The human cost of inequality

IMG_3932by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P conference 2015

The second day of the conference started with an excellent presentation from Prof. Kate Pickett, from the University of York. Kate co-authored the influential book “The Spirit Level” which provided evidence to illustrate how almost everything is affected not by how wealthy a society is but how equal it is. The book was written at a time when inequality was not being discussed, and even now, whilst it is indeed the subject of much more debate on an international stage, it is still only rhetoric, and we are still waiting for this to translate into real action.

There are some shocking statistics that illustrate the level of the challenge we face across the globe, such as the one used by Oxfam – the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as 3.5 billion of the poorest people – illustrating a truly grotesque level of inequality. But, as Kate pointed out, we need to remember that these are not just meaningless, abstract numbers, they represent real human suffering and have real impacts.

Kate illustrated this point by highlighting some of the psycho-social impacts of inequality and how this affects all of us. For example, as income inequality rises so do health and social problems. They become worse in more unequal societies. Levels of trust in other people increase in more equal countries, something that impacts on all of us. The prevalence of mental illness is higher in more unequal countries, such as the UK, where the figure is around 23-24%. More unequal countries have higher levels of status anxiety and depression. Inequality drives consumerism driven by status competition. Interestingly social mobility is lower in more unequal countries illustrating the point that you can’t have equality of opportunity unless you already have equality of outcome. The UK scores low on social mobility making it harder for people to move on from inequality, a key problem in unequal societies.

One of the most important points I’ll take from Kate’s presentation is that inequality affects all of us. The problems are not just confined to the poor, the effects are seen across all aspects of society. Inequality as a social pollutant is a description I’ll remember for some time to come. Perhaps just as importantly is the point that whilst inequality matters it doesn’t matter how you achieve greater equality, there are a range of different measures and policies  from across the political spectrum that can work. The key is to do something about top and bottom levels of pay to create greater income equality.

We were left with a more positive note about the progress begin made at an international level where UN Sustainable Development Goals, due to be agreed later this month, now include the goal of reducing inequality within and among countries. This commitment at an international level is significant but the rhetoric and targets need to be translated into real action on the ground, at local and national level.

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