Mind the gap: inequality and class

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
29 Mar 2012

1848 was a year of revolutions. Social uprisings flared across Europe. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels published their Communist Manifesto. The same year, Britain saw the publication of a new hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander called All Things Bright and Beautiful. One of its verses is nowadays usually omitted:

"The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them - high or lowly,
He ordered their estate."

Just as the European poor were rising up, British Christians were encouraged to sing out their support for an unequal society.

Over a century and a half later, the UK is more unequal than any other wealthy country, with the exception of the USA and Portugal (1). And it's getting worse. The gap between richest and poorest is now higher than at any time in the last forty years.

This is not simply a result of economic crisis. In 2004, while company profits were rising in the middle of the so-called "boom" years, the income of the poorest third of the UK population began to decline (2).

This inequality has real impacts. The average life expectancy in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow is 54 - lower than in Gaza. It is over 80 in Chelsea (3). Around seven per cent of the UK population attend fee-paying schools. Yet these schools produce 70 per cent of finance directors, over two thirds of leading barristers and over half of top journalists (4). Of the 29 ministers in David Cameron's first cabinet, only three had attended a comprehensive school and 23 were millionaires.

Spiritually levelled

In January, a number of church leaders presented a petition to the Prime Minister calling for policies to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest people in Britain. The Methodist Conference voted in July to "support enthusiastically" the "Close the Gap" campaign run by Church Action on Poverty (CAP).

While churches in the UK have often been rightly concerned about poverty, recent years have seen a focus on inequality specifically. This has been encouraged by The Spirit Level, a book by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. It points out that among rich countries, differences in life expectancy bear little relation to variation in wealth. Instead, average life expectancy is higher in countries with smaller gaps between richest and poorest. Economic inequality also appears to be proportionate to levels of infant mortality, mental ill-health, lack of trust, drug use and poor educational attainment. In all these areas, relatively equal countries such as Finland, Norway and Japan score well.

Wilkinson and Pickett conclude that "greater equality is a gateway to a society capable of improving the quality of life for all of us” (5). They want a "transformation of our societies" to achieve equality. They criticise corporate power and would be happy to see a different economic system.

Nonetheless, this final point is overlooked by some of their supporters. I have heard people suggest that we can achieve equality by explaining the book's conclusions to rich people, who will then support equality. This is dangerously naive. It is not easy to persuade anyone to give up short-term interests in favour of theoretical long-term ones. Depending on the rich to make good decisions is not a strategy notable for its past success.

It is good to support equality because of the benefits to health, life expectancy and social cohesion. But what if there is another, even more important, reason to support equality? What if it is right to share society's resources anyway? What if inequality is, in moral terms, simply wrong?

What would Jesus spend?

It is here that followers of Jesus should have something distinctive to say. The danger of asking "What did Jesus say?" is that we only choose the quotes that back up our argument. So rather than pick out random lines, I want to suggest that resistance to economic injustice was a core part of Jesus' ministry.

Jesus began his ministry, according to Luke, by declaring that God had anointed him "to bring good news to the poor” (6) News with no economic dimension would not merit such a statement. Not long afterwards, we find him declaring "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (7). This is not a criticism of specific rich individuals for the way they have used their wealth, but of the rich as a class. The implication is that the personal possession of wealth, while others live in poverty, is sinful.

It is no surprise then that politically conservative churches have preferred Matthew's version: "Blessed are the poor in spirit” (8). It is often said that this refers to people in need of spiritual help. Given its similarity to Jesus' saying in Luke, I suggest it is at least as likely to refer to people who identify with the poor and take sides with them.

The centrality of poverty and wealth in Jesus' teachings has been obscured by centuries of interpretation by churches friendly with the status quo. Take for example Jesus' comments on wealth after he reaches Jerusalem, recorded in Luke 20,45-21,6 (almost identical to Mark 12,38-13,2). He denounces scribes who show off their wealth and "devour widows' houses". He then notices wealthy people giving large sums to the Temple treasury and says that a widow who put in two coins has given "all she had to live on". As he leaves the Temple, he responds dismissively, perhaps angrily, to a disciple who comments on the beauty of the Temple. He says that one day, not one stone will be left upon another.

Taken together, Jesus' comments form an attack on wealthy people who exploit the poor and expect widows to give up all they have for the sake of impressive buildings. But in most Bibles, the comments are split into three sections, with the middle one often labelled "The widow's mite". Jesus is often portrayed as approving of the widow's actions rather than expressing his anger with the system.

Instead of promoting hatred of the rich, Jesus challenged them to change their way of life. Zacchaeus gave up his riches and corrupt lifestyle, giving half his possessions to the poor and paying back those he has defrauded four times over (9). Zacchaeus is unlikely to have been poor even after doing all this. But his actions would have made a material difference to many, as well as pointing the way towards the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

Reality check

Just as Jesus spoke the truth that he witnessed at the Temple treasury, we can speak out about the economic realities of our own time. This is important, because one of the biggest barriers to closing the gap is the distorted image of life in Britain which is fuelled by many politicians and much of the media.

