Wednesday 26th October 2016                 Change text size:

‘We need to tackle the root causes of inequality and poverty’

Photo: Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung via Flickr

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is a book that explores poverty and inequality, targeting the huge social and economic gap between the rich and the poor. Kate Pickett, co-author with Richard G Wilkinson, is director of the Equality Trust, and an inspiring voice in the fight against inequality and poverty.

After conducting extensive research and experience into the social determinants of health in relation to inequality and social class, there is arguably no other better voice to answer questions about some of the underlying issues of poverty and inequality that faces the UK.

With that, Emma Websdale caught up with Pickett to discuss her thoughts on equality matters that often divide opinion.

You have made great contributions towards writing and exposing the truth about inequality across societies. During this time, what is the most important message that you wish to stress?

When I think about the kind of society I want to live in – indeed which almost all of us want to live in – the big change we need to see in the world is a better quality of life for everybody and sustainable ecologies, economies and cultures.

We need to find a way to live on this Earth without harming it, and a way of sharing resources to enhance the wellbeing of the greatest number.  Inequality is at the heart of this. It causes economic instability and poverty, and is a barrier to sustainability, as well as having direct effects on our wellbeing.  So tackling inequality within and between countries is important for all of us, and for future generations.

What do you think are the biggest causes of the levels of inequality in the UK?

The huge rise we saw in inequality under Thatcher came from a political and economic ideology that emphasised individualistic pursuit of wealth and the undermining of social solidarity.

We could organise our taxation system and our investments differently; we could choose to spend less on some things and more on others. Despite what we’re told, there are alternatives

And despite years of progressive budgets under New Labour, which helped to raise children and pensioners in particular out of poverty, financial deregulation and a lassez-faire attitude towards wealth accumulation meant that levels of inequality stayed high.

Strong trade unions can help to counteract these trends, as can greater economic democracy – more employee representation on remuneration boards within firms, more co-operatives and employee-owned companies.

What do you think can be done to help families that suffer from the health-related illnesses associated with inequality and poverty?

In public health, we know that prevention is better than treatment, so we need to tackle the root causes of inequality and poverty.  And these are not, as our current government likes to proclaim, due to broken and dysfunctional families.

Family breakdown is a symptom of poverty and inequality rather than a cause.  Most poor children live in families where at least one parent is working, and in other countries single parenthood is not associated with poverty the way it is in the UK.  What is most needed right now are decent wages – that’s why I support the Living Wage movement.

Your 2011 Guardian article, How to make children happy? Reduce social inequality, explored the UNICEF report that looked into how consumerism and inequality affects families. From this, do you feel that children that are brought up in a family with inherent consumerism morals are also affected negatively?

The UNICEF report shocked and saddened me. It highlighted the degree to which families in the UK were affected by time pressures and stress, and how often they seemed to be at sea in their parenting, compared to families in Spain and Sweden.

Children in all countries talked about liking time with their families, doing simple things like going to the park.  But the UK parents seemed to compensate for their busyness and their tiredness by buying things for their children – they also expressed how important it was for their children to keep up with other kids.

Consumerism is a huge threat to environmental sustainability

They needed the right trainers and the right mobile phone or game system.  That just wasn’t an issue in the Spanish and Swedish families.  Children want our love and our time and giving them other things to compensate can’t actually fill that gap.

It’s hard not to sound negative here – the UK parents in the study all clearly loved their children and wanted to do their best for them but they were so pressured by our materialist culture and by their lack of time.

Do you feel that adults and children suffer differently from inequality pressures?

There’s an intergenerational cycle through which says the damage done by inequality gets passed on. Adults in more unequal societies are living in a less trustful environment, work longer hours, have more mental and physical health problems etc.

They cannot help but transmit their experience to their children, and it’s in our early years that we learn what kind of society we live in – kind and nurturing, or dog-eat-dog and tough.

But of course children also have direct experience of poverty and inequality – from as young as five-years-old, they’re aware of whether their house is bigger or smaller than other kids’ houses. They start very early to have a sense of their place in society.

Do you feel there is enough scientific research exploring topics of inequality, consumerism and inequality?

No, not enough, although there is some excellent work out there.  The UNICEF UK report was exemplary, and Professor Tim Kasser in the US is a renowned expert in this field.

We need to find a way to live on this Earth without harming it, and a way of sharing resources to enhance the wellbeing of the greatest number

In his book, The High Price of Materialism, he lays out very clearly how our culture of consumerism affects happiness and wellbeing.  When we value wealth or material possessions too much, we’re at risk of anxiety, depression, difficult relationships and low self-esteem.

Consumerism is also, of course, a huge threat to environmental sustainability, and so finding ways to shift away from that is important for the planet, as well as for people.

We need more research to help us understand how best to do that, and to make a strong empirical case for something like a steady-state economy and much greater social cohesion, so we can all flourish without needing more and more things.

Another Guardian article of yours speaks about inequality being one of the causes behind the riots in 2011 – a factor that the general public may not even consider. Do you see any alternative methods of expressing the frustration of those living in poverty?

It’s so easy to preach from the sidelines, but if people can become organised and effective within their communities and be empowered to make change, then obviously that is a better way of expressing frustration than rioting.

For young people, who may feel particularly disengaged with politics or community issues, and feel particularly helpless, we need to find ways to bring them together to find their voices and their strength in collective action.

Finally, are there any organisations that you have seen effectively helping those living in more difficult circumstances that you would like to recommend?

The answer I’d really like to give is that the government (and therefore, all of us collectively) supports those who need it, whether temporarily or long-term. But as they slash away at social security and pile the costs of austerity onto the poorest they are actually taking away support from those who need it most.

There are so many organisations who do so much good – all of the children’s charities, the food banks and those who provide shelter and accommodation, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and others giving frontline advice, many church and faith groups, and empowering organizations like London Citizens.

But, truly, we shouldn’t need charities to feed, shelter, care for and counsel people.

We are, even in these times, a rich country. We could organise our taxation system and our investments differently; we could choose to spend less on some things and more on others. Despite what we’re told, there are alternatives.

Further reading:

Lies from politicians and the media ‘create harmful divisions in society’

We can no longer sit comfortably with the myths behind poverty

Report ‘ends comfortable myths about poverty’

UN creates sustainable development group to ‘define the world we want’

UN: invest responsibly in agriculture to beat global poverty

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