Dr. Wanda Wyporska, above, Executive Director of The Equality Trust in Britain, argues that the real drivers of inequality in the UK have come from political choices
We often hear from politicians that it is not what we end up with that’s important, but where we start from. Or in other words, extreme inequality of income and wealth doesn’t really matter, providing we’ve all had a decent shot at success. Unfortunately, this ignores years of research on just how damaging high levels of inequality are to our health, wellbeing and prosperity.
We know that in more unequal societies such as the UK rates of physical and mental ill health are higher than in more equal countries, educational outcomes are lower, as is trust in others, and you’re more likely to be the victim of violent crime. If that isn’t bad enough, a number of prominent institutions from the World Bank, to the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have now voiced concerns that inequality might hold economies back, and increase economic volatility.
In the UK today the richest 1,000 people increased their wealth by £28 billion last year, or £901 per second. They now own greater wealth than the poorest 40 per cent of the population. To put that into context, analysis by The Equality Trust found that £28 billion could pay for 20 years’ worth of food and drink bills for all of the UK’s users of food banks; pay a year’s rent for more than three million households, or provide 1,821,131 jobs paid at the real Living Wage, for a year.
If it seems ridiculous that 1,000 people work harder or offer more value than 40 per cent of the population, that’s because it is.
This level of inequality isn’t natural or desirable, it’s not about fair competition between people of differing abilities, or about people’s relative ‘productive capacity’ or any of the myriad excuses offered by inequality apologists. It is true that certain, perhaps inevitable, changes to our economy and businesses have exacerbated inequality – we know for example, that the changing nature of jobs has, in part, led to greater inequality.
However, the real drivers of inequality have come from political choices. These include a sustained attack on trade unions and the role of collective bargaining in driving up low wages, a relentless cutting of high-rate tax levels paid by the wealthiest, and the wholesale attack on social security.
Unfortunately, our current Government appears to have committed to similar policies. A planned increase to the income tax threshold will benefit better-off households, as will the expected increase in the higher rate threshold. At the same time, the roll-out of Universal Credit will see many low-income households have their support cut. A recent report from the Resolution Foundation estimated these policies would see inequality increase to record levels by the end of the current parliament.
Inequality widens the rungs on the ladder, making it harder and harder for people to move up. Moreover, the fear of falling back and forfeiting social status is increased, creating additional pressures and stresses on us all, even the well-off. Worst of all, inequality makes it harder for people to understand and appreciate the lives of those on different rungs of the ladder to them. In effect, greater equality is the glue that binds us, and weakening this glue causes social relations to unravel.
In recent months a lot has been written on the divided nature of Britain. It is hard to disagree with this, but it is equally hard to believe that this has not been driven by our excessive, extreme and dangerous levels of inequality. If we want to build a country where success and prosperity are shared by all, we must tackle this issue first.
• To find out more information about The Equality Trust, go to https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/
• To see the online version of our equality issue of VIEW, go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P