Central to this trend is the notion that poor people are to blame for poverty. David Cameron claimed shortly after becoming Conservative leader that "social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make". This is bizarre in a country in which most people live and die in the same social class into which they were born. The notion that anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy by working hard is contrary to all the evidence.

There are politicians who acknowledge this reality, but who then go on to speak about "social mobility". This is a favourite phrase of Ed Miliband's. It implies lifting a few lucky individuals out of poverty while leaving the majority behind. Social mobility is an attempt to address only the symptoms of inequality without changing economic systems.

To add insult to injury, the actions of the poor are judged by a different standard to the actions of the rich. When riots broke out in August, those who spoke of economic injustice as an underlying factor were accused of supporting the rioters. As Camila Batmanghelidjh pointed out, the "perverse insidious violence delivered through legitimate societal structures" was far less visible than the thuggery of the looters (10)

But London mayor Boris Johnson, asked about root causes, blamed a misplaced "sense of entitlement" among young people (11). The reality is that media, politicians and the advertising industry encourage people of all classes to aspire to the consumption levels of the wealthy, while the collective aspiration associated with trades unions and working class movements has been abandoned by a political establishment whose three leading parties are firmly wedded to capitalism. Bankers who snatched bonuses and politicians who fiddled their expenses must take some blame for the smash-and-grab culture in which the riots took place.

Class still rules

Many people can easily gain an inaccurate view of their own place in the system. When Gordon Brown's government raised the top rate of tax to 50 per cent, it was described by some as an attack on "the middle class". In reality, less than one percent of the population were rich enough to pay it.

Tony Blair declared, "We're all middle class now", just as inequality was growing. Attempts to lump almost everyone together as "middle class" are often linked to talk of the working class dying out, due to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs. In reality, millions of British people now work in jobs far more insecure and poorly paid than the factory jobs of forty years ago.

Around a million people in the UK work in call centres - the same number as in the mining industry at its height. An even greater number work in supermarkets. Most of them are poorly paid, with a rigid work environment and almost no union membership. Many are on temporary contracts that remove their rights to holiday and sick pay, even if they have been employed for years.

I spent only four weeks of my life working in a call centre, but the thought of it brings back memories of bullying managers and demeaning routines. If I arrived five minutes late, I had to write "9.05" in the hours book, to ensure I was docked five minutes' pay. If I arrived early and wrote "8.55", it was changed to "9.00" by my manager. One of my colleagues had left her previous call centre job because her bosses refused to give her a fortnight off for her honeymoon. These practices are not unusual.

Snobbery and stereotypes

Owen Jones, author of a recent book on class, notes how acceptable it has become for columnists from privileged backgrounds to peddle crude stereotypes about the working class. Carole Malone is just one example. She has written of a "class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of the country" with "no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility” (12).

Some stereotypes are so entrenched that prejudiced assumptions are routinely accepted as facts. When writing about alcohol, I find that people of all classes believe that most people with alcohol problems are poor. In contrast, a 2010 study by the National Centre for Social Research found that middle class teenagers tend to drink more alcohol than their poorer counterparts (13).

Critics of inequality can also encourage stereotypes that help to perpetuate it. A multi-millionaire Christian told me of his horror when visiting a housing estate. Despite his disgust about poverty in a rich country, he spoke in the manner of a Victorian explorer talking about the natives. The estate, he said, was like "another country". It would be more accurate to say that it was he who lived in another country. Britain has far more social housing tenants than millionaires.

It is the very rich, rather than the so-called underclass, who are removed form the rest of society. People sometimes referred to as "lower middle class" – teachers, journalists, junior managers and so on - should rightly be seen as part of the working class in the broad sense. They may have more freedom than many shop workers or call centre staff, but they remain dependent on selling their labour in order to live.

Widening the gap

Despite the calls from church leaders, the government are not reducing the gap between rich and poor. Their policies are widening it.

I asked Kate Mellor, director of Quaker Homeless Action, if she thought that cuts to benefits and charities would lead to increased homelessness. She told me I was wrong - because I was speaking in the future tense. "It's already happening," she said.

David Cameron's assault on some of the poorest people in society has been fuelled by a neo-Victorian frenzy of press prejudice against people who might once have been described as the undeserving poor. Papers such as the Sun and Daily Mail have published one article after another suggesting that recipients of disability-related benefits do not deserve them.

"Sick benefits: 75 per cent are faking" declared the front page of the Daily Express in July (14). The statistics relate to assessments by Atos, a multinational company with a contract from the government to re-assess disabled people's fitness to work.

Given the government's clear desire to slash the welfare state, it's no surprise that Atos throw many people off benefits. According to the charity Scope, Atos have found people with terminal cancer to be fit for work.

