The Health Gap: Sir Michael Marmot in conversation with Professors Wilkinson & Pickett

On Tuesday night The Equality Trust, in partnership with UNISON, held an event on health inequalities, featuring Professor Sir Michael Marmot in discussion with Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

Professor Marmot presented evidence that in Britain, the average person would have eight extra years of healthy life if they had the same opportunities as the richest in our society. The social gradient in health means that the poorer a person is, the shorter their life expectancy. This is true even for those just below the very rich, so everybody is affected. The challenge is not only to reduce poverty and to break its link with ill health, but to reduce this social gradient.

To deal with health inequalities, Professor Marmot sets governments several tasks, detailed in his new book The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World. Every child should be given the best start, through reduced material deprivation.  We need to maximise our capabilities and control, particularly by improving educational attainment, and we need to ensure a healthy standard of living. Fair employment and good work are vital: work should relieve poverty, yet in this country the majority of households in poverty have at least one adult in work.

Professor Richard Wilkinson said the reforms that would be needed to reduce health inequality are not minor, so a vast political movement is required. Evidence like Professor Marmot’s is good ammunition for such a movement. Professor Wilkinson also raised the important issue of trade unions (fitting, given the event was kindly hosted by UNISON) and said that the U-shape of economic inequality’s decline and rise in the 20th century is the inverse of trade union membership. Trade unions not only improve the wages of their members but are a countervailing voice in society. Professor Wilkinson said that the manipulative power of large corporations has damaged democracy, and is particularly injurious when opposing the findings of public health research.

Professor Kate Pickett said people looking for sources of news with which to inform a mature debate on inequality struggle to find it because the media does not adequately report on major pieces of evidence. Books like The Spirit Level and The Health Gap are an attempt to bring evidence out of peer-reviewed journals and into the public realm. Professor Pickett appealed to people to use such evidence to foment the movement.

Professor Marmot spoke about evidence that the top 1% have increased their income share while paying lower taxes, and argued this is a political driver, not an economic one. The 25 biggest hedge fund owners have the same annual income as entire countries. If the richest people continue to sequester their wealth away, that is a loss to everyone else.

The overriding message of the evening was that neither health inequality nor economic inequality is inevitable. Other countries do better, and so must we.

Lucy Shaddock, Policy & Campaigns Officer