Let’s talk about inequality; blog action day 2014…


We used to talk about equality a lot in the UK. After the war there was a political consensus around the need to flatten inherited hierarchies of opportunity, health and living standards. I was a social studies student in the 1980s, when even at the height of the Thatcherite government we still were interested above all in how we understood the causes of poverty and the perpetuation of wealth and privilege. We cared that women were disadvantaged in work, or that young black men packed our prisons and our secure psychiatric hospitals. It bothered us that poor people died younger and that if you had a particular accent you were not welcome on the BBC.

On a previous Blog Action Day post I mentioned the infamous Black report, that encapsulated much of the research around this time in these areas.

Something has happened since then however. The Blair government stopped talking about poverty, changing the language to ‘inclusion’. The focus went from the role of government to deliberately intervene in order to equalise, towards ‘Education, education, education’- as if we had to give up on the current generation and blame the next for their failure if they do not take the chances offered to them (we have learned nothing from the failure of every previous attempt to engineer through education; poor kids always do less well, despite individual successes.) The agenda changed- market and consumer forces now set the agenda. Economic forces became our master, not our servant.

The Market decides, so we are told. Equilibrium will always be found by The Market, unless we meddle with in in which case things will go badly wrong. So we watch a narrow selection of indicators of The Market’s healthiness (inflation/economic growth/unemployment/public borrowing) in order to gauge how happy The Market is. If it is not happy we feed it human sacrifices in the form of austerity packages, slashing at those unproductive leaches on the underbelly of the proud beast that is….The Market.

Although no-one quite knows for sure what keeps The Market happy (S/he being a capricious God) we suspect that The Market likes inequality. It keeps people hungry for more, and so The Market remains exalted. Without personal individual aspiration (sometimes understood as greed) how will we feed the voracious appetite of The Market? Casualties may fall by the wayside but The Market rises still…

Some ideas become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any challenge seems impossible; countering them seems foolish, dangerous even. So it is with those who want to de-throne The Market; those who see it as a kind of conspiracy against the common good in which profits are ruthlessly privatised whilst losses are socialised. We have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success.

The work of French Economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has taken the issue of inequality on directly- so much so that the book has become something of a sensation- entering the best selling list alongside the latest blockbusting novels.

He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

Piketty tells us that in a society where The Market is god, rich people get richer, and the poor get poorer. This was a short period after the last world war when this seemed to have been moderated in the UK- there was a convergence of wealth as progressive taxation and a rise in living standards of the lower classes overturned the power of The Market. However, this has now been totally forgotten. Now the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing and those who benefit from austerity are clearly the top 1% whose share of national wealth has greatly increased.

Oxfam, The Trussel Trust and the Church Action on Poverty recently released a report entitled Below the Breadline, the relentless rise of food poverty in Britain. It makes for sobering reading;

Although the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, it is also deeply unequal, and millions of families across the UK are living below the breadline.

Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14 by the three main food aid providers. This is a 54 percent increase on 2012/13.



George Monbiot wrote this recently;

One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people: one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more, working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or the pensions our parents enjoyed.

Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, conditions deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?

It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.

A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.

So, is the battle for greater equality worth fighting? Has it not already been lost?

Research would suggest that there is little doubt that the more equal a society is, the healthier it tends to be for its citizens, whilst the more unequal a nation is, the more prevalent these things tend to be mental illnesses, obesity, ill health, crime, infant mortality etc. By enthoning The Market, we make ourselves sick it seems…

So, how do we achieve it?

My suggestion is that we need to look back, and look forward.

We need to look back to a time when people tried hard to achieve some kind of convergence within a liberal democratic tradition- using a consensus around progressive taxation, Market regulation and state sponsored health and welfare. We need to treasure this as part of our UK heritage- to be proud that our people achieved this, whilst learning from the mistakes we made too, in anchoring ourselves to an economic model based around unsustainable ‘growthism‘.

In looking forward however, we also have to remember that issues of inequality are not restricted to our own national borders. The single greatest threat to the stability of our planet is the destructive and exploitative effects of The Market on a global scale. Wars fought around oil deposits, mineral rights. Poor southern countries providing natural resources and a labour force in order to sustain the avarice of the rich north. Starting to tackle this kind of equality requires a much greater leap, towards living more simply, more sustainably, more collectively…

The first step however is to do one simply thing- dethrone The Market.

Start to imagine what we might exalt instead of The Market. What values do we want to live by- do we want our children to live by? What currency might we measure success with other than these inhumane  ones concerned only with finance/growth/consumption?

In this, my friends, there is a kind of grace that goes deeper into who we are as humans.

Monbiot again;

Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.

Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past two million years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed? Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?

We made The Market. It should not make us.

Blog Action Day 2014…


I am going to take part in this again this year.

The theme this year is inequality. If you are blogger you might like to join in…

Over the last seven years thousands of people from over 100 countries have taken part in Blog Action Day, creating global conversations on poverty, water, climate change, food, the environment, Power of We and Human Rights.

So it was natural for the team to look back through the fantastic posts from our amazing Blog Action Day community for inspiration for this year’s theme.  And we found it.

