Category: Inequality

Why is the UK so unequal?

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The US and UK share an ideology of ‘free-market’ fundamentalism and competitive individualism. More widely called ‘neoliberalism’ these ideas were introduced, respectively, on both sides of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. 

Earlier this year, Angus Deaton, professor of economics at Princeton University and a Nobel laureate, launched a five-year review on the subject of inequality. Sir Angus, who is teaming up with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, a charity, intends the review to be the “most comprehensive scientific analysis of inequalities yet attempted”, examining not just the gaps between the rich and poor, but also differences in health outcomes, political power and economic opportunities in British society and across the world.

It will attempt to answer which inequalities are beneficial, providing “incentives” for people to strive harder, and which should be stamped out because they are derived from luck or cronyism and, according to Sir Angus, “make a mockery of democracy”.

Personally, I have some major issues with the neoliberal language of “incentives.” In its crudest formulation this entails providing the conditions for the market sector to produce growth, and accepting that this will somehow result in inequality, and then relying on some vague mechanism of redistribution of some portion of this growth to help repair the inequality that has resulted from its production. Over the last decade, we have witnessed those ‘safety net’ mechanisms being dismantled, leaving a large proportion of society with dwindling resources, while a few people have become obscenely wealthy. The language of “incentives” implies that it is human behaviour and not market fundamentalism, that creates growing inequality.

But that isn’t true. Neoliberalism has failed the majority of citizens horribly, the evidence of which is stifling both the UK economy  and our potential as a society. There are a few beneficiaries, who, curiously enough, are working flat out to promote the failing system of economic and social organisation that was ushered in by the Thatcher administration, while viciously attacking any ideas that oppose their dogma and challenge their stack of vested interests.

The Deaton review starts from the premise that not all inequalities are bad. Deaton and the IFS also believe that inequalities based on luck or rigging the system are far worse than those based on the skills of individuals: “If working people are losing out because corporate governance is set up to favour shareholders over workers, or because the decline in unions has favoured capital over labour and is undermining the wages of workers at the expense of shareholders and corporate executives, then we need to change the rules,” Deaton said.

This assumption that cronyism and damaging activities of the rich have left others in poverty has raised hackles in some free-market circles. Ryan Bourne, economist at the Cato Institute, for example. He says the IFS should be careful not to assume wrongdoing just from data showing rising inequalities, and: “Income inequality, for example, can be increased through entrepreneurs making fortunes off hugely welfare-enhancing new products,” he said. Whether or not this is correct, many UK officials are concerned that the market economy is in danger of becoming rigged against ordinary people.”

Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, the competition watchdog, admitted earlier this year that the authorities had been “slow” to address shortcomings in competition and rip-offs and would in future “be doing and saying a lot more”.

I have a lot more to say on this topic, too.

I’m planning to produce a series of in depth articles on inequality and growing poverty in the UK. To introduce this series of works, I’ve invited a guest writer, Kenura Medagedara.

Here is Kenura’s article:

Despite having the fifth-largest economy in the world, the United Kingdom is a surprisingly unequal society. It has the fifth-highest income inequality in Europe. The top 20% highest earners earn six times more than the poorest 20%. The top 10% of wealthiest households own five times more wealth than the bottom 50%.

These statistics may not come as such a surprise to some of us. Unfortunately, Britain’s historic class divisions are showing signs of increasing. But why is Britain so unequal, especially compared to other wealthy nations? And what can we do about it? These are the questions I’ll be trying to answer in this article.

The problem of inequality

Before I discuss any of this, I should first explain why inequality is so dangerous. We all know that absolute poverty is bad, as it means that people can’t afford to survive. We also understand that undeserved wealth is problematic, as it gives some people an unfair advantage over others. Did you know, for instance, that the third-wealthiest landowner in Britain, Hugh Grosvenor, amassed his £9 billion fortune entirely through inheritance?

Like I said, most people can see the problems with these two issues. However, (as many of those on the right point out), these issues aren’t intrinsic to inequality. It is possible to conceive of an economy where inequality exists, but the poorest household still has its basic needs met, and measures like inheritance tax can somewhat prevent situations like the one described above. So what’s wrong with inequality?

One of the main problems is inequality of opportunity. In any society, there are a limited number of opportunities available. Big companies only have so many vacancies, top universities only have so many places. Even in a society where absolute poverty doesn’t exist, opportunities for social mobility will still be limited. And these opportunities tend to stay in the hands of the rich. There are a wide range of reasons for this, from subtle ones like poorer students facing more mental stress when applying to university than richer ones as the cost of them failing is significantly higher, to more obvious ones like wealthy people being able to afford additional courses and qualifications to make them more qualified for higher-paying jobs. Either way, economic inequality brings about very unfair circumstances.

Money in politics

Another problem is that of political power. In a democracy, everyone’s voice should be heard equally, through universal suffrage. However, money can significantly increase someone’s political power. For example, they can afford a party membership, giving their party more money to spend on advertising campaigns to win elections. They can also make donations to influence policy decisions. In these ways, the wealthy have an unfair say in politics over the economically disadvantaged. Technically, this could be remedied by certain policies, such as all political parties receiving the same amount of funding from the government, but this seems very implausible, so I’d argue that inequality remains the real issue here.

From a more pragmatic perspective, economic inequality actually hinders economic growth. A 2014 study by the OECD found that the UK’s failure to address inequality meant that its economic growth was six to nine percentage points lower than it could otherwise haven been. This is because, as previously mentioned, people from poorer backgrounds find it harder to get good education opportunities as the rich can use their wealth to give them an unfair advantage. As a result, the poor get low-skilled jobs contributing little to the economy, whilst the rich get high-skilled jobs with relatively little competition, and so are generally not as efficient as they should be. It turns out that reducing inequality actually benefits everyone.

