Tackling inequalities is key to build a fairer world. Ways to do this already exist: we take a look at some approaches and demands that could create real change.
Build back better.
One year into the pandemic, we have all heard it countless times.
With his “New Deal” Boris Johnson promised “to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges”. Specifically, the Government’s strategy is to invest in infrastructure, promote green recovery, reform the house planning system and strengthen the Union. As expected, not everyone has the same idea of what it means to build back better, and criticism abounded. For a charity like JAN Trust, being focussed as we are on empowering marginalised individuals to become active citizens, the most relevant criticism concerns the lack of will on the part of the Government to tackle inequalities. In a time when Covid-19 has brought to light the stark inequalities existing in our society, we can no longer afford to ignore the situation: people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are dying at a higher rate, exposed as they are to adverse social and economic conditions. Covid-19 had an enormous toll on women, with ethnic minority women being hit the hardest by unemployment. And the list goes on. This has never been acceptable, and never will be: the Government must do better.
But how to tackle existing disparities in our society?
Historically, the discussion around economic inequalities has focussed on inequality of opportunities and inequality of outcomes. Measures to tackle these aspects are not mutually exclusive: inequalities are multi-faceted and complex, and as such there is no one single way to reverse them. Conversely, a number of solutions should be adopted at the same time.
Inequality of opportunities
Inequality of opportunities refers to the lack of a fair starting point for everyone in society, which is best represented by unequal access to education and employment. Tackling such problems requires time and consistent efforts: in the past 20 years some progress has been made, but the UK still lags behind most European countries, ranking 21st on the 2020 global social mobility index. This practically means that, nowadays, social origins vastly determine individuals’ opportunities to succeed.
Going forward, this problem could be tackled in various ways. A good starting point to support intergenerational mobility would be to invest in education interventions for poor children; an approach which research suggests to be effective. Improving adult education is also thought to work well to tackle inequalities, in that it helps people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter work as well as progress in their career. Precisely for this reason, this is recommended by the UK’s Social Mobility Commission, an independent advisory non-departmental public body with the duty to promote social mobility in the UK. These two aspects are key in the fight against disparity of opportunity, but they are not the only ones: as stressed by the Social Mobility Commission, it is fundamental that action to promote social mobility is driven from the heart of the Government, in a coordinated effort across departments.
Inequality of outcomes
Inequality of outcomes indicates that individuals have different living conditions, including related to income, education and health. Traditionally, governments have focussed on addressing income disparities. In the UK, the tax and benefit system has been used to reduce income inequality: the funds coming from taxes are used to provide a safety net for the most marginalized citizens. Although such forms of income redistribution are essential, changes are needed: today in our country benefits still do not meet the cost of living. More generally, the overall economic conditions could be improved by adopting more comprehensive measures. Leading economists argued that it is time for Governments to leave behind measures of economic success such as GDP, as they do not measure all that matters. On the contrary, by using the value of goods and services produced as a means to assess a given country’s wealth, they fail to take into account social conditions. The result is that GDP goes up, even when a relevant part of the population is struggling.
Another possible way forward alongside this would be to organise the national budget to meet citizens’ well-being needs. This approach was first pioneered in 2019 by New Zealand: with this move the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who sees well-being as a “cure for inequality”, aims to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction.
Placing inequalities at the centre of the political agenda is also key. Demands for a change in this direction are not new: in UK, the Government has recently been urged to pay due regard to how they can reduce inequalities. Specifically, campaigners are asking the “socio-economic duty” be finally implemented: if enacted, this part of the Equality Act 2010 would bind ministers and public bodies to take economic inequality into account in every major decision they take.
Looking forward to change
At JAN Trust, we are very clear that inequality is not inevitable. Rather, we see it as a social product that can be avoided by giving everyone equal access to the conditions to thrive. To make this possible, we do our part: in more than 30 years of activity we have delivered over 30,000 classes to help women from BAME backgrounds to continue their learning and increase their employability. We will continue our vital work in the future, but we want to see a clear commitment from the Government to take action to reverse inequality. So far, the facts say otherwise: not only was there a 45% cut in public funding for adult education in the past decade, but the UK Government has currently no plans to implement the socio-economic duty for English and cross-border bodies.
Considering this, we can’t help but see “build back better” as nothing more than a catchy slogan.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Tools to tackle inequalities already exist: the Government could make a real difference. We believe that in this historic moment they should finally demonstrate they are seriously dedicated to build a fairer, more inclusive society.