In November of 2007, the United Nations declared February 20 as the World Day of Social Justice. According to their website, "Observance of World Day of Social Justice should support efforts of the international community in poverty eradication, the promotion of full employment and decent work, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all."
That reads like a tall order (and a somewhat vague one at that). However, it is perhaps worth acknowledging on such a day just how interrelated the issues on that list actually are, as well as their undeniable, and more controversial link to broader income inequality.
British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson argues that the idea that income inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. In a book he released with fellow epidemiologist Kate Picket in 2009 entitled The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, they examine the relationships between income inequality and societal well-being.
First, they found that when you compare a number of countries’ collective wealth and overall life expectancies, you find no relationship. However, when you look within countries, there is a correlation between individuals’ wealth and life expectancy. Thus relative income means something within countries, but not between them.
When the researchers asked how much richer are the richest 20% than the poorest 20% in countries, based on data from the World Bank and the United Nations, they found that Singapore, the United States, Portugal and the U.K. had the biggest gaps between the two groups. Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden had the smallest gaps.
They then charted these countries’ income inequalities against a myriad of social factors, for example social mobility, rates of imprisonment, obesity, life expectancy and mental health. What they found was that for each of these factors, there was a strong correlation with levels of income inequality: the higher the inequality within a country, the higher the measured social ill. This strongly implied that for wealthy countries, well-being is not dependent upon GDP, growth or national income, but where we are in relation to one another within a country.
The study also treated U.S. states independently, and found similar results. In states with higher levels of income inequality, trust amongst individuals was lower, homicide rates were higher, and so were rates of mental illness.
There was unsurprisingly a very strong link between rates of imprisonment and levels of inequality — much of which has to do with sentencing as opposed to actual crime rates. Furthermore, it was found that a father’s income was more relevant for social mobility in countries with higher income inequalities.
In a TED talk called "Inequality: The Enemy Between Us?" Wilkinson quipped, "If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark."
Interestingly, Wilkinson argues that it is not important how we achieve better income equality, but simply that we get there. He points to 2 countries which had the lowest rates of income inequality, Japan and Sweden, and underscores how different these 2 countries are in terms of culture, policy, etc. In Sweden, taxes are high and the welfare state is strong, and these are what contribute to the wealth equality. In Japan, on the other hand, income levels are naturally more equal before taxes.
So what does this mean on a day devoted to "social justice"?
I would say considering the U.S.’s score card in Wilkinson and Pickett’s book, in addition to a struggling economy the past few years, a contentious political environment, and a tough road ahead — especially for those of us considered "millennials" — in terms of social safety nets, pensions and things previously taken for granted, perhaps we should be thinking less about wealth and growth, and more about some semblance of equality.
"Access to social well-being and justice for all" should be a focus for us right here in the wealthiest country on Earth, in addition to, or alongside of, expanding employment opportunities. According to Wilkinson and Pickett, addressing inequality can take different forms, and needn’t cater to simply one side of the political aisle — so in this maybe there is hope. Either way, championing social justice is clearly more than just the reduction of poverty or unemployment; it is the relationships that exist amongst people and the degree to which we see ourselves as part of a community.