Why is the UK so unequal?

Before we can combat inequality, we first need to understand what causes it. In the UK, one of the main causes is the housing market. Currently, only 64% of all households are owned, compared to 71% in 2003. And this is expected to get worse; the average wage in London is 16 times less than what would be needed for a deposit. A house is normally the most expensive asset someone will own. Britain’s situation has meant that the children of homeowners inherited vast sums of money, giving them a huge advantage over people who weren’t as lucky.

This has allowed them to afford their own property, and buy more assets to generate even more wealth. This makes the rich get exponentially richer, whilst the poor are forced to cope with higher rents due to increased housing demand, reducing their disposable income and effectively making them poorer. As a result, 10% of households own 44% of all wealth, while the poorest 50% of households own just 9%.

Education

But this isn’t the whole story; after all, the UK has a fairly average wealth distribution compared to other OECD nations. Another major source of inequality is the education system. Despite the fact that this is often touted as the ‘great equaliser’, only 21% of children eligible for free school meals go to university, compared to 85% of children from private schools. As a result, those from poorer backgrounds tend to get low-paying jobs, whilst the opposite is true for the wealthy. This ensures that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

One major reason for this contrast is the price of nursery. The average price of full-time nursery in the UK is £242 per week, which is roughly 50% of the average household disposable income. Those on lower incomes will struggle to afford this compared to richer parents. This may explain why economically disadvantaged children even do much worse than their wealthier counterparts in primary school.

Solutions

To solve wealth inequality, the government must reform council tax. This is one of the main reasons why the housing market is in such bad shape. Firstly, this policy is regressive. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a household in band A property in London pays almost five times what a band H household would pay as a proportion of property value. Additionally, in 2013 the government simultaneously devolved council tax benefits and cut funding for it, forcing councils to start taxing those on the very lowest incomes. As a result, council tax has greatly contributed to economic inequality.

One possible solution is to exempt those on the lowest incomes from paying council tax. This will somewhat stop the tax from being regressive if poor households simply don’t have to pay it. Another, more long term, solution could be to scrap council tax entirely, and replace it with an annual flat rate tax. This would guarantee that the policy is progressive. According to City Metric, a 0.25% tax would raise the same revenue for London as the current system, but 80% of households will pay less.

To solve the gap in education, one possibility is to make nursery free. In a 2016 report on child well-being in rich countries, UNICEF called for high quality early education and care for children to reduce inequality in education. Making it free would certainly achieve this. In addition to this, British charity Teach First, who work to reduce educational inequality, claim that the government needs to increase the amount of teachers in schools in deprived areas. This will reduce class sizes, which plays a big role in the success of the pupils.

Conclusion

To conclude, economic equality is vital to achieve political equality and equality of opportunity, and also creates more economic growth. Two of the main causes of inequality in the UK are the housing market and the education system, both of which require serious reform if we’re to solve this issue.

Inequality is a very complex problem, and I’m not suggesting that this article has magically solved all of the issues that cause it. However, hopefully more discussion on this topic will eventually give us the answers.

If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out Kenura’s blog for more analysis of British politics.


 

I don’t make any money from my work. But if you like, you can contribute by making a donation which helps me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability  assessment and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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The UK in 2019: Dickensian levels of poverty, malnutrition, scurvy and rickets

 Tories and their tall stories

The government have claimed over the last few successive years that the numbers of people in work has reached ‘record levels’. The Conservatives claim that work has ‘many benefits’. One of those claims, for example, is that “work is a health outcome”. So we should reasonably expect that the general health of the population has improved since around 2015, when the claimed employment ‘boom’ began, if the government’s claim were true.

However, that has certainly not happened. In fact public health  has generally has got worse In 2014, the government tried to claim that a substantial drop in food sales was because of ‘market competition’, rather than the growth in absolute poverty. Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July of that year, which put the the UK’s alleged recovery in doubt. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicated then that many citizens evidently had not felt the benefit of the so-called recovery.

It remains the case that what the government is telling us is nothing like the lived experiences of many citizens. The claimed economic ‘benefits’ of a Conservative government are not reaching the majority of citizens. In fact many citizens have been pushed into absolute poverty, while the wealthiest citizens have enjoyed a substantial boost to their own disposable income. This shift in public funds is intentional, as the government’s policies have been fundamentally designed to move public wealth from the public domain to the private one.

Cameron’s one moment of truth was when he made a slip, declaring that the Conservatives were “raising more money for the rich”. The Conservatives only ever tell the truth in error, it seems.

Reported cases of malnutrition caused by food poverty have significantly risen

The number of people who are so malnourished they have to go to hospital has more than tripled in the last ten years, and is continuing to rise. In 2017,  8,417 patients were treated for malnutrition. By then, the cases of malnutrition had risen by approximately 400% compared to the number of cases during the global recession in 2008.

Of those admitted in 2017, 143 were under the age of nine and another 238 were aged between ten and 19. Shocking statistics also showed that the number of people in hospital with scurvy, a serious deficiency illness arising because of a lack of vitamin C, has doubled in the same period from 61 to 128 cases.

The shameful figures lay bare the true human cost of cuts in wages and social security in a context of ever-rising food prices and the general costs of living.

