In January of this year, I wrote an article for Backbench which looked at a shocking report. The report revealed that the world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – or roughly 3.8 billion people. For me, this Oxfam wealth check had simply highlighted a problem which has been growing ever more acute throughout this decade. The report noted that while the relative wealth of the world’s billionaires had risen by about 12% in 2018, the relative wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population fell by 11%.
Is it a coincidence that the wealth of the richest rose by a near proportional amount to the decline in that of the world’s poorest? I think not. Some schools of thought hold that inequality in itself is no bad thing. Our prime minister has even said that inequality is essential to society, espousing a Thatcherite ideal which portrays those who are concerned with inequality as individuals who merely want to punish the rich with little regard for the poor. Indeed during her final speech in parliament, Thatcher lambasted Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes when he questioned her about the widening gap between richest and poorest: ‘So long as the gap is smaller, they’d rather have the poor poorer’ she claimed.
But extreme wealth cannot exist without its counterpart of extreme poverty. For those of us concerned with wealth inequality, the gap is an intrinsic part of why poverty exists. Look at the most unequal societies on the planet. India’s capital Mumbai has the tenth highest number of billionaires in the world, and is the 12th richest city globally. And yet, 6.5 million of its residents live in slums – the largest slum population of any city. Consider South Africa, deemed by the World Bank to be the world’s most unequal nation. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape and violent crime in the world; India too, is similarly troubled by appalling statistics on sexual assault and crime.
I mention crime because it is an important signifier of inequality. Not only have inequality and crime been linked time and again, but societies with extreme polarisations of wealth are commonly more dangerous places in which to live. Both India and South Africa have fairly low top tax brackets, and are plagued by economic corruption. These things facilitate the growth of a wealthy elite, whilst also meaning that funding for public services is limited. But in such unequal societies, the very wealthiest benefit from surplus income which allows them not to feel the harsh realities of the world they inhabit.
The very wealthiest can afford to live in gated luxury, to mitigate the lack of safe streets. They can hire out personal security, to counter the effects of an underfunded police force. They can educate their children privately so that they do not have to suffer substandard schooling. They can afford the best healthcare, and so can simply ignore diabolical conditions in state hospitals.
The wealth hoarding of those at the top enables them to have standards of safety, education, healthcare and private services which are denied to society at large. In the most unequal societies, the wealthy elite (many of whom will be figures in politics or the media), will benefit while wider society slips into decline. And because the wealthy elite often have disproportionate control over a country’s status quo, the benefits they reap from inequality mean they will do little to change it. Wealth is not incidental to poverty – it is a direct and deliberate consequence of it.
And if some of what I’m saying sounds a little closer to home than India or South Africa, it’s because it is. Think about social structures in the UK. The richest here can afford to bypass the aches and pains that society seems to be experiencing more and more frequently. When schooling is bad, they can pay for better options, or simply buy a house in a postcode which would offer them access to the best education. When NHS waiting times are long, they fast-track their care privately. When crime rises, they sequester themselves in gentrified locales.
Ten years of Conservative government have left public services badly underfunded. The narrative around ‘austerity’ has been used to justify this. In 2017, Theresa May famously told a nurse who hadn’t had a pay rise for eight years that there was ‘no magic money tree’. In short, ordinary people have been told that they must put up with sub-par pay and living standards because there simply isn’t enough money.
But why then, in the past year, have the richest 1,000 people in the UK seen their wealth increase by £47.8 billion? Split evenly amongst the thousand, that is nearly 48 million extra per person over the course of just one year. And yet the average nurse earns somewhere between £30,000 and £37,000. That a nurse in this country earns a minuscule fraction of the annual increase in an ultra-rich individual’s wealth seems grossly unfair.
And of course it is. The magic money tree is very much alive and well, but its fruits are bestowed only on already wealthy individuals, who have seen their taxes cut while the rest of the country pays the price. The tree does not provide for this country’s average earners, and it does nothing to better social provision. Inequality sees the rich get wealthier, but this wealth does not ‘trickle-down’ to everyone else. Instead, money that should be distributed more fairly is eaten away by a burdensome elite, who offshore it, hoard it up in empty properties, and receive huge bonuses despite being bailed out by the taxpayer.
