Poverty and inequality often seem to be conflated. That’s not to say that they aren’t related – of course they are. But it is possibly how they are related that is the most interesting. If you measure relative poverty, the element of inequality can be seen to be exactly what determines the level of poverty, E.G. the cost of living being so high due to a skewed top set of salaries meaning those who were previously financially OK are now in trouble and begin to fit definitions of poverty. Yet that doesn’t mean that one cannot exist without the other. For example, the worst off in society could have an average salary of £30,000 and still struggle to survive if the national average salary is £250,000. An exaggeration, of course, but hopefully you see my point.
So with this idea in mind, I wonder which one does more damage? Furthermore, is inequality a symptom of poverty, or is poverty a symptom of inequality? Or perhaps they operate relatively separately? These are questions to which I’m not sure of the answer. It does seem to be the case that if poverty is reduced quicker than average wage increases across the board, inequality reduces. So in that respect tackling poverty will tackle inequality. But would someone living in poverty prefer to feel a drastic rise in their own personal position, at the expense of rising inequality?
One thing I am particularly interested in with regards to inequality is power. Research I have done shows that where there is economic inequality there is inevitably inequality of power. Nothing all that new there. Yet this inequality of power can serve to reinforce economic inequalities and other differences. With people in the UK being ‘encouraged’ to fend for themselves more, this relative lack of power is felt strongly. In this respect it isn’t necessarily the poverty that causes the issues for the poor, but the lack of power to change their situation. For me, this falls generally in line with Bourideu’s work on forms of capital which was developed further in a fantastic article on citizenship and migrant labour by Harald Bauder. From this, and from my relatively little work on social capital, the problem seems to be this: if all forms of capital are interlinked, for someone to be in a better position than someone else in society the need to have more social/human/cultural capital. To a greater or lesser extent (depending on your emphasis and perhaps the context) this is related to how much financial capital you have. For example,according to New Labour – influenced by Robert Putnam’s work – and to extent, the Big Society, to build social capital you should volunteer. But if you have to work 50 hours a week for (or under) minimum wage, or if you are on JSA, when do you have the time to volunteer? Forced volunteering on JSA doesn’t count as it doesn’t necessarily improve your position afterwards.
So poverty and inequality become problematic thanks to the way we now seem to conceptualise social status and social worth. We place value on things that do not necessarily improve our lives, but improve the appearance of our lives. And if we do not have disposable resources in the way of money or assets, we find ourselves in a situation whereby we are indebted to others for their generosity and charity, socially and culturally, if not financially. We are kept afloat by others without a fundamental change in our position. This is, as it were, a race to the bottom – unless you have enough social capital (e.g.) to avoid being in this situation in the first place. If there is a cycle of dependency on benefits (and I’m not arguing there is; the jury is out for me), it is exasserbated by such forms of inequality incapacitating people to participate in various levels of society.
We seem to be regressing.