These rising figures for hospital admissions because of malnutrition in England by NHS Digital show just the tip of the ­iceberg, as GPs say they have been treating ­thousands more less serious cases of malnutrition, without referring them to our already over-burdened hospitals.

Last year, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “It’s absolutely shameful that malnutrition and scurvy admissions to hospital have risen so ­dramatically after eight years of Conservative rule.

“As the sixth largest economy in the world, surely we are better than this.

“But this is the consequence of eight years of cuts to public services, the cost of living rising and falling real wages hacking away at the social fabric of our society.

“Labour in government will lead an all-out assault on the unacceptable health ­inequalities facing our society.”

Dianne Jeffrey, Chairman of the Malnutrition Taskforce, said: “I find these figures incredibly concerning. We already know up to 1.3 million of our older friends, relatives and neighbours are malnourished or at risk.”

Increasingly, children are also at risk.

Additionally, the Lancashire Evening Post reports that doctors at hospitals in Preston and Chorley, Lancashire, have seen a sharp increase in malnutrition over the last three years. They say they are seeing patients with rickets and scurvy.  Patients were admitted to hospital with malnutrition around 70 times at the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in the 12 months up to March 2018, according to NHS Digital data. 

This was an increase of around 75 per cent from the same period two years ago, when there were 40 recorded cases. The county’s NHS Foundation Trust also saw cases of rickets and scurvy during 2017-18.

Natalie Thomas, the community assistant at the Salvation Army which runs the food bank in Preston, says she is not shocked that hospitals in the county have seen people suffering from scurvy and rickets. “It’s scary, it really is but I’m really not all that shocked knowing what we see in here,” she said.

“It’s like we are going backwards in time. It’s quite believable with the amount of bags [of food] we are giving out at the moment.

“It’s not getting any better. Since July when Universal Credit came in we’ve been giving out approximately 1,000 bags of food a month. Since then we have not had any quieter months during the year because people are now getting monthly benefit payments rather than fortnightly payments.

“It’s not surprising for us. The Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is also collecting food for us.” 

Food banks rarely give out fresh fruit and vegetables, however, since they are perishable foods. Because of storage issues, the food bank in Preston does not hand out fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis.

Major Alex Cadogan said: “We are not medical professionals but in our food parcels we try and give out a healthy diet but we can only give what we are given. 

“When we are sometimes in receipt of fresh fruit and vegetables we distribute it as rapidly as we can. We do hand out tinned fruit and vegetables regularly.” 

Vitamin C is needed by humans every day to prevent scurvy, as the body cannot store it. It is a water soluble vitamin, and it is easily destroyed by canning processes and by over-cooking. It’s found most in a range of fresh fruit and vegetables. Vitamin D, which is fat soluble, can be stored in the body. It is found in milk, cheese, yogurt, egg yolks, oily fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel. Lack of vitamin D causes rickets and other bone disorders. Lack of calcium and vitamin D can also affect the development of children’s teeth and cause osteoporosis later in life.

Hard Times

Scurvy and rickets were rife in Preston – and most other industrial towns and cities – during the Victoria era. And it was Preston’s heavy industry that formed the inspiration for one of Charles Dickens’ best-known books. The author, famed for his books about the impoverished working classes in Victorian England, spent three months in Preston. His time in the city is widely believed to have inspired his novel Hard Times, about people living in extreme poverty. 

These are the socioeconomic conditions that the Conservative government have recreated through their policies, which have reduced and stagnated wages and cut social security support radically, while the cost of living has dramatically increased, causing severe hardship for many families both in work and out. Meanwhile the very wealthy are rewarded with generous tax cuts from the public purse. 

Across England, the number of cases of malnutrition increased by a further 18 %, from 7,855 cases in 2015-16 to 9,307 cases in 2017-18. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that over 1.5 million households across the country are regularly left struggling to afford basic survival essentials such as food.

Chris Goulden, from the organisation, said: “Living in poverty can severely restrict a family’s ability to put food on the table and lead a healthy life.

“The poorest fifth of households spend twice as much of their income on food and fuel compared with those in the richest fifth, meaning those on the lowest incomes are most vulnerable to price rises, inflation and the benefits squeeze.”

Public Health England recommends that people follow its Eatwell Guide to make sure they are eating a healthy, balanced diet. However, a 2018 report by independent think tank the Food Foundation found more than one in four households would need to spend more than a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs to meet the guide’s recommendations. For parents in the bottom 20 per cent of earners, the cost would be 42 per cent of their income.

The Food Foundation have warned that the figures were signs of a “broken food system”. Executive director Anna Taylor said: “Although cases of rickets, scurvy and malnutrition are caused by a complicated range of factors, they are not conditions that we should have to be talking about anymore in a country as wealthy as the UK.

“Nearly four million children in the UK live in households for whom a healthy diet is unaffordable. We need industry and government to take action now to ensure that everyone has access to enough nutritious food.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Work and Pensions claims there are now fewer households with low incomes.

“We know there’s more to do to ensure that every family has access to nutritious, healthy food”, she said.

“Malnutrition is a complex issue and most patients diagnosed in England have other serious health and social problems.

“For people that need extra support with their living costs we spend £90 billion a year on working-age benefits and will be spending £28 billion more by 2022 than we do now.”

However, while malnutrition may sometimes be caused by relatively rare illnesses that cause absorption problems in the stomach, the most common cause of malnutrition, scurvy and rickets is vitamin and mineral deficiency, which is due to a lack of access to adequate, fresh and varied food, due to absolute poverty.  This is why the number of reported cases of malnutrition is rising. 

