Unit 2: Why is Social Inequality a Problem? And for Whom is It a Problem?
A short article in Time Out Stockholm (2008:26) introduces tourists to the Swedish government’s
policies to promote gender and class equality in parenting. In Sweden, fathers are expected to
take at least sixty days of parental leave to look after each of their children, and public
discussions and policy papers focus on whether parental leave should be split 50-50. The
arguments for these measures are based, not primarily on pleasing women, but on evidence that
male involvement in child care lowers divorce rates and increases male life expectancy. And the
article notes Sweden’s commitment to support all parents by providing free universal daycare.
In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better - the book from which
the major readings in this unit are taken - researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
address Sweden’s social policies, and those of other Western countries as well, by asking why
social inequality is important and destructive, especially in wealthy Western countries, including
Canada. It documents the ways in which inequality harms, not only the poor, but all of us, and it
describes the dynamics through which inequality shapes our opportunities, and also affects our
physical and mental health, as well as how we perform in our families, at work, in our
neighbourhoods and at educational institutions.
But first, let’s look at some of the most common forms of social inequality and how they divide
Forms of social inequality in Canada today
Income inequality – Peter Urmetzer and Neil Guppy (2009) document how, despite extensive
and dramatic media attention to the extremely wealthy and the impoverished, most Canadians
belong to the middle income groups. Urmetzer and Guppy argue, though, that in Canada income
is distributed unevenly. In 2005, the top 20% of Canada’s families earned 46.7% of income, and
the bottom 20%, only 4.1%. And, since 1981, the wealthy have been increasing their share of the
national income. McMullin (2011: 195) adds that the incomes of visible minorities are below
national averages, and that Aboriginal Canadians have the lowest incomes. In an international
framework, income inequality in Canada is lower than in the US, the UK and Australia, but it is
higher than in Japan and Sweden.
Wealth inequality – Unlike income, wealth represents all of a person’s assets minus debts.
These assets include, cash, stocks, real estate and durable goods, among others. Because it often
accumulates over time, wealth is less equally distributed than income. Economist James Davies
(2009) points out that wealth inequality in Canada has risen since the mid-1980s, and that, in
2005, the top 10% of the population owned 58.2% of the wealth. Davies notes that levels of
wealth inequality vary widely internationally, but that they are neither consistently higher nor
lower in the developed, as opposed to the developing countries. In 2007, of the world’s 946
billionaires, 23 were Canadians. In an international framework, wealth inequality in Canada is
moderate, comparable to Australia, Germany and France. Power inequality – William Carroll (2009) analyzes both the concentration of corporate wealth
in Canada and the ways in which this wealth is used to increase the political power of Canada’s
corporate elite. He notes that, of Canada’s one million incorporated enterprises, the top twenty-
five own 41.2% of all business assets, and that, in a world in which finance capital has become
increasingly international, Canada’s corporate capital is still nationally based. Carroll describes
how, starting in the 1970s, our corporate elite has created councils, research institutes and
roundtables to cultivate business-friendly research and public policy development in Canada.
Additionally, he argues that an extension of this corporate activism and outreach can be seen in
what he calls the “corporatization” of Canadian universities. In September, 2011, the president
and chancellor of WLU are both men who have built successful careers not in the academic
world, but in business. The placement of business leaders in these powerful and figurehead
positions signifies the spread of corporate values even to universities which fifty years ago were
known as sites of anti-business scholarship and activism.
Carroll describes how, through opening board membership to women and minority group
members, as well as through more meritocratic board membership, Canada’s major corporations
have built ties to other social groups as well, and have become more competitive. And he warns
that this increasing power of Canada’s large corporations is resulting in a hollowing out of our
democratic institutions, leaving formal procedures, such as elections, intact, while increasing the
influence of the corporate elite in shaping government and institutional agendas.
Inequality and work – Sociologist Julie McMullin (2011, ch. 9) explains how class, age,
gender, race and ethnicity (and we should add dis/ability, immigration status and sexuality)
influence the access of Canadians to paid employment. Among the major recent trends, she notes
that increasing numbers of Canadians are self employed, that increasing numbers of women have
been entering the paid labor force (though not on the same terms as men), that women still fill a
minority of positions involving decision-making power and authority, and that women tend to be
employed in jobs involving health care, social care and education. Regarding age, McMullin
found that older Canadians who are still working tend to be self employed, while younger
workers more often find employment in part-time retail, and other service sector positions.
