Monthly Archives: October 2013

Inequality: a blight on our nation?

I went to another lecture last night! Kate Pickett talking about “Inequality: the enemy between us” at Liverpool University. I’ve been interested in her work since I did my dissertation, so I thought it would be good to share it. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of a book called “The Spirit Level”, which explores the relationship between the level of equality in society with various other measures of wellbeing, more of which on the Equality Trust website.

The lecture started by taking us through the main findings of this research. As you might expect, as a country grows richer, so life-expectancy in that country improves. This is a general pattern across all countries until a certain level of income is reached. At the point where countries would be considered rich, any further increase in income no longer leads to its citizens living longer. Comparing rich countries by income and life-expectancy shows that there is no longer a link between the two. So, for example, Portugal and the USA are respectively poorest and richest in this group of countries, but both have relatively low life-expectancy, while Norway (richer), Spain (poorer) have better life-expectancy. Japan has the best figures, while its income is in the middle.


This doesn’t seem to make sense, as higher income correlates to better life-expectancy within a country. However, when a measure of well-being (including life-expectancy) is plotted against a measure of equality, the results are startling. There is such a strong association between the two that Prof Pickett joked that it looks more like a physics experiment than the kind of outcome normally seen in social science research! We then went on to see many more examples of how inequality is associated with poorer outcomes for other indicators of health and wellbeing, such as the UNICEF measure of child wellbeing, which shocked us in the UK when we came last a couple of years ago. What this shows is that it is not money which leads to better health and longevity, but rank – a person’s status in society.


So far, we had seen lots of data, and an interesting association. The next part of the lecture considered why inequality might lead to worse health and social wellbeing. Apparently, if you have more friends, you are less likely to catch colds, and if you cut yourself (not badly) you will heal more quickly if you are in a good relationship with your spouse. Who knew?! This is a demonstration of the impact which social affiliation has on our physiology – our healing processes and immune systems. Psychologists have demonstrated that tasks which involve “social-evaluative threat” are the most stressful to complete. That is, maths tasks might be a bit stressful, but they are much more stressful if you know your score will be revealed and compared with everyone else’s. In situations like this, performance worsens if you are subject to “stereotype threat” – ie if you belong to a group which stereotypically is expected to perform worse then you will (on average) perform worse. Stress has an impact on our immunity and on our ageing, and social status even affects our neuro-biology. Perhaps chronic stress is the reason for the differing outcomes – does greater inequality emphasise the differences between social status, causing greater stress and thereby impairing our health, happiness and cognitive function?

But the link between inequality and poor health etc is not just of academic interest. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in this group, doing badly on a whole host of measures. That is a lot of people suffering unnecessarily, only because our society is so unequal. Clearly inequality affects the poorest at the bottom of the pile, but the research in “The Spirit Level” indicates that actually, inequality worsens outcomes right across the spectrum of society.

The impact of inequality has a broader impact too. Pro-social behaviour is lower in more unequal societies. More equal societies have more peace, give more foreign aid, do more recycling and have more biodiversity. These are all the “bigger-than-self” kind of issues which are the concern of Common Cause, research which underpinned my dissertation. In the lecture, we heard more about the effect of “priming”. High status people are more likely to behave unethically, but getting the same people to think about the benefits of equality before carrying out a task leads to more ethical behaviour. The Common Cause report also discusses how priming can lead to more pro-social behaviour. This report encourages groups concerned with “bigger-than-self” issues to consider the values and frames in their own communication, to ensure that values which lead to more pro-social behaviour are continually being primed within society. Equality is itself one of those values.

The Q&A session after the lecture showed that there were many in the audience who were keen to see more equality in our society, including many who were unhappy with the way UK society not only seems very unequal, but stigmatises and excludes the poor. So, is there a solution? Can we make our society more equal? We can all start with our individual situation, challenging prejudice and language which stigmatises, and ensuring our own behaviour is not grasping and concerned only with our own status, but rather with the needs of others too. Prof Pickett suggested that it would be good to see greed and individualism become as unacceptable in future as racism and sexism have become today. She also mentioned a book with some interesting ideas “What shall we tell our daughters” by Melissa Benn. Has anyone read it?

Beyond individuals, what changes would we need to see in society to bring more equality? The need to lift the floor was identified as essential, for those who can and those who cannot work. But there is also a need to constrain at the top. This could be done in two ways (it seems to me that both could be done together). One choice is redistribution. This would involve progressive taxation and proper social security, including a living wage, rather than just a minimum wage which is not enough to live on. She urged us to vote for whoever is promising this, but also reminded us that all of this is vulnerable to being undone by a successive government. The other choice is to make a shift in our society so that equality is embedded within it. This would involve improving economic democracy, which will mainly happen within the workplace. It would mean strong trade unions (small ripple of applause at this!), workers on company boards, especially those that set remuneration, more employee ownership, more mutuals and co-operatives, and anything that leads to more community cohesion.

