New Zealand and The Spirit Level

The publication of The Spirit Level in 2009 has helped galvanise the debate about economic and social inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand.

When I first read the book the harsh truth was a shock. Our small, prosperous land with a tradition of believing itself to be an egalitarian country where any hard-working person could get ahead in life was in fact one the most unequal countries among our wealthy “peers”. Indeed this inequality was contributing to high levels of health and social problems.

The comprehensive and convincing presentation of the evidence made sense to me, as someone working in the national peak body for the churches’ social services in New Zealand (The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services – NZCCSS).

In the 1980s New Zealand began the radical economic and social experiment we called “Rogernomics” – after the then Finance Minister, Roger Douglas.

Unemployment shot up, poverty and hardship increased rapidly. Our churches and their social services responded by setting up foodbanks and budgeting services, expanding social work and welfare advocacy, and providing emergency housing and various types of debt relief. All these services were necessary and creative responses to individuals, families and communities in need. It was always clear, however, that the structural causes of this need were driven by government policy that among other things had decided to sacrifice economic equality on the altar of the pursuit of economic growth and smaller government.

What The Spirit Level did was bring together a huge amount of evidence in an accessible and readable form. It has shaped the analysis of the inequality issues in this country since then, and talks and seminars based around it have driven the policy debate in government and academic circles.

The striking thing though has been the resonance for ordinary people – the book was able to reach the wider non-academic audience whose concerns it echoed.

During 2011, with the support of social service and church leaders, NZCCSS launched the Closer Together Whakatata Mai programme to tell the New Zealand story of growing inequality and to bring awareness of the issues of inequality to the wider public and into the political process in a general election year.

Others were also galvanised by The Spirit Level and a group of concerned citizens led by Peter Malcolm and Nick Jennings formed the Closing the Gap group that began its work in mid-2011. And so a kind of national movement started.

Election year 2011 saw inequality as one of the leading election issues with political parties and politicians making commitments to reduce inequality – although not, sadly, the two parties that ended up forming the coalition government.

With like-minded groups and with the support of the wonderful people of the JR McKenzie Trust, we have organised national forums in 2012 and 2014. A coalition of concerned groups has formed into an Equality Network, to build the pressure for change towards a more equal country.

A significant moment in the growing movement was the publication of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis edited by Max Rashbrooke in June 2013. The book brings together more than 30 expert voices mixed with the stories of ordinary and extraordinary New Zealanders who have experienced the impacts of inequality. Max has toured New Zealand and spoken about the book through towns and cities across the country and there is great interest and concern about the issue.

One of the key signals that came out of Max’s work is the story of the “richest 1%” in New Zealand. The spectacular growth in the top 1% of incomes while almost all other income earners have seen little or no growth is the scandal of our inequality story.

We have welcomed Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett to New Zealand with great pleasure. Their academic rigour combined with great communication skills and not a little charm, means they have reached an audience in this country far beyond the usual academic and policy circles. Over the five years since their book was published, inequality has gone from being a marginal issue to one of the main issues of concern identified by ordinary New Zealanders.

We are working to further build momentum towards real change that can lift up the incomes and wellbeing of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and bring about a fairer sharing of the bountiful wealth of our country. Find out more and join the movement at the links below.

Paul Barber, Policy Advisor, NZ Council of Christian Social Services.


This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.