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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 03/05/2011 | 2 Comments

Earlier in the year I read Professor Danny Dorling's book Injustice: Why social inequality persists and I had the pleasure of speaking on the same platform as him at the Aye Write book festival a few months ago.  I'm now revisiting the book as I'm updating the equality chapter in my book The Scots' Crisis of Confidence. 

Dorling's analysis is very pertinent to anyone interested in creating a good society. His work shows that progressive taxation and various government policies meant that from 1918 to 1980 the income gap in the UK narrowed substantially. However, this then changed from the 1980s on with the expansion of the economy, and the 'greed is good' philosophy  unleashed by Thatcherism and apparent in the big bonuses paid to top executives.  Dorling calculates that we are now back to levels of income inequality in the mid 19th century when Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times. In advanced, industrial societies only three countries – the US, Portugal and Singapore – are more unequal than the UK.

According to academics such as Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who wrote The Spirit Level, these figures matter profoundly. They present evidence to show that  more equal societies have better health and social outcomes and less violence.

What is good about Dorling's book is that unlike Wilkinson and Pickett he really tries to explain the mechanisms which lead to and perpetuate injustice and inequality. He identifies them as being – elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair.

I was particularly interested in his ideas on elitism. He argues, rightly in my view, that one of the ways in which inequality is justified is the belief that there is a group of particularly talented individuals with high IQ and innate abilities that need to be rewarded for their efforts. The assumption here is that many people just don't have much innate ability and so we shouldn't waste our resources educating or training them as they simply don't have what it takes. It is the myth of the talented few which justifies the big bonuses to bankers and top executives.

This mentality is endemic in our society and yet it is simply wrong. Mounting research shows that the brain is not fixed. We are not born with an innate amount of ability or talent – this is cultivated through good teaching and hard work. Of course, people require to be motivated to grow their potential but this is very different from arguing, as the elitism argument does, that you either have it or you don't have it. 

Indeed one of the reasons we particularly like Professor Carol Dweck's work on mindset is that it is based on these ideas which challenge rather than reinforce innate elitism.

Another on Dorling's list which I found particularly compelling concerns prejudice. We justify inequality in the UK partly on the basis that the poor are work-shy, free-loaders and benefit scroungers. In short, they are truly the undeserving poor. But a growing amount of research into poverty shows that many who can't make ends  meet and who struggle financially are not on benefits but are in work.  They are the people who are living on the minimum wage doing jobs which are needed by society, such as cleaning or serving,  but which do not pay a living wage.

And what of Scotland? How do we fare on inequality? Scotland performs slightly better but it is marginal: the top ten per cent of earners in Scotland have 29 per cent of the total income whereas in the UK as whole the figure is 31 per cent. Not a great record for a country that prides itself on its egalitarian beliefs.

Comment By Comment
rainbowman
Joined: 11/03/2011

Comment Posted: 13/05/2011 15:55
From the perspective of someone who has studied welfare economics (theory) and in later years has worked directly at the 'coal face' with those living in poverty my view is relatively simple (niave perhaps!). Of all the major social ills/evils we face, poverty & inequality is actually one of the easiest to resolve if the political and social will is there. In relative terms, it is much easier for governments and society to 'do something' about poverty and inequality compared with say 'tackling' addiction. If we had a succession of governments which consistently devised and implemented policies to reduce poverty and inequality, then I believe that over decades and generations, genuine and measurable progress could be made and this in turn would have a positive impact on more difficult issues such as addiction, crime etc. The problem is that we do not have political consensus and commitment to tackling poverty and inequality so inevitably, as political/economic cycles change, whatever progress has been made is then lost. As a society, we are prepared to 'tolerate' a certain degree of income and wealth distribution for a short time and then sooner or later there is political/economic backlash. The last UK Labour government made some progress in relation to child poverty but allowed the 'welfare project' to be undermined by massive legal tax avoidance by the rich and the subsequent economic recession was the death knell. Now, as in the 1980s, dealing with poverty and inequality is secondary to 'reforming the economy' etc.
In summary, what I am saying is that whereas there may well be great limitations on the ability of any government to change human/social behaviour for the better, the one 'ill/evil' where any government/society really can make a difference is by having genuine, comprehensive and consistent approaches to tackling poverty and inequality. Our failure to do this is a reflection on our society and it ties up with the sections in Carol's book relating to how the Glasgow upper/middle classes 'revolted' in the 1900s against accepting responsibility for funding an improvement in Glasgow's housing stock. Without getting too political, we need to recognise that broadly, those who 'have' will nearly always allow their self-interest to mitigate against income/wealth redistribution. Even the fact that we rarely talk about 'redistibution' shows just how far the pendulum has swung against seriously tackling poverty and inequality!
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