"People I know who have anything to do with Atos dread it," says Holly Matthies, who has been assessed twice by the company, "It's a dirty word, a sick feeling in the stomach". Despite being born blind and remaining partially sighted as an adult, Atos told Holly that she had "no difficulty seeing". She was awarded "zero points" - meaning she supposedly faces no barriers to work.

She's not the only one. Georgia Gibbs has been in daily pain since being rushed to hospital in November 2010. This includes painful bowel movements and stabbing pains in her vagina. But Atos decided that there was no problem and she is not entitled to Employment Support Allowance.

If she appeals, she might be in with a chance. Around 40 per cent of appeals against Atos have been successful (15). This staggering fact might well make headlines - if it related to a different section of the population.

Many disabled people want to work, but face barriers due to employers' prejudice and inaccessible premises and practices. Rather than challenge employers, ministers find it easier to attack disabled people. It says a great deal about the state of Britain that is now considered acceptable to demonise disabled people, benefit recipients and the working class generally.

We have a seen a revival of nineteenth century distinctions between the "deserving" and "underserving" poor - with the majority conveniently found to be "undeserving". The same distinction is not applied to the rich.

Indeed, the economic crisis seems to have been nothing more than a brief interruption in the lives of the very wealthy. In 2008, the year of the crash, boardroom pay increased by 55 per cent. The average chief executive of a FTSE 100 company is paid 200 times as much as an average employee.

Meanwhile, Church Action on Poverty point out that tax evasion is estimated to cost the treasury around £70 billion a year. This is in addition to the sums legally siphoned off to tax havens. The reality of tax havens was brought home to me by Chaminda Jayanetti of False Economy, an organisation that monitors and analyses the impact of the cuts. Imagine, he said, a family starving because they have vast amounts of food in a cupboard they can't get into. This is like a country facing vicious cuts while billions of pounds is locked away in economically useless tax havens.

Going to the root

In recent years, churches have rightly spoken out against the horrors of global inequality. This should not prevent us from speaking out about injustices in the UK. The number of people in the UK without enough to eat is of course relatively small compared to a good many countries. Most people in poverty in Britain are not as poor as millions in other parts of the world.

This does not mean we have to choose between tackling one or the other. Indeed, any effective challenge to either will go to the root causes of both and make the links between them. In the words of Liam Purcell of Church Action on Poverty, "Whether you’re struggling to make ends meet in a village in the Philippines or a forgotten estate in Teesside, many of your problems will be caused by exploitative corporations, unfair tax regimes, and your own lack of a voice in the decisions that affect your community".

Churches have from time to time spoken out about poverty and inequality in the UK. The Anglican Faith in the City report in the eighties triggers strong memories and reactions even today. In the nineties, many British churches made a mental and practical leap by putting concern about global injustice at the heart of their ministry. We now need to make a similar leap about injustice closer to home.

We can speak out against the politicians and newspapers that are bearing false witness about economic reality. We can support CAP's 'Close the Gap' campaign, which encourages individuals and churches to pledge to tackle inequality by giving, acting or praying. Some of us may choose to join UK Uncut in their nonviolent direct action against corporate tax-dodging.

We have a theological task as well as a practical one. We can witness against the idolatry inherent in an economic system that puts the dictates of the market before all else.

Alexander's popular hymn promotes the opposite of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. We may have left that verse behind, but we now need to make resistance to economic inequality as central to the Church as it was to Jesus. This is vital if we are to be effective in challenging the "rich man in his castle" and standing in solidarity with "the poor man at his gate".

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References

(1) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone (Penguin, 2010)
(2) Cited by Owen Jones, Chavs: The demonization of the working class (Verso, 2011)
(3) Cited by Owen Jones, Chavs: The demonization of the working class (Verso, 2011)
(4) Alan Milburn, Unleashing Aspiration: The final report of the panel on fair access to the professions (2009)
(5) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone (Penguin, 2010)
(6) Luke 4,18 (NRSV)
(7) Luke 6,20-24 (NRSV)
(8) Matthew 5,3 (NRSV)
(9) Luke 19,8 (NRSV)
(10) Camila Batmanghelidjh, 'Caring costs - but so do riots', Independent , 9 August 2011
(11) Boris Johnson, speaking on 'Today' on BBC Radio 4, 10 August 2011
(12) Carole Malone, 'Force low-life to work for a living', News of the World, 7 December 2008
(13) Cited by Owen Jones, Chavs: The demonization of the working class (Verso, 2011)
(14) 'Sick Benefits: 75% are faking', Daily Express, 27 July 2011
(15) Mark Steel, 'Time to inflict pain on the terminally ill', Independent, 27 July 2011

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© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which can be ordered at http://shop.newint.org/uk/religion-new.html.

This article was published originally in the October 2011 issue of Third Way, a Christian current affairs magazine. See http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk.

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