Simon Barrow

Inequality talk: who wins, who loses, and who acts?

By Simon Barrow
January 23, 2015

We have suddenly become a world that talks about inequality. That's certainly better than not talking about it. But waxing lyrical about a concern and doing something about it are not the same thing. Indeed, sometimes it can be an elaborate rhetorical evasion. We've said we care, so the caring is done.

This week, inequality has been a hot topic at both the World Economic Forum in Davos (where the world's richest leaders come together annually to look at how to steady the global ship), in relation to US President Obama's annual State of the Union Address, and in the UK as a result of comments made by church leaders.

Entrenched vested interests

So far so good. But the anti-change interests arrayed against any attempt to substantially reform global finance, block the privileging of huge corporate interests (TTIP being a prime example), ensure labour rights, address income and wealth gaps, stop tax evasion and tax dodging by the wealthiest on an industrial scale, legally enshrine transparency for governments and companies, guarantee public services become and remain public, end carbon subsidies, invest in a green future, abolish wasteful and immoral spending on WMDs, adopt redistributive fiscal and monetary policies, bail out debt slaves rather than debt enforcers, achieve a universal financial transaction tax – and many other policies that genuinely reverse inequality – are enormous, deep, entrenched and persistent.

For example, UK governments say, "we're all in this together", but pursue policies that have allowed income and wealth gaps to widen and foodbanks to proliferate. When criticism is issued and well-documented evidence proffered, they are swift to denounce it as "out of touch" and "factually incorrect". Beneath accommodating rhetoric about "hard working families" and "fairness" lies a continuing denial of the harsh realities of poverty and inequality by many of those in power. Yet the truth is that the UK is the only G7 country with wider inequality than at turn of century. The richest 10 per cent control 54.1per cent of Britain’s wealth, up from 51.5 per cent in 2000 and 52 per cent before the 2008 financial crisis. Who says so? Not an anti-poverty group, but Credit Suisse.

We’re not 'all in this together'

It is also fashionable right now to say that inequality harms the wealthy as well as the poor, degrades social bonds, "inhibits growth" (of what kind?) and so on. This is true to a significant extent. But it hurts its victims much more: let's not forget this in an "it's still all about us" rush to avoid the conflict underling the gulf in wealth. For the simple reality is that inequality would not persist if it did not benefit those at the top of the economic ladder extravagantly. Which it does, as Oxfam's research (albeit nuanced by a closer look at the statistics from Channel 4) shows. Sure, the real damage caused by the gap between the haves and the have nots or have-much-lesses comes back to visit us all. But at that point the elites devise and popularise scapegoating mechanisms to evade far-reaching responsibility themselves.

A prime example is "immigration". Migration, the actual issue, is about complex people movements. "Immigration" is a way of labelling and picking on one section of the world's moving population and blaming them for the things that make them move. The drift from poorer countries to wealthier ones – which is dwarfed by the mass dislocations in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, by the way – is a result of identifiable factors: war and conflict funded or sponsored by corporate arms lobby, human rights abuses inflicted on whole groups or nations (often with the collusion of those who preach most about freedom and rights), climate change (which is set to become a major factor in displacement in the coming decades), poverty … and, yes, global inequality on a jaw-dropping scale, therefore.

On the poverty and inequality front, we even have a weasel label to blame those who move to seek a better life or to repatriate meagre resources to impoverished families and communities. "Economic migrants", we call them. Astonishingly, coming from societies that built their wealth on colonialism and expropriation, this is deemed a term of abuse. OK if "we" do it. Bad if someone else of a different culture or ethic identity does it – even if the evidence is that the great majority of those coming to Britain make a positive contribution; that the issue is making both stability and movement sustainable for human beings; and that the answer to what is unsustainable in terms of people movements is to address the issues that cause people to move (often against their will), not to blame the vulnerable caught in the middle of those problems, abuse them, lock them up and shut them out.

Who really benefits?

Similar misrepresentations occur in talk about "benefits tourism" and the British Prime Minister's concurrent attempts to reverse free movement principles in the European Union. As Dr Roxana Barbulescu, researcher on international migration at the University of Sheffield, says: the numbers claiming unemployment benefits from EU states is actually minuscule. “Thirty thousand people, or 2.5 per cent of all British nationals, in other EU member states means that the overwhelming majority of Brits abroad as well as European citizens in Britain are not an undue burden for the countries in which they live,” she comments.

The figures for nationals of the ten eastern European countries drawing jobseeker’s allowance in the UK also remain tiny. There are only some 1,000 Romanians and 500 Bulgarians drawing the allowance in Britain – according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). That is, the government's own arm that collects data on this. Of the almost 30,000 people from the UK on unemployment benefits in other European Union countries, just 62 are in those ten states that have joined the EU since 2004.

