British academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett called The Spirit Level.

The subtitle of the book -- "Why greater equality makes societies stronger" -- sums up its thesis: The more equal a society, the better the quality of life for everyone in it. The writers analyze 23 developed countries, assess their level of inequality by comparing the wealth of the richest 20 percent of the population with that of the bottom 20 percent, and consider how well they perform on a range of indices such as levels of obesity, rates of imprisonment, average life spans, numbers of teenage pregnancies, and levels of literacy. (They also do this for each individual state within the United States.) And what do you know? The greater the degree of inequality, the worse the outcome on each index -- and in overall levels of trust, fear, and contentment. Whether or not we’re convinced there's a causal link between inequality and poor social outcomes, the evidence for a strong correlation is irrefutable.

This is a book worthy of close and prayerful attention. Even though it makes no claims to be "theological," it would be great for church study groups. Here in New Zealand -- which along with the U.S. and U.K. is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world -- the book is being talked and blogged about everywhere, and Christians should be among those feeding it into public discussion wherever they can. It takes us way beyond ideologies and party politics to examine the deeper roots of some of our societies' ills -- and thus, for readers of faith, encourages us to do some good theology!

Reducing inequality will not solve every social ill -- no one would claim that -- but where it does happen, real change is tangible. And society gets to be just that bit more godly.

Andrew Bradstock is director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Francisco X. Alarcón is founder of Poets Responding to SB 1070 and a  professor at the University of California-Davis. © 2010 Francisco X. Alarcón

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