Luxury sports cars are part of the daily scene on Metro Vancouver streets. ‘There are studies that show that people in more unequal areas are more likely to spend money on flashy stuff, particularly flashy-looking cars,’ says British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG files

by Douglas Todd | Vancouver Sun

March 06, 2020

Douglas Todd: Inequality, like Vancouver’s, gives rise to anxiety, depression

Inequality is bad for your mental health.

Famed British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson couldn’t be coming to a more appropriate city to deliver his message that material inequality has powerful, negative psychological effects.

Metro Vancouver could be the poster child for a society with sharp disparities in wealth, which Wilkinson has shown makes people more prone to such things as heart disease, anxiety and drug use. The rich or established in this city have sparkling homes while the rest agonize over getting by in one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world.

Exacerbating the wealth gap, Metro Vancouver’s median wages are ninth worst of Canada’s 10 largest cities. Metro Vancouver ranks a dismal 50th for wages when compared to North American cities, according to Andy Yan, head of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

Meanwhile, despite the struggles of the city’s lower and middle classes, Metro Vancouver has won the dubious honour of being dubbed the “supercar capital” of the world, with the number of Aston Martins, Bugattis and Rolls Royces running far out of proportion to the population.

The influential co-author of the The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being has worked with Kate Pickett for more than a decade to map out just how much the realities and perceptions of inequality contribute to fragile egos, addiction, depression, obesity and violence.

Compared to other democratic countries, Wilkinson’s research shows, Canada is in the middle of the pack in the gap between rich and poor, less divided by money than the U.S., but far less equal than Norway, Denmark, Austria and Japan. Still, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says Canada’s wealthiest 87 families collectively own the same amount as the lowest-earning 12 million Canadians.

Metro Vancouverites will be able to hear about the wide-ranging downsides of economic hierarchies when Wilkinson, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham’s Medical School, gives a free lecture at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at 7 p.m. on April 2, as part of SFU’s Public Square Community Summit.

Both Wilkinson and Pickett, a professor of epidemiology at the University of York, have been in-demand speakers since their bestseller The Spirit Level was published in 2009, winning multiple awards. It provided devastating evidence that both those on low incomes, and perhaps surprisingly the rich, are all hurt by inequality.

In a telephone interview from his home in York, England, Wilkinson said he’s been to Canada and Vancouver several times and generally finds the country “clean and modern and not as hard-edged as the U.S.”

Wilkinson talked about how the prevalence of luxury sports cars in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere can be excruciating for those who witness them.

“There are studies that show that people in more unequal areas are more likely to spend money on flashy stuff, particularly flashy-looking cars,” Wilkinson said, noting supercars are few and far between in his hometown, located two hours north of London.

“I remember reading how sports cars are a bit of a nuisance, because you can’t park them by the side of the road because people deliberately scratch them. That shows resentment.”

The perception of extreme inequality that goes along with everything from high-end cars to glittering jewellery outlets to overbuilt mansions, Wilkinson said, can cause people to feel inferior and lack in confidence, which can lead them to withdraw and feel depressed.

“However, others, as we argue in the book, pick themselves up. For their own self-advancement they start to flaunt their professional achievements, instead of being modest about them,” said the expert in the so-called social determinants of health.

“If you’re worried about how you’re seen and judged in terms of status, then you either feel overcome with insecure self-worth or you respond the opposite way and try to show yourself off in a very positive light, like by buying expensive cars.”

Narcissism levels rise in unequal societies, says Wilkinson, yet low self-esteem is more likely, including feeling compelled to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Which makes one wonder whether it’s more than a coincidence that Metro Vancouver is one of the centres of the opioid crisis. The city accounts for more than its share of the 2.5 people in the province dying each day of overdoses, four out of five being men.

Wilkinson finds Canada’s little-discussed gender breakdown on overdose deaths intriguing, since the current focus in Britain is on the rising number of drug fatalities among women. The grim subject deserves further research, he suggested, since evidence suggests it is more common for women who are stressed to “eat for comfort.”

There are so many correlations between inequity and ill health that Wilkinson, 76, wonders why other researchers didn’t pick up on the theme much earlier. “It seems to be something we don’t like to recognize, the feeling of being ill at ease.” He notes studies suggest 50 per cent of Canadians have struggled with some form of mental illness by the age of 40.

Asked whether being a member of an ethnic, gender or sexual-orientation group can exacerbate a sense of inequality, Wilkinson says sometimes they can be “markers for low social status.” But, he says, “we’re less racist than we used to be” and stigmas surrounding gender “are not as bad as they were.” It is material differences that are most crucial for establishing social hierarchies.

What can be done about economic inequality?

Wilkinson and Pickett have felt pressured to try to answer such questions since they first published The Spirit Level.

Even though Wilkinson emphasizes he’s “not an economist,” the final section of their latest book contains ideas on how to achieve more materially equal societies and a more environmentally sustainable world. The authors criticize the growth mantra of capitalism. And they recommend “expanding democracy into the economy,” including through mandatory employee representation on company boards.

While the proposed solutions of Wilkinson and Pickett are leading to much worthwhile debate about the future of societies, there remains no reason to doubt their hard-earned research reveals the world, and Metro Vancouver, have distinct inequality problems.

This article was published by Vancouver Sun on March 6, 2020.