Poverty and Inequality

Inequality – Why we should pay attention to it

There is no doubt that the issues of inequality and poverty are among the major problems that the world faces today.  However, at times these issues seem to be separate and unconnected.

Countries with a high ‘at risk of poverty’ rate, are also the countries with high levels of inequality. Not only are poverty and inequality interconnected, but anyone who wishes to eliminate poverty should bring their attention towards reducing inequality.

Measures focusing on poverty reduction sometimes tend to be discussed within a discourse of growth whereby the rising tide lifts all boats. This discourse overshadows the problem of inequality and the idea that, while the rising tide will lift some boats, others will run aground or stay on the bottom as the water rises around them. There needs to be a shift in thinking away from a focus on growth and towards an emphasis on wealth redistribution which brings the attention towards the society as a whole.

John Baker, formerly from the Equality Studies Centre and Department of Politics in University College Dublin, has written an article entitled “Poverty and Inequality: ten reasons why anyone who wants to combat poverty should embrace equality as well” in which he argued that ‘anyone serious about eliminating poverty should pursue a more ambitious egalitarian agenda.’ Poverty and inequality are interconnected, anyone who believes in the eradication of poverty ‘needs to embrace a wide range of policies for promoting economic, cultural, political and affective equality, as well as real equality of opportunity.’ Mr Baker points out that ‘our society seems to have a broad consensus on the importance of reducing poverty but no similar agreement on the value of equality.’

A great deal of attention was brought on inequality by the publication by two British Epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, of their 2009 book The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better.  Their main argument is that almost everything – from life expectancy to depression levels – is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is, that societies with a bigger gap between the rich and poor are bad for everyone in them. Their convincing argument places inequality firmly on the agenda and goes a long way in showing us that more equal societies are better for everyone.

The French Economist Thomas Pickety published his book Capital in 2013 which shows how over time wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability. Piketty proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce inequality and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority.

The  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has also published a lot of material on inequality.