The Poor are Always with Us
Author: Simon Stander
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 02/23/2005
Category: Book Review
Consistent throughout the current literature on globalization and its benefits and/or ills, are the issues of social and economic inequality. The term globalization is vague: globalization of what, exactly? A globalized process, but in what way? Globalization at root is globalization of the capitalist system. Hence, whatever is true of capitalism generally must be true of globalized capitalism. Empirical evidence is clear: capitalism is not only based on inequalities but continues to reproduce inequalities (even though the benefits result in a shift from absolute poverty to relative poverty). Not only has this always been the case, but it continues to be the case, and a recent set of surveys in the United Kingdom underlines this observation. The government body the Office for National Statistics has recently produced convincing evidence that though people in the UK are better off than in the past across a range of measures (education, work, income, living standards, health and participation) the benefits are not spread evenly and in some areas the gaps are large.
Focus on Social Inequalities, edited by Penny Babb, Jean Martin and Paul Haezewindt is available free on-line:
It is not surprising to find that the better off are the parents in the UK, the more likely that the children will benefit at all levels of education, especially where it counts for future job prospects at the tertiary level. This means that children of better off families get to university and get better jobs: degree holders earn more than double non-degree holders. Unemployment rates are higher, too, for non-degree holders. Similarly, unemployment is much higher among disadvantaged groups, especially the disabled.
Looking at the figures historically, we note that for a time there was a tendency for inequalities of income to diminish. This was the case between 1979-1983, but then the trend was markedly reversed and all the gains were lost. Consistent with Kuznetzsian views, as growth rates increase so do inequalities. Thus inequalities reemerged with a vengeance in the rest of the 80 s and then as stagnation took place in the 90 s not much happened either way. All this is pretty normal to watchers of economic growth and income distribution. On balance, growth has some benefits for the poor because while inequalities increase, there are also some absolute gains, and, of course, growth does produce improvements in public services, especially in the provision of elements of the social wage such as health and education.
Distribution of wealth, however, is considerably more uneven than that of income. Half the wealth of the UK was owned by a mere 5% of the population in 2001: this compares with 8% in 1976. However uneven this is, it does represent an improvement over the whole century, as in 1911 the richest 1% probably owned 70% of the wealth of the country.
Worryingly for the future of the UK, one in five children lived in low income households so that the pool of the population that would continue to be deprived of the full benefits of a wealthy nation is alarmingly large. A low income household means about $50 per day, which in global terms is rather well off. A household with an income of $18,000 in the UK and western European terms, however, is very poor and a modern economy should be expected to do better than having 2.6 million children living in such conditions: in European terms this is absolute poverty even with a free health service and free education. Of course the inequality gap between the absolute poor in the UK and the absolute poor in the less developed world is enormous. These figures simply underline how far the world has to go before it can ever expect to eliminate the poverty which is and always has been normal .
While lower income groups have caught up or are catching up in terms of washing machines and central heating, they now lag behind markedly in the information age with poor access to PCs and the internet. Better off families are six times more likely to have internet access than poorer families.
In terms of health, despite nearly sixty years of health provision, the poor have poorer health than better off groups and die earlier. Better off men lived seven years longer, and women nearly six years longer, than those in lower income groups.
We are left then with a consistent picture. Economic growth does bring all kinds of benefits to all and raises the definition of what constitutes absolute poverty. But the rich stay rich, even if the become less poor.
Bio: Simon Stander is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor.