YOU wait ages for a story on welfare statistics, and then, on 14
June, three come along together.
First to arrive was the publication of the latest Happy
Planet Index, bringing the good news that people in the UK are
better off than others in the European Union or G8 countries, based
on the perceived level of happiness, life expectancy, and
environmental factors - but worse off than those in many developing
Then came mixed news from the Institute of Fiscal Studies'
annual report Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the
UK, which found a sharp fall in incomes in 2010-11, but also
an improvement in equality across all income levels.
And tagging along behind were announcements from the Secretary
of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, on child
poverty. At present, the Child Poverty Act 2010 defines child
poverty as children living in households that earn less than 60 per
cent of median income. The UK does not suffer the squalor and
starvation of previous centuries; so using a measure of relative
poverty reflects levels of social exclusion: whether these children
are excluded from the average family's ordinary living-patterns and
activities (Comment, 15 June). But Mr Duncan Smith wants to change
the way in which child poverty is measured.
He argued that the problems of worklessness, welfare dependency,
addiction, educational failure, debt, and family breakdown are
causes of child poverty. On the other hand, the thesis of The
Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin,
2010), is that these are symptoms of inequality, and therefore it
is important to retain a relative measure of child poverty, and to
have policies that tackle this.
Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett studied rich
countries, and the differences in inequality between them. They
found that a smaller gap between rich and poor in terms of income
equality means a happier, healthier, and more successful population
(Comment, 26 March 2009).
There is no relation between income per head and social
well-being in rich countries; so more economic growth will not
necessarily lead to a happier or healthier population. But, if the
UK were more equal, we would be better off as a population. The
rich would not lose out in order to benefit the poor. The 99 per
cent would benefit - perhaps, even, the 100 per cent - although
poorer people would gain the most.
As well as varying from country to country, inequality also
varies over time, and it can be influenced by government policy.
Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government
saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way
to gain popular support for the war effort.
During the mid-1980s and early '90s, inequality grew rapidly,
almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of
the Thatcher and Major Governments.
Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett argue that it would
not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in
The Spirit Level come from rich developed market
democracies, and the analysis is only of the differences between
But a transformation is still required, and the authors outline
two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce
differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) - for example,
by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee
representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of
the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and
benefits (as happens in Sweden), not least through more stringent
action to prevent tax-avoidance.
Other policies can have indirect influence, including education
policies and the management of the national economy. There is a
huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need
to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in
order to avoid challenging the status quo.
ON THE day that Professor Bob Holman wrote about how Christians
need to lead the battle for equality in Britain (Comment, 21
October 2011), St Paul's Cathedral closed its doors to the public
for the first time since the Second World War, amid fears that the
Occupy demonstration posed a risk to health and safety. That, and
the subsequent eviction of the camp, reflected negatively on the
But Occupy has also been criticised for a perceived lack of
clarity in its demands. Policy is a complex area, and dangerous to
simplify. The gift of The Spirit Level is that it enables
concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial
improvements in murder rates, mental illness, obesity,
imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust.
Occupy, the Church, and any organisation or individual could
evaluate all government policy in terms of one question: what
effect would this policy have on income equality? This question
would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the
For example, what effect would replacing GCSEs with exams akin
to O levels and CSEs have on income equality? I would want to
investigate whether lower-income children would be less likely to
take O levels, while recruiters would prefer candidates with O
levels, and hence inequality would increase indirectly.
As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on
inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist
experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. Nevertheless,
the Child Poverty Act puts the onus on government ministers, such
as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to show how their
policies in education, health, and social services are governed by
the goal of poverty-reduction.
So, even without all the answers, we can still put the equality
question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to
ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all
The website WriteToThem has information about how to contact
your MP, MEP, member of devolved administration, or local
councillor. You can also follow a link to TheyWorkForYou, to find
out more about your MP's interests. It helps to know whether they
have spoken on an issue and how they have voted in the past, in
order to target and personalise your communication.
Whichever method we choose, let us work together as the 100 per
cent towards the equality and benefit of the 100 per cent.
Clare Bryden is an Hon. Fellow of the University of