The Spirit Level for New Zealand

The Spirit Level for New Zealand

Why we are starting this project.

British epidemiologists Professors Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson in summarizing 30 years of their research involving over 20 of the so called “rich” countries, and other research papers, have shown that increasing income gaps, as measured by the difference between the average incomes of the top 20% and the bottom 20%, are a direct cause of the worsening of many social conditions. They looked at life expectancy, infant mortality, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment, obesity, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, levels of trust in society, social mobility, maths achievement and literacy, and found that there was a causal relationship between each and income gaps. And furthermore these worsening social conditions occurred at all levels of society.

See details of this and further evidence in MORE INFO….Research Material.

Also go to the Equality website where there is further information on “The Spirit Level”   .


So, significantly reduced income inequality leads to a better life for all.

They have also shown that more economic growth will not lead to a happier, healthier, or more successful population. In fact there is no relation between income per head and social well-being in rich countries unless the income is spread more equably.

Further, the evidence suggests that if the UK were more equal, say the current gap was halved, murder rates would halve, mental illness would reduce by two thirds, imprisonment would reduce by 80%, teenage births would reduce by 80%, and levels of trust would increase by 85%…..imagine the improvements for all and the reduced costs. And it is not just the people on low incomes who do better. The evidence suggests people all the way up the income scale would benefit although it is true that the poorest would gain the most.



Now what about Aotearoa New Zealand? Over the last 20 years we have gone from one of the most equal of the developed or wealthy countries to one of the least, and this has been mostly due to large rises in overall income for the top 20%. The bottom 20% have actually seen a slight reduction in their disposable incomes.

What has been the effect of increasing levels of inequality of incomes in New Zealand?

Overall New Zealand has worse social problems than almost all the wealthy countries.

Mental Health:  Mental illness here in NZ is significantly higher than other countries and our youth suicide rate is depressing.

Imprisonment: We have doubled the rate in the last 25 years and now have, behind the USA, one of the highest rates of  incarceration in the developed world.

Infant Mortality: This is actually declining but it is still 60% higher than many of the more equal countries.

Obesity: Our rate is more than twice the rate of more equal countries and growing.

Trust: Surveys have suggested that we still have relatively high levels of trust but many people feel this is slipping as income gaps grow.

Environmental Sustainability: In the one area in which comparisons are available–which is recycling–we are half way down the list and have a rate that is half that of the top countries

Infectious Diseases: Sadly we have seen an increase here over the last 20 years. There is now the re-emergence of so called third world diseases in parts of New Zealand.

Teenage Pregnancies: We are the third worst of the wealthy countries, five times the rates of more equal countries like Sweden and our rates have increased since the 1980’s.

Homicide and Violence: For once we do pretty well amongst the wealthy counties however our imprisonment rates are poor and many of you will remember 50 years ago, one or two murders a year was the norm, what is it like now, at least one a week?

Education: International surveys tell us we do very well for the middle and top groups. However we do have a serious problem with the bottom 20%. In these surveys we showed the highest variation between the top and bottom groups.

Life Expectancy: We are ranked below halfway in this statistic for wealthy countries and we are 2 to 3 years below the rest.

Thus overall we certainly fit the pattern of high levels of inequality going hand in hand with many worsening social problems.

Reducing inequality in New Zealandto the point where we rank among the most equal countries (instead of the most unequal) could help make these kinds of changes:

  • 4,000 fewer people in prison through halving the current number of around 8,000
  • More than a hundred fewer babies dying each year in their first year of life (currently over 300 per year)
  • Life expectancy increased by one to three years for all those living in New Zealand
  • 400,000 fewer people who are obese which means fewer cases of diabetes and heart disease
  • 2,500 fewer teenage pregnancies meaning fewer abortions, and fewer children and young mothers struggling with the social problems associated with teenage motherhood
  • Reduced levels of depression and other mental illnesses
  • Fewer teenagers  taking their own lives
  • Fewer children and young people killed or crippled every year in this country as a result of infectious diseases such as meningococcal disease (which killed more than two hundred people during the 1991 -2007 epidemic).
  • 1,500 fewer 15 year-olds with low reading and maths literacy
  • Doubling the rate at which we recycle waste


                                                          Paul Barber   “Closer Together” NZCCSS



                            More Equal Societies are Better for Everyone

organised by Income Equality Aotearoa New Zealand