Likewise, while misclaimed benefits ('benefit fraud') in the UK amounts to £1.2 billion according to DWP statistics, the amount of benefits unclaimed by those entitled to them is £16 billion (thirteen times higher). Meanwhile tax evasion and tax avoidance is worth £120 billion (one hundred times more). Equally, benefits elsewhere in Europe are often much more generous than in the UK: in France, for example, three times as high for the jobless. So the war on claimants and the attempt to blame "foreigners" are both ideologically driven, having nothing to do with the real debt problem (which is in the banking, financial and domestic sectors, rather than the public one) or with misconstrued deficit figures. Austerity economics, a main driver of poverty and inequality, is about redistributing wealth to the wealthy.

We should be clear, therefore. Challenging inequality is about more than tut-tutting: it means a huge shift in heart and attitude; rebutting lies and distortions about the economically disadvantaged and austerity; policies to undermine powerful vested interests and uplift the poorest and most vulnerable; cohering the principle of universal public services, making politics truly participatory, localising power, socialising the economy in all sectors; rethinking finance and banking in terms of benefiting people and planet, and adopting the principle that the litmus tests of a 'good society' is how it treats the most marginal and excluded.

Who's in and who's out of the decision loop?

Writing from engagement with these issues in the richest country on the planet and in human history, the USA, Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis wrote on 22 January 2015, after President Obama's speech and from Davos:

The state of the union certainly isn’t good for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, especially for the children who live in poverty — one in every five American children, and one of every three children of colour. A stunning new statistic just came out showing that most of our public school students now are living in poverty. A majority of kindergarten to twelfth-grade kids in America’s public schools show up to class each day poor and often hungry.

The state of the union is also not good for millions of undocumented people who wonder if the new Republican Congress will turn back the protections just offered them by the president’s executive orders. They are watching and waiting to see if their families will be split up. The state of things is clearly not good for millions of young African Americans who don’t trust the police officers who are supposed to serve and protect them to really do that.

Also this week, similar discussions are going on in Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. Here too, growing economic inequalities in both developed and emerging economies are at the centre of many public and personal conversations here, like the one I moderated this morning called “Stop and Think: Who Matters?” The young people in Ferguson, Missouri, the young women in many conflicted countries, and the lost young workers in economies all over the world were all in the conversation.

Well, they weren't in the conversation directly. They were referenced. That's a big difference. Good that Oxfam and Sojourners are present in Davos, even (in the case of the former) chairing a plenary. But until the 'rich club' is broken open, and the real victims of inequality are at the table sharing resources and decisions (rather than outside the gate, protesting, or hearing themselves talked about) change will not really be on the agenda. As the Poverty Truth Commission puts it, for the poor the maxim must be: "Nothing about us that's without us can truly be for us" (to adapt the South African slogan).

Acting in good faith

Also this week, incidentally, Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu spoke out on poverty and inequality here in Britain. Good. Their voices are needed. But next time a Church of England symposium on the future of the nation is convened to produce a book (Rock or sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future, SPCK, 2015) – let it speak directly to official policies that target the most vulnerable to address and economic problem created by the greed of a few; let it be primarily composed of those living directly with social injustice; and let it also address what the Church is doing with its £5 billion worth of assets to bring change. "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also," as Jesus once reminded us.

References and resources:

* Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016, claims Oxfam: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21323

* 'Combatting the denial of poverty and inequality' - Ekklesia analysis, January 2015: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21318

* Archbishops robustly challenge government on income inequality: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21305

* Where is the Church of England's heart invested? (Ekklesia report, 2009) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/church_of_englands_investments

* Rendering unto Caesar, by Alisair McBay, National Secular Society: http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2015/01/rendering-unto-caesar

* Compelling refutations of the austerity narrative (citing PRIME and others): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21247

* Income inequality in the UK (Equality Trust): http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-...

* UK only G7 country with wider inequality than at turn of century (Guardian citing Credit Suisse, October 2014): http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/14/uk-inequality-wealth-cred...

* Growing wealth inequality in the UK is a ticking time bomb, by Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at Oxford University (October 2014): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/15/wealth-inequality-u...

* FactCheck: is inequality really getting worse? (Channel 4): http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-inequality-worse/19925

* What's the benefit? Britain's welfare system, by George Cottam (Soundcloud file): https://soundcloud.com/george-cottam/whats-the-benefit-britains-1?utm_so...

* Truth and lies about poverty, benefits and welfare (2013): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18086

* Poverty Truth Commission (Scotland): http://www.faithincommunityscotland.org/poverty-truth-commission/

* 'Benefit tourism' lie exposed: thousands of Britons on benefits across EU: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jan/19/-sp-thousands-britons-cla...

* More on migration from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk

* State of the Union and Inequality: What Are You Going to Do Now? By Jim Wallis, Sojourners: http://sojo.net/blogs/2015/01/22/state-union-and-inequality-what-are-you...

* Income and Poverty in the United States (*PDF Adobe Acrobat document): https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/demo...

* Survey - 2014 Pre-Election American Values Survey: Economic Insecurity, Rising Inequality, and Doubts about the Future, Public Religion Research Institute: http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/09/survey-economic-insecurity-ri...

* Majority of US public school students are living in poverty; Washington Post, 16 January 2015: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/majority-of-us-public-scho...

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the Christian political think-tank Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.