Mounting evidence during the past decade is painting an ever-clearer picture that inequality damages society at all levels. Professor Kate Pickett, co-author of the The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009), and Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University, have each played key roles in gathering and analysing data.
Pickett argues that growing inequality in Britain is having an impact on health, and Dorling explores whether inequality in Britain was a factor in the vote to leave Europe? He says that to feel more in control we need to become a more equal society.
No longer taboo
Much has changed since Kate Pickett started working with Richard Wilkinson (co-author of The Spirit Level) to look at the impact of inequality on health and social problems in the early years of the new millennium.
She recalls a conversation with a Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament who said how important he thought their research was, yet when she asked what he was going to do about it, he shied away, saying that public discussions about inequality were not allowed by New Labour.
Ten years later, leaders across the world were voicing their concerns very publicly about the impact of inequality. In 2013, former US President, Barack Obama, called it “the defining challenge of our time”; for Pope Francis it was “the root of social ills”, while Christine Lagarde (Director of the International Monetary Fund) said that “the economics profession has downplayed inequality for too long.”
Political leaders are not the only ones opening up the debate. Oxfam broadened its traditional focus on reducing poverty by starting a 10 year campaign to reduce inequality. Pickett points out that when she and co-founders started The Equality Trust, it was the first organisation in Britain to campaign against inequality; now there are several (including the High Pay Centre and the Resolution Foundation), with related activities going on in a number of think tanks.
“So, political discourse has shifted and civic society is starting to discuss these issues more.” She says.
People want a fairer distribution
Research suggests that public opinion and attitudes would support a reduction in inequality. A Harvard Business School study of 5000 Americans found huge discrepancy between what they would like income distribution to be, and what it actually is.
In the study, 92% chose the most equitable distribution option as the most desirable, regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat, men or women, African, Hispanic or white.
Opinion is similar in the UK, says Pickett. “If we look at British Social Attitudes Survey, year after year, about 80% of us think that inequalities are too great and would like the government to do something about them.”