We quickly noticed a common thread within your posts, across the varied Blog Action Day themes of the last several years that always aroused great passion and empathy. Inequality.

Your collective passion to highlight, take action and overcome inequality in it’s many forms inspired us to make it our theme for 2014 Blog Action Day.

The Blog Action Day community are not the only ones concerned about inequality. If you take look at your news, documentaries, top political or social concerns or even the conversations you have with your family and friends, inequality a hot topic.

Whether it is economic, racial, gender, disability, faith, sexuality, health, education, political, social status or age, inequality unfortunately seems to be on the rise, affecting more people and limiting the opportunities they have, in many different ways.

For Blog Action Day 2014, we want you to think about inequality and contribute to the global discussion on October 16, by writing blog posts, creating video or graphics, taking photos, sharing interesting stats and facts, or just commenting on other people’s posts.

You might want to cover how you, your friends, family or community have been directly affected by inequality, how an historic situation was overcome, or a current issues that needs addressing.

Over the coming weeks we will be adding suggestions and insights from our not for profit partners that you can use in your posts, but if you have a great idea on how to discuss Inequality, please share it in our comments below and remember to register your blog or social media profile so you can be listed on our participants page.







Poverty in the UK- Blog action day

In the dying days of the ill fated Labour government in the late 1970’s, a report was commissioned from Sir Douglas Black into the causes and potential solutions to the inequalities in the health of the people of Britain.

This report, known as the Black report has become infamous amongst political and social scientists.

By the time the report had been completed, Thatcher had been swept into power on a platform of promises to break the power of the Unions, and to cut and control public expenditure. The report must have landed on her desk like an old kipper The Government wanted to bury it, but eventually released it on a bank holiday Monday, with a minimum of publicity. The report was never published- instead 260 photocopies were made available.

What was so controversial?

Black provided convincing figures that showed what many suspected—that the poorest had the highest rates of ill health and death. He argued that these rates could not be explained solely by income, education, mobility, or lifestyle, but were also caused by a lack of a coordinated policy that would ensure uniform delivery of services. He recommended health goals, tax changes, benefit increases, and restrictions on the sale and advertising of tobacco. Patrick Jenkin, the social services secretary, estimated with a shudder that Black’s proposals, which he hinted were little short of outrageous, would cost an unthinkable £2bn a year.

Excerpt from Sir Douglas Black’s obituary in the BMJ- here.

Leaving aside the economic questions raised by the cost of Trident nuclear weapons systems, or a war in the Falklands, the real political dynamite of this report was simply this- poverty makes people ill, and many of them die young.

This report was not talking about people who living marginal existences in sub-Saharan Africa- it was describing families living in one of the richest countries in the world- the worlds first industrialised country- Great Britain.

The Black report was not alone in reaching this conclusion. 28 years later World Health Organisation figures record a gap of 10 years between affluent Kensington and Chelsea, and post industrial Glasgow. Check out this article from the BBC.

This hides the real issues though- the figures represent areas, not individuals at risk. For example, if you are a homeless rough sleeper, your life expectancy is 42 years.

There have been many discussions about how poverty leads to poor health in Britain. Poor diets, obesity, poor education, poor housing, unequal access to health services, stress- all these no doubt play a part- but the common issue that even the New Labour administration are not happy to dwell on is… poverty.

I do not intend to get into a discussion about how we define poverty- the whole relative or absolute thing. Poverty, once seen, is recognised by most of us. It is easy to blame. It is easy to be repelled and repulsed by squalid living.

Because poverty brutalises.

I have worked as a social worker for all my adult life. I have seen people living in conditions that are hard to believe. A man who lived in a house with a broken overflowing toilet for 15 years. A young woman whose body was broken by drug use and prostitution to the extent that she simply forgot to eat. A woman who was so caught up in her need to escape that she drinks the alcohol based handwashes in the hospital. And many many people who live in fear of a loss of benefit, because life is so marginal- with choices to be made over whether to feed the electricity meter, or the cat, or sometimes- the kids.

These people are not described as poor. We now talk about ‘social exclusion’. Almost as if we stopped inviting them to parties.

There are no easy answers. This, I think, is the reason that Jesus said the the poor would always be with us– and why the early church seemed to have at it’s very heart a desire to serve the poor. Strange then to hear these words of Jesus spoken as justification for inaction.

There are some national policy decisions that will always impact the poor. Progressive taxation, as opposed to the imposition of tax on food or fuel. Public transport, good social housing, employment opportunities and support, adequate benefits- particularly to single parents or vulnerable older people. These things are all good- and we might raise our collective voices in support… but for me there is also a personal dimension.

Because those of us who are paid to try to make a difference soon realise that all we do is administrate. We may have some small success- and this keeps us trying- but ultimately, we bring only sticking plaster to road traffic accidents.

But I believe in redemption and renewal, and lives transformed. And for this to happen- this brings humanity and hope to my own brokenness- and richness to my own poverty. As Jean Vanier put it

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, not those who serve the poor! … The healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion and love through our wounds.

Some more links to poverty issues in the UK

Child poverty

Save the Children

Health inequalities, Scotland