Meanwhile charities, food banks and campaigners have continually warned that many households simply cannot afford a healthy diet, and have called for government action to increase access to nutritious food.

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Research shows austerity results in ‘social murder’

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Dr Chris Grover, who heads Lancaster University’s Sociology Department says that austerity can be understood as a form of structural violence – a violence that is built into society and is expressed in unequal power and unequal life chances, as it is deepens inequalities and injustices, and creates even more poverty.

The article, Violent proletarianisation: social murder, the reserve army of labour and social security ‘austerity’ in Britain, suggests that as a result of the violence of austerity working class people face harm to their physical and mental wellbeing, and, in some instances, are ‘socially murdered’.

Dr Grover calls on the Government for change and action. He cites the consequences of austerity in the social security system – severe cuts to benefits and the ‘ratcheting up’ of conditions attached to benefits as constituting ‘social murder.’ 

He refers to the process as ‘violent proletarianisation’ (the idea that violent austerity is aimed at forcing people to do [low] paid work, rather than being supported by social security).

“To address violent proletarianisation what is required is not the tweaking of existing policies but fundamental change that removes the economic need for people to work for the lowest wages that employers can get away with paying,” says Dr Grover, echoing what many of us have also observed and commented on.

Published on 19 December in the journal, Critical Social Policy, Dr Grover gives examples of where social security austerity has led to a range of harms:

  •  an additional six suicides for every 10,000 work capability assessments done; 
  •  increasing number of people Britain dying of malnutrition 
  •  increasing numbers of homeless people dying on the streets or in hostels

The article rationalises that austerity, the difficult economic conditions created by Government by cutting back on public spending, has brought cuts and damaging changes to social security policy meaning Britain has fallen victim to a brutal approach to forcing people to undertake low paid work.

This is something that many of us have also observed.

“The violence takes two forms,” says Dr Grover. “First it involves further economic hardship of already income-poor people.

“It causes social inequalities and injustices in the short term and, in the longer term.

“Second, the poverty that violent proletarianisation creates is both known and avoidable.”

Dr Grover adds that only by fundamentally rethinking current social security policy can change that protects the poorest people be made.

The article examines socioeconomic inequality and injustice, discussing the way it is used to force the commodification of labour power, and a consequential creation of ‘diswelfares ‘that are known and avoidable.

By keeping citizens poor, and without the means of meeting their most fundamental needs, the state creates a desperate reserve army of labour, which is open to exploitation by employers. Conditional welfare also coerces citizens into accepting any work available, regardless of how poor the conditions and wage levels are. There is no means of bargaining for job security, better working conditions or pay, since people claiming social security cannot refuse a job offer, without facing financial sanctions, and subsequently, destitution.

The author suggests that violent proletarianisation is a contradictory process, one that helps constitute the working class, but in a way that socially murders some of its reserve army [of labour] members.

Just as ‘the market’ allocates wealth and resources, it has also come to allocate life and death.

Grover takes his  inspiration from Friedrich Engels’s account of the social murder committed by British capitalists to assess the contemporary impact of conservative economic policy, which they define as policies designed to maximize the accumulation of profit while socialising the associated risks and costs. Conservative neoliberals claim that if their policy prescription is followed, it will produce broad-based economic benefits including more rapid growth, higher incomes, less illness, and, even, more democracy.

The Lancaster university research contrasts the myths of Conservative economic policy with the reality. What Conservative economic policy has actually accomplished is a redistribution of wealth and power away from the vast majority of the population to private companies and their owners. The effects of these policies on citizens and workers have been politically determined economic instability, unemployment, poverty and widening inequality, resulting in suffering, harm and a rise in premature mortalities.

Social murder is a phrase used by Engels in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working-Class in England whereby “the class which at present holds social and political control” (the bourgeoisie) “places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death.”

Social murder was explicitly committed by the political and social elite against the poorest in society. Although Engels’ work was originally written with regard to the English city of Manchester in the Victorian era, the term has been used by other left-wing politicians such as John McDonnell in the 21st century to describe the impacts of Conservative economic policy (neoliberalism), as well as being linked with events such as the Grenfell Tower fire. The victims of Grenfell Tower didn’t just die. Austerity, outsourcing and deregulation killed them – just as the conditions of Victorian Manchester killed the poorest citizens then.

Engels said:  “When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.” 

Over 170 years later, Britain remains a country that murders its poor. When four separate government ministers are warned that Grenfell and other high rises are a serious fire risk, then an inferno isn’t unfortunate. It is inevitable. It is social murder.

The acts that culminated in the deaths were licensed by those in public office, or private sector authority, who had decided the lives of poor people mattered less than the profits of the rich. This is a logic that’s still very evident today. 

The past decade of austerity has been one of political violence: of people losing their lifeline income for not being disabled ‘enough’, of families evicted from their homes for having more than two children or a bedroom that the state deems surplus to requirements.

These are tales of private suffering and immense misery, of a person or a household  plunged into stress, anxiety, depression or worse.

Aditya Chakrabortty concluded last year, in his well-observed article about the Grenfell tragedy: “Class warfare is passed off as book-keeping. Accountability is tossed aside for “commercial confidentiality”, while profiteering is dressed up as economic dynamism. One courtesy we should pay the victims of Grenfell is to drop the glossy-brochure euphemisms. Let’s get clear what happened to them: an act of social murder, straight out of Victorian times.”