This all sounds good to me. But before I congratulate myself on egalitarian credentials, I was challenged by one answer she gave. There had been some discussion about the increase in narcissism, and Prof Pickett joked about a self-questionnaire to identify it which asks if you think you’d run the world better than it is currently run. So someone asked her what she would do if she ran the world, though she modified her horizons and only answered for this country. Are you ready? She said she would abolish all private education so that absolutely everyone would go to a state school, and she would introduce inheritance tax at close to 100%. I don’t feel like such a radical socialist now!

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.

Some really good thoughts here on how we move from charity to justice

Can Cook - The Food Campaign


Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice….Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation.

Nelson Mandela

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The challenge to be with

I found myself very challenged by the lecture on Wednesday last week, and my mind was busy turning the ideas over. Writing up my notes in my previous blog helped me to think it through and reflect on my own experience.

I do spend a lot of time ‘being for’ talking about language and values, on twitter, facebook and right now on my blog, without any interaction with those in need. Though in my defence, I noticed that our speaker also carefully avoided the stereotypes and diminishing language which he described in the ‘being for’ response.

However, I do think that the model we used in the CMA debt advice service is more about ‘working with’ than ‘working for’. It is good to be reminded that ‘being with’ is so important and to value more this aspect of what we do.  Wells talked about how food banks are great because they enthuse people and create energy round the project to bring people together to act. And while we are ‘working with’, we create the space to build relationships and networks, and be with people.

However, I’m too impatient to be with people only one at a time! I was also intrigued by the question about how to translate these ideas into a social policy. In the Q&A session, there was a discussion about care being packaged into 15 minute chunks, and this is a clear example of how being with would be much more satisfactory for all concerned. People being cared for want to be with people rather than just the tick-box checklist of bath, pills, lunch etc.

So I am challenged to be with my kids, my family, and to value being with my clients. The church also can be a model of community and communion, being with people. It is the fraternity, the relationship, the community which is our goal, everything else is how to get there. After all, what is worship all about if it is to just spend time being with God?

So I can take this on board and apply it to my own life, and the church can model it, but how do we pass it on? Is it about valuing people over things – whether there is scarcity or abundance we still need relationships. What do we value? How do we measure worth? How do we measure success? Or even, how do we measure the success of our projects designed to help the poor? It is a challenge to our materialistic economy to value something which can’t be divided up and contracted out, parcelled up and commodified.

So I think I will still be getting angry and going home and writing blogs! But I think my blogs need to be better informed because I have actually been with people and learnt from their wisdom.

Memorial lecture musings

One of the ideas that struck me from the lecture last Wednesday was the analysis that scarcity was not the fundamental problem of humanity. I’ve long been dissatisfied with capitalism as the model for our society because its values and goals seem so at odds with the values I believe would make a better society. So to say that scarcity is not the problem is to undermine the philosophy of capitalism, which is predicated on scarcity to create demand and therefore increase productivity and growth. Jim Wallis, in “Rediscovering Values” which I am just reading, says that we do not live with scarcity but with God’s abundance. Wells said that scarcity or otherwise is not even relevant – whether we have much or little, fundamentally poverty is in our isolation, and the solution lies in relationships.

At another point in the lecture, Wells talked about the difference between contract and covenant, where contracts have their place, but you don’t want to make a contract with someone to hold your hand when you die. Rather, you want that person to be someone you love. In this analysis, relationships can’t be bundled up and commodified. I interpret Wells’ analysis to suggest that capitalism and its search for wealth and economic growth will not alleviate poverty. Rather, community and relationships will. And, in a happy tie-in with my own research, these are two of the intrinsic goals and self transcendent values identified by Common Cause as being associated with engagement with issues such as climate change and global poverty.

Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture

Last night I went to the Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture at Liverpool Hope, given by Rev Dr Sam Wells, from St Martins-in-the-Fields. It was profound, challenging and moving. I have tried to write up my notes below, though inevitably it will be subject to my own bias and interpretation and miss lots of stuff out!

We started with metaphors of poverty, which dragged me right in as I’ve done a lot of thinking about how metaphors shape the way we see the world and consequently our behaviour. Wells divided his suggested metaphors into two – deficit and dislocation. The first deficit metaphor identifies poverty as desert, were the problem is seen as one of lack of resources, and the solution is to provide more resources. The second metaphor is poverty as defeat. The understanding is that some win and some lose, the losers having been dealt a poor hand or not having made the most of their opportunities. In this metaphor, tax and welfare make things worse by reducing motivation and effort to win. The third metaphor sees poverty as a dragnet, a trap like a cat flap, which you can fall into but then can’t get out.

