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Tax: an under-used tool of equality

14 August 2020

The best means of improving equality in health lies in our grasp, argues Justin Thacker


WHEN Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital with Covid-19, several commentators suggested that the coronavirus was a great leveller. When even prime ministers could succumb to the illness, then we were all equally susceptible, it was suggested.

The truth, of course, is that the virus is not the great leveller, but the great revealer. In particular, it has exacerbated the inequalities that pre-dated this virus, and it has created, or at least highlighted, some new ones.

Analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown that it has a markedly varied impact, according to pre-existing income, work, health, education, age, ethnicity, and gender. It has also demonstrated new inequality in respect of type of housing, ability to work from home, requirement to commute on public transport, and access to green spaces. As the director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, concludes, “We might all be in this together, but we are not all in it equally.”

We are aware that, in terms of health, the virus affects older males more severely than other groups. We may be less aware that, in terms of employment, it is women under 25 who are disproportionately affected.

It is, perhaps, more troubling that there is clear evidence that medical vulnerability to the virus tracks income deciles, so that poorer communities are affected much more than the wealthiest. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund has shown that, while the health effects of a pandemic last as long as the outbreak, the economic impact on the poor can extend for at least five years beyond the life of the disease. The same economic shock is not experienced by the wealthy.


BUT is such inequality inevitable? Possibly, yes, but that does not mean that it is God’s intention. There is a parallel with sin here. 

A misunderstanding of this simple truth is the reason that we so often misappropriate Jesus’s statement that the poor will always be with us. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15.11: “There will always be poor people in the land.”

But the Deuteronomic passage goes on to say: “Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” What we have here, then, is a both an empirical statement — “There will always be poor people” — and an ethical imperative — “Therefore I command you to be generous.”

The inevitably of inequality is no more a prescription for passive acceptance than it is in respect of sin. None of us says: “Sin is inevitable; so why bother doing anything about it?” Yet, for some reason, that can be our attitude to inequality, one of the fruits of sin.

So, how do we tackle it? There are many ways, but at least one involves ending the unfair tax system that affects both the global and national poor. It has been estimated that up to three times the amount of the global aid flowing into Africa flows out of that continent through tax avoidance by multinational corporations. Recently, the OECD has been leading a process to reform the global tax rules, but many wealthy nations oppose reforms that would help the poorest.

Here, in the UK, the most recent analysis suggests that, when all taxes are taken into account (not just income tax, but also council tax, VAT, and taxes on wealth) — and when growth in the value of assets is included — then the richest in our country pay just 18 per cent of their income in tax, compared with 42 per cent for the poorest. This is fundamentally unfair.


WHEN the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale was celebrated earlier this year (Feature, 15 May), it was instructive to note how many of the Christians commenting on this drew attention to the care that she showed to the soldiers dying in the Crimea.

That was real, of course; but what they all seemed to miss was that her chief contribution was not in one-to-one care, but in her use of statistics to analyse disease and death rates, and recommend policy solutions.

Nightingale raised her head above the parapet of the immediate to ask the question: “Why are so many dying?” Hygiene standards that save countless lives today are the result.

I wonder whether Christians need to do the same. Of course, there are many individuals in our neighbourhoods who are suffering, and we should minister to them directly. But, at the same time, more of us need to raise our heads and look at the big picture, and tackle these structural causes of inequality, too. That is what tax justice is all about.


Dr Justin Thacker is National Co-ordinator of Church Action for Tax Justice.


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