McMullin describes how, since 1990, in many Western countries, including Canada, work entails
less job security, and more flexible employment. Unemployment rates in Canada have been
lower than in the US and many European countries, though unemployment rates for immigrants
and visible minorities are double the rate of those born in Canada. Among Canada’s First
Nations, the unemployment rate in 2001 was 37.7%.
Inequality in education –Starting with Karl Marx, many social thinkers have expected that free
education would level social inequality by giving all children basic literacy, numeracy and
discipline. But studies of educational institutions, in Canada as elsewhere, have found that they
often reproduce the inequalities in the societies around them. The kinds and experiences of
education offered to African Canadians until very recently in Nova Scotia and Ontario have been
documented in the film The Little Black School House (2007) which we viewed in Unit 1. A
more extreme example is the network of residential schools in which, from the 1870s to the
1970s, Aboriginal children were separated from their families, their bands and their culture. In
these schools, they were subject to physical, including sexual, abuse, and were taught rudimentary skills to prepare them to fill the lowest positions in Canadian society. Neil Guppy
(2009) argues, that, in recent years, the effects of schooling in Canada have been mixed. Guppy
demonstrates that women and members of many ethnic groups – including many visible
minorities – have attained more and better education than was available to them previously, but
class-based inequality in access to education is increasing.
Given the many forms of social inequality in Canada today, and the wide disparities in the access
of different social groups to the financial and institutional resources described above, the
readings from The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better examine
how these inequalities are associated with social problems.
Why is Social Inequality a Problem? And for whom is it a problem?
In the early twenty-first century, as social inequality is increasing worldwide, and within the
wealthy Western countries, many social scientists and concerned citizens are engaging and re-
engaging with questions around whether inequality is good, good for some people, fair, or even
avoidable. Of the many books published on this topic in recent years, one of the most important,
The Sprit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better (Richard Wilkinson and
Kate Pickett, 2009), asks whether social equality is desirable, or even important. One of the key
readings for this course, it contains many ideas, arguments and concepts which will help you
think about the different kinds of inequality which we will be examining in subsequent units. If
you google this book, you’ll notice that it’s been reviewed in many major newspapers, including
the Globe and Mail, the Guardian and the New York Times. You’ll also see that the arguments
and ideas in this book are being discussed seriously and are also being contested. The authors’
expectation that many people would disagree with them is one of the reasons why the arguments
are so many and so thorough, even when this slows the reading down.
In the social sciences, research methods are very important. Inappropriate methods cast doubt on
the findings of a study. And, equally important, when studies based on different research
methods yield similar findings, they reinforce each other. In most units of this course, we will be
considering the research methods used, and you will be expected to address research methods in
the book discussion you will submit in week 8. This week’s reading is particularly rich
methodologically. The authors draw on studies from many disciplines and based on many
research methods. Which kinds of studies and disciplines did you find in the text?
Epidemiological studies, statistical research, laboratory experiments, criminology,
primate research and neuroscience are just some of them.
Another strength of this reading is that it is broad, comparative and historical. It focuses on
wealthy Western countries, but it also examines hunter gatherer societies and primate societies.
And it looks at historical turning points, for example, economic development and the collapse of
communism, to assess the effects of economic change on social inequality. Inequality, Social Problems and Mental Health
Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrate that many social and health problems which are most often
studied separately actually occur together and correlate with high social inequality. These
include: violence, crime, imprisonment, obesity, cardiovascular problems, illiteracy and teen-age
pregnancy, among others. The authors also identify state strategies for limiting social inequality
and the social problems associated with them. The two major strategies involve;
transfer payments to even out existing inequalities
and a system of more equal earnings.
And the authors note that the result of relative equality is more important regarding the link to
social problems than the policies which produce equality. The graph on p. 174 shows that
Canada has a moderate level of social inequality, on a par with Germany and France. The highest
levels of inequality are found in the US, the UK and Portugal, while the countries with the lowest
levels of inequality are Sweden and Japan.
Ethnicity and Inequality
The paragraphs about ethnicity and inequality are especially important for this course, and we
will be considering this topic in several of the upcoming readings. Wilkinson and Pickett argue
that ethnic prejudice and discrimination are important in that they often increase social
inequality, though the effects of inequality are the same, whether they result from ethnic
divisions or other sources. Keep these findings in mind when you’re working on units three
Economic Development and Inequality
Wilkinson and Pickett show that the amount and the contours of inequality change as a society
becomes industrial and wealthy. Particularly they point out that in poor societies heart diseas