Wells then turned to dislocation metaphors for poverty. Firstly poverty as dungeon or prison. Here, poverty is almost seen as sin and people are held in by those with power around them, or like a prison that people put themselves in through laziness or recklessness. His second dislocation metaphor was poverty as disease, where poverty is seen as not having a human cause, but does have a human remedy. It can be ‘picked up’ from those around us and the problem lies in relationships and society, and can even afflict the rich. (This reminded me of the thesis of “The Spirit Level”, that inequality detrimentally affects all parts of society, not just the poor.) The final suggested metaphor was poverty as desolation, which seems to focus more on symptoms than causes. It suggests a state of having not trusting relationships, where people are vulnerable to exploitation from those around them.

In summary, deficit metaphors focus on lack of resources, while dislocation metaphors focus on a breakdown of relationships. Each suggests different solutions are appropriate to the problem.

Wells then moved onto an analysis of what is fundamentally wrong with the human condition – what is the fundamental problem of human existence? Wells’s thesis is that our culture believes our fundamental problem to be mortality, or more widely, to be limitation. Our culture celebrates anyone who can overcome limitation, from athletes to scientists, in medicine and in technology. This is described as seeking our freedom and is packaged and commodified as creating choice. The deficit metaphors work with this view of mortality as the fundamental problem and see poverty as a constraint on freedom (like Amartya Sen?).

But Wells questioned this assumption and asked us to consider the possibility that mortality is not the fundamental problem but rather isolation. Then, the solution would not lie in what do not have, but in what we do have – each other. To illustrate this, Wells asked us why Christians want people to be saved. In essence it is to save people from hell. But what is so great about heaven? It is not so much about eternal being, but about being with, otherwise we would just be alone forever, which is surely a definition of hell. There is no value in being unless it is being with. If isolation is our problem, then the solution lies in the restoration of relationships and community. The church, Wells said, calls this ‘communion’. The dislocation metaphors of poverty work with this view of the fundamental problem of humanity, and see the problem as the breakdown of relationships, the under-use and abuse of one another, rather than the problem of scarcity.

How, then, does all this inform how we engage with poverty. Wells gave us as an example an encounter with a homeless person in Trafalgar Square. He suggested that there are four models of engagement with poverty, four ways to react. One reaction would be to get the person off the street into accommodation and employment by supporting shelters, lobbying politicians and providing food and clothing. This model he called ‘working for’. The second response could be to come alongside the person, take them to a shelter, find out their needs and point them in the direction of services which could meet those needs. This he called ‘working with’. A third response would be to take the person for coffee, share conversation and be genuinely interested in that person and their views, especially their expertise in their own experience. This, he said, was ‘being with’. Finally, the response could be to get angry and go home and write a blog about the injustice and to rail against the dehumanising language used to diminish homeless people. This he called ‘being for’. I spend a lot of time being for!

Later, Wells went on to say that each model has its place and brings about good things. But at this point in his talk he discussed some of the short-comings of each model. Working for tends to be the default option, the professionals’ model. It wants to fix the problem and sees things in terms of solutions. Being for is similar to working for but tends to see the problem as being fixed by someone else – “something must be done”. The trouble with being or working for is that it is not necessary to actually interact at all with (in this example) the homeless person.  The homeless person is not engaged in finding the solution and anyway, who wants to view themselves as a problem?

Working with and being with actually involve interaction with the person who is homeless. The homeless person is at the heart of the interaction and there is a recognition that there is no transformation without agency. However, even working with is still looking at ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. Being with doesn’t start with a problem, unless that problem is me scurrying passed the homeless person in Trafalgar Square. It starts with wonder and abundance, recognising the other person as the source of my salvation, and not with absence and what we have not. It is not about fixing but receiving, not assuming a script imposed from elsewhere, but actually talking and sharing about what is really important to the other person [and to myself, I want to add, if this is a genuine conversation].

Wells then brought us to a theological reflection and anchor for all of this, which I didn’t manage to capture all of in my notes. He started by asking what God’s view of the world might be – a problem to be solved, or a gift to enjoy – deficit or dislocation. Was the incarnation to fix our mortality or to overcome our isolation? The incarnation itself demonstrates that it is not enough for God to be for us, God’s purpose is to be with us, dwelling among us. Christ is with us even to the extent that it meant, momentarily, that he was not with God. Wells looked at Jesus as a model for us. Jesus worked with his disciples, teaching, encouraging, demonstrating. And he worked for us on the cross. But this amounts to only 10% of his life. What about the other 30 years in Nazareth, glossed over in the Gospels, which Jesus spent simply being with us. The incarnation echoes creation and anticipates heaven.