You can read the research report in full, without the paywall, here: Violent proletarianisation: Social murder, the reserve army of labour and social security ‘austerity’ in Britain

 


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Studies find higher premature mortality rates are correlated with Conservative governments

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In 2014, public health experts from Durham University denounced the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the health and wellbeing of the British public in research which examined social inequality and injustice in the 1980s.

The study, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of well-being.

The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under  the Thatcher government – the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985.

Thatcher’s governments wilfully engineered an economic catastrophe across large parts of Britain by dismantling traditional industries such as coal and steel in order to undermine the power of working class organisations, say the researchers. They suggest this ultimately fed through into growing regional disparities in health standards and life expectancy, as well as greatly increased inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.

Co-author Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, commented: “Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”

Housing and welfare changes are also highlighted in the paper, with policies to sell off council housing such as Right to Buy and to reduce welfare payments resulting in further inequalities and causing “a mushrooming of homelessness due to a chronic shortage of affordable social housing.” Homeless households in England tripled during the 1980s from around 55,000 in 1980 to 165,000 in 1990.

And while the NHS was relatively untouched, the authors point to policy changes in healthcare such as outsourcing hospital cleaners, which removed “a friendly, reassuring presence” from hospital wards and has ultimately led to increases in hospital acquired infections. 

Co-author Professor David Hunter, from Durham University’s Centre for Public Policy and Health, said: “Taking its inspiration from Thatcher’s legacy, the coalition government has managed to achieve what Thatcher felt unable to, which is to open up the NHS to markets and competition.”

The study, carried out by the Universities of Liverpool, Durham, West of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, is published in the International Journal of Health Services.

The backwards future

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An increase in UK infant mortality over the past two years, after more than a century of a decline, is the starkest indicator of how, as a society, we are regressing, failing to support the physical and mental wellbeing of children and young people. In October, the frightening implications for individual families and the long-term pressures on the public sector were highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which had published its projections of likely outcomes for child health up to 2030.

The study compares the UK with the EU15+, comprising 15 long-standing EU members plus Australia, Canada and Norway. It shows that by 2030 the UK infant mortality rate will be 80% higher than the EU15+, even if the country resumes its previous downward path. If we carry on as we are, the rate will be 140% higher. As always, the impact is greatest among the poorest citizens. To put this into persepctive, the United Nations’ estimates of infant mortality indicate that only around six other countries have had increases over the past two or three years. We are now comparable with countries such as Dominica, Grenada and Venezuela.

The brutal cuts to local government have increased the risks facing the most vulnerable. Child protection services are increasingly being driven to wait until a child is in crisis before intervening. This puts children in danger, increases family break-ups and drives up the long-term costs to public services as people struggle to cope in later life with the aftermath of avoidable trauma.

Problems associated with poverty are compounded as children grow. As many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres may have closed since 2010, stripping away early years support for children from the poorest homes. Remaining centres struggle to cope. 

Cuts in services addressing domestic violence and addiction put more children in danger. The repeal of child protection policies that the last Labour government brought in – Every Child Matters – has hardly helped, too. Michael Gove repealed the policy the day after he took office in 2010.

A more recent study, published in the medical journal Lancet Public Health, has revealed that people living in the most deprived regions of the country die up to ten years earlier than their wealthier counterparts.

According to the study, the life expectancy between rich and poor citizens has increased from six years in 2001 to eight years in 2016 for women, and from nine to ten years for men. The research was carried out by the Imperial College London.

The researchers say that stagnant wages and cuts to social security are among the main causes for the growing life expectancy gap, they warn that the their findings are a “deeply worrying indicator of the state of our nation’s health”.

The study also reveals that child mortality rates are higher among deprived communities, with the poorest children more than twice as likely to die before they reach adulthood, compared to children born into well-off families.

The researchers said people from the most deprived sections of society are at a far greater risk of developing diseases like heart disease, lung and digestive cancers, and respiratory conditions – despite the fact that most of these conditions are avoidable and treatable.

Professor Majid Ezzati, senior author of the research from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said: “Falling life expectancy in the poorest communities is a deeply worrying indicator of the state of our nation’s health, and shows that we are leaving the most vulnerable out of the collective gain.

“We currently have a perfect storm of factors that can impact on health, and that are leading to poor people dying younger.

“Working income has stagnated and benefits have been cut, forcing many working families to use foodbanks.

“The price of healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables has increased relative to unhealthy, processed food, putting them out of the reach of the poorest.

“The funding squeeze for health and cuts to local government services since 2010 have also had a significant impact on the most deprived communities, leading to treatable diseases such as cancer being diagnosed too late, or people dying sooner from conditions like dementia.”

Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Labour party’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “This is latest evidence of stark differences in life expectancy, which should act as an urgent wake up call for ministers ahead of the long term NHS plan.

“The shameful truth is women living in poorer areas die sooner and get sick quicker than women in more affluent areas.

“It’s why as well as ending austerity, Labour recently announced we’d target growing health inequalities and implement a specific women’s strategy in government to ensure the health and wellbeing needs of women are met.”

The ideologically prompted and systematic dismantling of public services has stalled our progress as a society, transforming it into a social Darwninist dystopia. The  inequalities in mortality between haves and have nots is proof that the government has abandoned and intentionally economically excluded growing numbers of citizens, causing harm, premature death, and leaving them in profound in distress and deprivation, while inequalities in wealth, inclusion, wellbeing and opportunity are being pushed even higher. 

If a parents neglect children child, intentionally leaving them without food, warmth and shelter, punishing them because of some unevidenced theory about ‘incentives’ and their attitude, behaviour and motivation, we would say that is abuse. When the state neglects children and treats them this way, we call it welfare ‘reform’. 

