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It's the inequality, stupid

Posted by Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher

27th Jan 2012

We know so much about the growing inequality in the UK.

We know that it is getting worse - in Scotland, for example, two fifths of the increase in income during the last decade has gone to the richest 10 % of the population).

We know that it is worse than most other European countries - the UK is up there with Greece, Bulgaria and Lithuania.

Many of us know that now the greatest inequality seems to be not between those in work and those out of work, but between those in work between those who earn mountains and brag about it, and those who earn an hourly wage so low they remain below the poverty line.

And we know that, combined with decreasing social mobility, the UK's inequality means people have no hope of ever climbing an increasingly steep and sparsely-runged ladder.

What is so amazing is the lack of appreciation of how interconnected the talons of inequality are with our various social and environmental problems. In an unequal society, in which resources are owned, enjoyed and controlled by the few rather than being shared amongst more people, the (often not very subtle) message to those at the bottom of the hierarchy is that they have lost the competition. Worse, there is an implicit assumption that they deserve their lower status because they are somehow less able, less talented, less gifted.

This ignores the opportunities, privilege and support showered on those who already have the education, the social connections, the resources, the confidence, the exclusive access to jobs and so on. I often wonder why we don't expect more from such people than 'socially useless' work in finance or wallowing in inherited wealth. What happened to "from those to whom much is given, much is expected'?

But there is a much more profound, longer term impact of inequality.

Firstly, it corrodes our social institutions that make us civilised and humane. The more distant we are from each other, the more we inhabit different worlds, live in different localities, send our children to different schools, shop in different establishments, experience different health care, the less we recognise each other.

The less we recognise each other, the less we appreciate our connections with each other.

The less we appreciate our connection with each other, the less we empathise for each other.

The less we empathise with each other, the less we care for each other.

And the less we care for each other, the less willing we are to contribute to shared support systems.

Hence we should start recognising the growing tax evasion and the paring down and tightening up of our mechanisms of social protection as a function of our increasingly unequal society. These shifts will also make inequality far, far worse.

Secondly, inequality fuels materialism that leads to conspicuous consumption. People try to demonstrate their status outwardly through possessions that denote conformity to some social grouping. Materialistic pursuits crowd out our time and emotional energy for more valuable pursuits such as community involvement. It can also lead to debt. And such consumption is completely rubbish for the environment - in every sense of the word 'rubbish'!

And finally, inequality generates angst and anxiety about one's status. Evidence from around the world shows that living with stress, anxiety and a sense of alienation leads to socially destructive behaviours and premature death. Inequality really is a matter of life and death.

When looking aghast at the state of the world, we could do worse than remind ourselves that it is the inequality that underpins so many of our dire problems.

Blog post written by Katherine Trebeck

Senior Researcher

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Katherine Trebeck