See adjacent article, Starting
Jan 28th 2010 Economist Magazine
For he that hath
The gap between the haves and the have-nots is wide and persistent
ALL men are created equal, or so reckoned Thomas Jefferson as he drafted
America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. Subsequent Americans have had
reason to question the founding father. So too have people in the land from
which the new nation gained its freedom. America and Britain are among the most
unequal countries in the rich world and Britain, at any rate, is more unequal
now than it was a generation ago. That is the conclusion of a study
commissioned by Harriet Harman, the equalities minister, which presented its
findings on January 27th.
Class and money have always strongly affected how people do
in life in Britain, with well-heeled families breeding affluent children just
as the offspring of the desperately poor tend to remain poor. All that was
supposed to have ceased at the end of the second world war, with the birth of a
welfare state designed to meet basic needs and promote social mobility. But
despite devoting much thought and more money to improving the lot of the poor,
governments have failed to boost those at the bottom of the pile as much as
those at the top have boosted themselves.
The new study, led by John Hills of the London School of
Economics, found, for example, that the richest tenth of households received
income more than four times that of the poorest tenth; just a generation ago,
it was three times as much. Internationally, only six of the 30 members of the
OECD, a club of mainly rich countries, show greater inequality, including
Mexico and Turkey along with Portugal, America, Poland and Italy (though
inequality has increased less in Britain in the two decades to the mid-2000s
than the OECD average). Wealth is distributed far more unequally than income,
with the richest tenth in Britain holding assets worth almost 100 times those
of the poorest.
Although the study found that some of the widest gaps between
social groups have diminished over time (that between men and women on pay, for
example, and between various ethnic minorities), deep-seated differences
between haves and have-nots persist, blighting the life chances of the less
fortunate. Looking at earnings, income, education, employment or wealth, a
similar pattern emerges.
By the age of three, a poor child is outperformed in verbal
ability and behaviour by a rich one. Much of this difference is explained by
ethnicity: unsurprisingly, poor children who do not speak English at home have
fewer words in what is their second or third language. A child’s ethnicity
becomes less important as he grows: by the age of 16, bright Chinese and Indian
students are performing extremely well at school. But throughout his classroom
career how well a child does is dominated by how highly educated his parents
are and how much money they bring home.
Politicians of all stripes talk up equality of opportunity,
arguing that it makes for a fairer and more mobile society, and a more
prosperous one. The goal of greater equality of outcomes also has its boosters.
In “The Spirit Level”, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson claim
that more equal societies are healthier than unequal ones, as well as happier.
Not all agree, but in a country where the National Health Service accounts for
almost a fifth of public spending, it is worth considering.
The difficulty arises in putting these notions into practice,
through swingeing tax increases for the middle-class and wealthy, or expanding
government intervention. These have not recently been vote-winning propositions
(see article), but the recession that Britain is now limping away from may have
So Gordon Brown, at any rate, must be hoping. On January 16th
the prime minister said he would put social mobility at the heart of his
campaign for re-election. The trouble is that he has had 13 years to work on it
already. Despite his pledge to invest in education to “make a reality of
genuine equality of opportunity for all”, opinion polls suggest that his
prospects are poor.