The public have paid into social security funds and other public services. It is citizen-funded provision FOR citizens when or if they need it. It is not the government’s moeny to take from ordinary people and hand out to millionaires.

Dying prematurely because you are poor is the most unfair outcome of all. As a society, we should all be concerned about the growing divergence in rich-poor life expectancy and the fact that this divergence is damaging citizens. It should also be a cause for substantial public concern that inequalities are being wilfully engineered and fuelled by the UK government.

 


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Nudge and neoliberalism

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I’ve been criticising nudge and the closely related discipline of behavioural economics for a few years, sometimes with an international audience (see, for example: The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats.)  Nudge has increasingly seen by governments as a cheap and effective way of achieving social political goals in an era of austerity. 

I have several objections to the “behavioural turn”; some are to do with its impact on democracy, others are to do with its class contingency: poor people are disproportionately nudged, and without their consent. When I say ‘disproportionately’, I mean almost exclusively.

Over the last seven years, behavioural economics has come to be seen as something of a technocratic fix for a failing and overarching socioeconomic system. However, it has more in common with PR, marketing and advertising that psychology or economics. It’s part of the ‘sales pitch’ for neoliberalism, which is already a sold out event.

Behavioural economics epitomizes an era in which politics is concerned chiefly with saving money and combating the symptoms rather than the causes of growing social inequality. Nudges may serve to make poverty infinitesimally more bearable for the government, who can say that they are doing something to ‘solve’ poverty, but certainly not for the poorest people. When you zoom out, you see clearly that exactly nothing is being solved at all. At best, nudge is like persuading a person to learn how to swim in a clean and tidy swimming pool, and them throwing them back into a maelstrom out at sea.

The poorest citizens are targeted with punitive, heavily bureaucratic policies and an administrative authoritarianism, while wealthy people get the freedom to do as they please, and a rewarding form of state libertarian socialism, where the regulation book is ripped up. Unaccountable private companies design nudge strategies for profit, politicians and civil servants learn them and become board room, arm-chair psychologists, experimenting on ordinary citizens to find ways of not paying out for public services. All without the publics’ consent.

What could possibly go right? 

The government and their small army of behavioural economists argue that citizens’ characters, cognitive ‘limitations’ and ‘flawed’ decision making is the root cause of poverty and creates inequality, so handing over money every year to poor people is akin to “treating the symptoms, but ignoring the disease.” Margaret Thatcher, the High Priestess of neoliberalism, once called poverty a “personality defect.”

However, this narrative is based on assumption and fails to take into account the possibility that people’s decisions, behaviours and circumstantial problems are not the cause but the consequences of poverty. Giving poor people more money might well just genuinely work wonders, because simply having too little is THE problem. 

Nudge is an authoritarian prop for a failing neoliberal ideology and policies. Most citizens don’t benefit from a system founded on accumulation by dispossession – a concept presented by David Harvey, which defines the neoliberal capitalist policies in many western nations, from the New Right Thatcher era to the present day, as resulting in the centralisation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, by dispossessing the public of their wealth, public services and land. And increasingly, their autonomy, as public perceptions and behaviours are being aligned with politically determined neoliberal ‘outcomes’. It’s a vicious cycle – a maelstrom. 

Nudge is politically ‘justified’ by a draconian, ideological framework of beliefs, partly based on Victorian meritocratic notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. One theme is that poor people lack the qualities or capacities to be economically competent, and simply make the ‘wrong’ choices. But in a system where everyone competes for resources (as well as a democratic voice, government attention and funding), not everyone is permitted to be wealthy. That is the nature of ‘competition’. There is no such thing as ‘trickle down’ either. Wealthy people don’t generally share their wealth.

Image result for @LanceUlanoff on trickle down

Furthermore, being poor isn’t particularly lucrative, in fact poverty itself tends to be accumulative. Poor people are financially penalised and economically excluded. Poor citizens can’t get loans when they need them, unless they are prepared to pay eyewatering interest rates, of course. Pay as you go metered utilities – gas, electric and water, for example – tend to cost rather more than a monthly or quarterly direct debit. Poor people who get into debt with utility companies tend to be coerced into having payment meters fitted, as they are considered at ‘risk’ of defaulting on payments by big businesses.

It’s somehow become obscenely normal to charge poor people more money than wealthy people for the same services and utilities. I’ve yet to hear of a poor person who became less poor because they are being punished by having more money taken from them.

However, being wealthy is very lucrative; it’s the gift that keeps on giving. This discrimination has been dressed up carefully with a political narrative, using terms like “incentives”. For wealthy people, a reward of more money is apparently an ‘incentive’ to just keep on being wealthy. 

Poor people, however, seemingly require a different form of ‘incentivisation’. They need to be told that it’s ‘wrong’ to be poor, and that it is their own fault, rather than the consequence of a prejudiced and discriminatory government and their flawed, prejudiced and discriminatory policy designs. In a so-called meritocratic system, it follows that wealthy people ‘deserve’ their wealth – even though at least one third of them simply inherited it – and poor people deserve to be poor. If it wasn’t for the myth of meritocracy, inequality and burdening those in poverty with a sense of shame and personal failing would be considered abhorrent. However, neither neoliberalism nor it’s PR and strategic communications agent, behavioural economics, are drawn from the philosophical well of human kindness. They came to life in the degenerative, dry ruins of once civilised societies, marking a Fin de Siècle of  late capitalism.

The socioeconomic system of organisation – neoliberalism – eliminates the possibility that everyone can ‘win’, since neoliberalism is itself founded on competitive individualism, which permits only a few ‘winners’ and many more ‘losers’. The existence of absolute poverty in a wealthy country is ample evidence of a fatally flawed system, so the government uses a rhetoric of a myth – meritocracy – to justify the status quo, blaming citizens’ ‘behaviours’ and ‘attitudes’, rather than recognising the real problem and changing the system, which generates inequality from its very core.

So poor people are penalised for being poor by being incentivised’ by punitive economic sanctions that entail losses from the little money they have. This is so appallingly cruel, because scarcity completely consumes people. It eats away at human potential and stifles possibilities. And removes choices.

The patronising ‘paternalism’ of a government that assumes it ‘knows what is best’ for people – punitive nudges delivered by a group of privileged, powerful and prejudiced elitists – is doomed to fail. The key reason is that being poor means having less choice to start off with. Poor people don’t act on available choices because they can’t. They have none. They are compelled to act on necessity.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines that our most basic needs are biological, and meeting these needs is a necessity for survival. There isn’t a ‘choice’.

Taking money from poor people is simply cruel and barbaric. It reduces ‘choices’ and increases necessity and desperation.

If we can’t meet our fundamental needs, we can’t meet higher level psychosocial needs either – the ones that do entail choices about our lives. Poverty has got nothing to do with making “irrational choices” at a personal level. It’s got everything to do with being left with NO choices.

There is a world of difference between ‘choice’ and ‘necessity’. It is time the government and the technocratic behavioural economists busy propping up a failing system recognised and acknowledged this. People are poor because we have a system that diverts available resources away from them, hanging them out to dry. Until that fundamental fact is addressed, nothing will change.

It’s time for a serious and open political debate about inequality, the limits of nudge, democracy and the fundamental failure of neoliberalism. It’s time to stop blaming poor people for poverty and inequality.

Bootstraps

Related

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A critique of benefit sanctions:  the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder


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David Lammy on Oxford elitism and his responses to racist comment on social media

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David Lammy

Oxford University has published data about its undergraduate admissions for the first time. The figures showed a continuing inequality gap in offered opportunities to study based on race and economic status. 

The 850-year-old university published data that was intended to challenge the views that it endured as a place of white, wealth-driven privilege and elitism.

The statistics offer some very worrying insights into a clear lack of representative diversity among undergraduate admissions. In a breakdown of admissions to the 29 individual colleges that are the blocks of Oxford’s academic structure, eight — including some of the most prestigious — failed to admit a single black Briton in one or more of the years from 2015 to 2017.

Oxford University has had to apologise to David Lammy after retweeting a post labelling his legitimate criticism “bitter”.

The original tweet, sent by a student, was in response to the Labour MP saying Oxford was “a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege”.

Lammy asked if the tweet represented the university’s official position – at which point a senior staff member apologised and took responsibility.

Cherwell, a student newspaper at Oxford, reported on Wednesday that the university had admitted more students in 2017 from a single London private school, than it had admitted black undergraduates from the rest of Britain. .

Lammy’s original remarks came as Oxford University data revealed that eight of its 29 colleges included in the report accepted fewer than three black applicants in the past three years.

The university has a total of 38 colleges and permanent private halls. The university said it was “not getting the right number of black people with the talent to apply”.

Director of undergraduate admissions, Dr Samina Khan, said she was “pushing hard” on outreach activity to make sure those students felt welcome.

The proportion of Oxford students identifying as black and minority ethnic was 18% in 2017, up from 14% in 2013. However, that figure still falls below the wider UK university average of 25%.

The most recent UK census showed 14% of the UK population identifies as black or minority ethnic. Data in the university’s report showed that, of the students that achieved three ‘A’ grades or higher in their A-levels nationwide, 20% identified as black and minority ethnic.

One college, Corpus Christi, which has around 350 students, admitted just one black student resident in the UK in its 2015-2017 intakes. Balliol college, which has around 680 students, admitted two black and minority ethnic students over the same period, despite receiving 46 applications.

The number of admissions from state schools, during the same period, rose by just 1%, from 57% to 58%. 

Oxford’s intake also displayed a substantial geographic imbalance between the north of Britain and the more affluent south. London and the South East made up 46.7% of UK applications between 2015 and 2017, (and 47.9% of students admitted) while the North East accounted for 2% (2.3% admitted).

“Oxford reflects the inequalities — socio-economic, ethnic and regional — that exist in British society,” Louise Richardson, the university’s vice chancellor, said in a foreword to the report.

The picture that emergesis of a university which is changing: evolving fast for an institution of its age and standing, but perhaps too slowly to meet public expectations. It is a picture of progress on a great many fronts, but with work remaining to be done,” she added

In a section titled Key Points, the report focused on progress in admissions, including “more women admitted than men in 2017” and higher proportions of undergraduate admissions among groups that were traditionally disadvantaged.

According to the Cherwell article, “17 of the top 20 schools for Oxford admissions in 2017 are fee-paying, while the other three are prestigious grammar schools.” Additionally, the newspaper said, state-educated students tended to apply to the most oversubscribed subjects, lowering their prospects, while applicants from private schools tended to apply to less sought-after courses, such as classics or modern languages. 

Lammy, a former education minister who has campaigned against what he has called “social apartheid” at Oxford, said the latest figures showed that the university was “an institution defined by entrenched privilege that is the preserve of wealthy white students from London and the Southeast.”

Lammy previously accused the university of “social apartheid“, after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by him revealed 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a place to any black British pupil with A-levels in 2015.

This prompted more than 100 MPs to write to Oxford and Cambridge urging the universities to recruit more students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

Reacting to the latest figures, Lammy said the problem was “self-perpetuating”.

He added “If you’re on the 20th floor of a tower block estate and you’re getting straight A’s, you apply, go for a difficult interview.. you don’t get in, then none of the other kids apply the following year.”

Some of the responses on Twitter to Lammy’s reasonable and empirically evidenced comments are dismally and appallingly racist:

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Walker has since deleted his tweet, following Lammy’s neat shot response:

And then this oik piped up:

And the response:

A spokesperson for Lammy recently told the BBC: “David regularly receives abusive and malicious communications, often of a racist nature.

“All such letters are passed onto the police. As David has made clear, receiving racist abuse will not have any impact on his work.”

In April, the Labour MP posted an image of a letter he received after he criticised the government’s handling of the deportation of Windrush migrants.

The offensive note told  Lammy to “be grateful that we have taken you in as a black man” and suggested he “go back to your country”.

Lammy pointed out that he was born in Whittington Hospital in north London.

He shouldn’t have had to. It’s a disgrace in a so-called civilised society that anyone has to confront racist and abusive comments. The barrage of hate that Lammy and others are subjected to on a regular basis is in part a product of an increasingly divided and prejudiced society. One which the government has contributed to by role modelling prejudiced and discriminatory behaviours, which in turn signals permission for citizens to do the same.

As Lammy says: “At root the hostile environment is a policy rooted in pernicious cruelty designed to make life so difficult for people who are here legally that they simply give up and, as suggested by Theresa May’s vans, “go home”. (…) A minister falling on their sword is usually an attempt to draw a line under a scandal and encourage the media to move on.

“But the person sat in the hot seat at the Home Office makes no difference to the thousands of people suffering as a result of the hostile environment policy. An unjust law is no law at all. The Windrush generation will not get justice until it is the law that is changed, not just the home secretary.” 

Attitudes, behaviours and ideologies that foster division, inequality, prejudice  and discrimination must also change. 

That is unlikely to happen under a Conservative government

 


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Sometimes satire is appropriate. Calling it ‘fake news’ isn’t

My last article was a lampoon of a real vigilante group that was established to hunt out ‘fake’ beggars and homeless people, taking photos of them to use on posters that name and shame them. The group have already ‘outed’ one genuinely homeless person, and have drawn much criticism from the police, charities and councils for their ill-conceived aims and methods. 

The characters I portrayed have made up names like ‘Mr Vinnie Dicktive’ and so on. The reference to phrenology and character divination is also a sideswipe at the government, as is the reference to ‘no causal link between ‘the homeless and homelessness’, but it also serves to highlight the bigotry, hypocrisy and downright irrationality of the vigilante group.

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Some people have expressed concern that my satire may be mistaken for ‘fake news’. However, I expect that most people can recognise a parody of a group and distinguish it from ‘fake news’. I occasionally write satire because sometimes, the best thing to do when confronted with those who are nasty, irrational, prejudiced and ridiculous is to ridicule them. I’m certainly not going to apologise for that.

My friend, Hubert Huzzah, has this to say about satire and ‘fake news’:

1) Fake News is bought, paid for and advances against the interests of the people it is aimed at.

2) Satire is created by [and for] the people who Fake News is aimed at. 

For those who don’t know me, my occasional bouts of satire fall into the latter category.

However, what really angers and upsets me about some of the responses to the latest article is this. The article I wrote just previously to the satirical piece was absolutely heartbreaking. It was so harrowing to write that I wept while I wrote it. The article was about two ill and vulnerable homeless citizens who died in sub-zero temperatures last week. Ben had been discharged from hospital, forced to return to a tent as his only shelter from the elements, after being treated for pneumonia. Rob had throat cancer, and was sleeping behind the shutters of an Argos store.

People expressed their ‘shock and surprise’ that these two poor and ill homeless citizens hadn’t survived Siberian weather conditions. I felt that those comments reflected a general public numbness and detachment to the terrible circumstances of homeless people, which horrified, appalled and disgusted me. And also made me very angry.

There is something really horrifically wrong with a so-called civilised, democratic society in a very wealthy country that abandons sick and disabled people, leaving them with no effective shelter or money on the streets in sub-zero temperatures. And there must be something missing from people who then express ‘shock’ and ‘surprise’ that their fellow citizens have died in those conditions.

I was accused of having ‘bad taste’, by one person. I pointed out that I am not part of the vigilante group going around harassing and photographing homeless people and making posters that claim they are somehow faking their homelessness. This group says that they will not invade the privacy of other citizens, by ensuring they aren’t captured on any of the photos, indicating clearly that they think homeless people have less right to respect and privacy than others. The point of my satirical article was to highlight the ‘bad taste’ , spite and prejudice of the ‘Killing with Kindness’ campaign. If it made you feel uncomfortable, well good, it was intended to.

Remarkably, my satirical piece has drawn more attention, response and anger than the previous very serious article about real people, in very real and unforgiving circumstances within the context of inhumane political and public indifference to the plight of our poor fellow citizens in this country.

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Related

Please don’t just walk on by, we are better than this

From the abstract to the concrete: urban design as a mechanism of behaviour change and social exclusion

Two very vulnerable homeless men left to die in sub-zero temperatures

People are faking their homelessness and poverty for money, says petty urban bourgeousie

 


 

I’m disabled through an illness called lupus. I don’t make any money from my work. However, I do what I can, when I can, and in my own way. You can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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