The stark inequalities we see in countries like India, South Africa and increasingly America are not distant curios to be gawped at, but very real threats to the fabric of the UK. Just look around our capital city, and you will see extreme wealth sitting side-by-side with dire poverty. The number of rough sleepers in London hit record highs this year. 37% of London’s children live in relative poverty. It is no wonder that you can so quickly flit between the heights of gentrification and the depths of deprivation when moving about the capital.
There are those who dismiss these issues because we do not see Dickensian-style orphans begging on the streets, but apart from the coldness and callousness of this thought pattern (does it really have to be that visible before we admit there is a crisis?!), poverty manifests itself in many varied and sometimes hidden ways. Parents skipping meals to make sure their children eat; families living in unheated homes; dramatic rises in the number of households in temporary accommodation. This decade has seen sharp increases in all the indicators of poverty. And if the recent election results are anything to go by, the general public has become resigned to seeing these hardships as inevitable status quo.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We often talk about modern Britain being a divided society, and this may be true. But these divisions are artificial – both accessories to and products of engineered inequality. In order to overcome the huge chasms we see, we must recapture our belief in a collective society. I have argued that a feeling of collective responsibility, especially from the super-rich, ought to be a social imperative, but this cannot happen until we all realise that we are far more similar than we are different. We must realise that people in a society should look after each other – even if this means the rich paying out a little more.
Greater equality is not about Robin Hood-esque ideals of taking from the rich to give to the poor, but levelling out the playing field to the benefit of all society. If public services are better funded, no-one (including the rich) will have to worry about education, healthcare or a lack of police officers, thus freeing up everyone’s time, energy and disposable income to be spent on the more enjoyable things in this life. The rich lose nothing from a fairer and better funded society, they simply stop being the sole recipients of all the good things it can offer.
Coming to this conclusion will undoubtedly be an uphill struggle. We already find that public opinion is stacked against policies which could level the playing field, with three fifths of British voters believing that inheritance taxes are unfair, despite the fact that inheritance represents unearned wealth. This viewpoint was of course not borne in a bubble, but is the product of a society which has subliminally told its people for years that the rich are rich because they deserve to be so.
Tabloid papers have exacerbated the situation, pitting the poor against the destitute. A recent headline from the Sun highlighted the eviction of a family of ten – two parents and eight children – from their council house after they made illegal alterations to the property. Making sure to inform readers that neither parent worked, the article (published the day before the general election) offered a much stereotyped portrayal of large families, living off the state and acting irresponsibly.
The false sympathy offered by the tone of the piece was calculated to enrage readers, and present this unusually large, benefit-claiming family as a norm in our welfare state. The timing of this piece was crucial, and the comments on the article reflect this, with people seeing the very existence of a welfare state as the cause of a culture of freeloading. Commenters express anger at having to pay taxes to subsidise ‘these types of people’, and yet also reveal some telling things about their own situations. Some of them said that they worked all hours but still struggled to make ends meet; some expressed bitterness at having to make a choice to only have one child because they could not afford two. Many of these enraged commenters would benefit from a genuinely strong welfare state, but such media output is calculated to minimise people’s belief in it. As I said, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
But it is a battle that needs to happen. Inequality is a scourge on our society, and that we are a more unequal country at the end of this decade than we were at the start should be a cause for great alarm. Reverting to the social stratification of old is an existential threat to society as we know it, and it is something that we cannot afford to do. The solutions can be quite simple – fairer taxes and greater public spending – but they require a shift in mindsets across society, so that we all truly believe in collective responsibility – a belief I fear this government will attempt to dismantle further.
Soon after Oxfam’s wealth report revealed the disparities between the world’s richest and poorest, another report revealed some shocking findings about antibiotic resistance. Poor sanitation in India’s slums had led to genes linked to antibiotic-resistant superbugs being found in the Arctic. An article in The Guardian summarised the situation thus:
Wealthy countries and wealthy people in developing countries who feel insulated from the filthy conditions of the world’s poor may find themselves falling victim to the same superbugs as resistant bacteria evolve rapidly in poor sanitation and can spread far afield.
Inequality itself will exacerbate antibiotic resistance, and no-one can be insulated from its effects. Inequality is damaging to societies and the world at large. We would all do well to remember this – because otherwise, the harrowing effects it will wreak are going to swallow us all whole.
Maheen Behrana is an Editor at Backbench