Living better

The challenges of inequality

For a long time scholars have emphasised both differential and absolute prosperity, with many arguing that the former matters most.

The sociologist (and former President of the British Academy) Lord Runciman argued in his seminal work Relative Deprivation and Social Justice that relative deprivation arises where people believe they have a realistic expectation of obtaining something that other people with whom they can readily compare themselves possess. Health inequalities are a classic example. As Sir Michael Marmot FBA said recently, ‘I would say to any government that cares about the health of its population: look at the impact of their policies on the lives people are able to lead and, more importantly, at the impact on inequality. Health inequality, arising from social and economic inequalities, is socially unjust, unnecessary and avoidable, and it offends against the human right to health.’ A newly published British Academy Policy Centre report also examines these challenges, and proposes possible approaches local authorities might adopt to mitigate them. W.G. Runciman, Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, London, 1966. Michael Marmot, quoted in The Guardian, 30 October 2013.

See also the British Academy Policy Centre report ‘If you could do one thing...’ Nine local actions to reduce Health Inequalities, 2014.

These kinds of challenges have also been lifelong concerns of Anthony Heath FBA, Professor at Oxford and Manchester universities and an expert on various kinds of inequality. He has worked with government departments in Whitehall and with the United Nations Development Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with the OECD on ways of increasing disadvantaged minorities’ access to labour markets, on promoting social cohesion and on tackling racial discrimination in the labour market. In his latest research, he has sought to shine a light on issues of ethnic inequality, in particular black unemployment rates. ‘Young black men have double or treble the unemployment rate of their white contemporaries. I think that is a major issue of social injustice – and that it threatens social cohesion and social order,’ he says. ‘Are we living up to our ideals of a liberal society offering equality of opportunity? The evidence shows that these inequalities are huge and are not declining. So the next stage is to try to think what could be done. What reforms would be effective? Can we investigate potential levers that might go some way towards reducing the inequality?

‘The National Audit Office argued in a recent report that under-employment of minorities costs the economy something like eight or nine billion pounds a year. So there is a very powerful business case for tackling issues of discrimination and under-employment.’

Tangible policy outcomes often emerge from this type of research, such as the last Government’s introduction of education maintenance allowances, based on findings that working-class children were leaving school early, often for economic reasons. Detailed empirical research can also play an important role in getting to the heart of an issue: defining the facts and discouraging politicians from taking potentially dangerous wrong turnings. British Academy funding contributes to these kinds of social science research; For an example see Dr Shawanda Stockfelt discussing how her British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship has enabled her to research educational aspirations among Black Caribbean males in the UK.and Heath points to the example of a recent study he carried out for the Department for Communities and Local Government. ‘They wanted rigorous, impartial evidence on whether ethnic diversity undermined cohesion or not. We had no idea until the results came out. The research actually showed that diversity had no negative effects on social cohesion and that the real driver of lack of cohesion was poverty and neighbourhood deprivation.’  The phrase ‘nudge’ stems from Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, New York, 2008