It is easy to default to working for when we want solutions, to right wrongs. Wells described being on the receiving end of ‘working for’ as diminishing and humiliating, but that at times we are happy to submit to the humiliation at the hands of the expert in order to address a crisis, giving the example of submitting to a dentist when we have toothache. But beyond the crisis, he maintained, we need to be with. Working with is closer to God’s way, increasing agency and partnership like Jesus did with his disciples. But being with releases each individual – the centre of the church’s mission is being with the stranger.

Wells described the modern world as the tussle between liberty and equality – both noble but ultimately only means to an end. Where (for want of a less masculine word) is fraternity? It is neglected but should be our goal. Sadly and ironically, initiatives which start with our deficit and assume mortality is our problem lead to solutions which increase isolation. Poverty is not the absence of money or power, but of relationship breakdown, which is what diminishes human dignity. Working for is rather like building a better world without becoming better people. We need to be with people and restore relationships. Sometimes this is hard because it is painful and costly as we face up to our own need. The example that touched me was of a parent with a child. It is easy for parents to cook dinner, tie shoelaces and pack school bags, however much we moan about it – working for. But how much harder it is to notice that there is something not right and sit with the child for half an hour while they can’t articulate what happened in the playground, and to be with the child until the words come and the problem can be brought into the open and the tears flow.

Powerhouse or Wendy House?

Powerhouse or Wendy House?

Print more money and give it to the poor?

Reading the article linked to above reminded me of something my kids keep saying – in order to help poor people, why doesn’t the government print more money and give it to the poor? As an adult, it’s easy to laugh at this naivety, but why not? After all, the government does print more money (so-called quantitative easing), and the stated aim of printing this money is for it to reach the economy to stimulate growth. So why not cut out the middleman (the banks) and put it straight into the pockets of people who will spend it. That way it goes straight into the economy. Suddenly, the idea seems not naïve but genius!

I can already here the arguments against taking this seriously, not least worry about what people might spend the money on if left to think for themselves (heaven forbid citizens of this country being allowed to think for themselves!).  But for the economic argument to work, it really doesn’t matter what it gets spent on as long as it gets spent (I think an economic case could be made either way for spending on criminal activity). No, the real argument is revealed at the end of the article. A quick look at government policy affecting the poor reveals the contempt in which they are held. And that’s why this genius idea will remain for ever only a child’s simple way of looking at the world.

We plough the fields and shatter



I can’t get along with the idea that religion and politics don’t mix. I’m convinced that my political and social beliefs are inextricably bound up in my religious beliefs. Not to say that only Christians share my politics, but that, for me, I can’t be a Christian any other way. However, I’d like to untangle those connections, and one of the reasons for starting this blog was to create the space to do so.  So far, I think I’ve only skirted round the issue, but Harvest Festival has given me a theological concept to make a start.

Most obviously, the Harvest Festival is about thanksgiving for the harvest safely gathered in.  This means it carries with it an element of doubt that there might not have been a harvest or not safely gathered. Here in urban Liverpool, there isn’t a great deal of gathering in going on! But where it does happen, the experience seems to be one of abundance. Any of my friends who have a harvest of any kind from garden or allotment have social media feeds full of freezing, jamming and chutney making. There is too much to deal with all at once. Even my limited harvesting is one of abundance – gathering blackberries with my kids from the edges of the local park. We had contributed nothing to the welfare of these bushes, but the hedgerows were dripping with berries. I have similar thoughts in the spring when the flowering cherry trees are in bloom. The blossom is so beautiful and so abundant. But it lasts only a few days before it droops then browns and falls. So much creative energy, so much beauty, and so fleeting before it disappears. It seems so wasteful, so profligate.  This is the nature of God’s provision, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

Jim Wallis (Rediscovering Values, Hodder, 2010) suggests this understanding of the abundant provision of God challenges the market’s fear of scarcity. The capitalist economy rests on creating demand and stoking our inadequacies and insecurities in order to sell us more stuff. In the face of the abundance of a loving God, demand dissipates.  Wallis writes “the first commandment of The Market, ‘There is never enough,’ must be replaced by the dictum of God’s economy; namely, there is enough, if we share it”. This is the challenge to us, to share what we have, for the benefit of all instead of the individualist pursuits driven by the market. A society built around sharing the abundance of God with one another without an endless seeking after material wealth might even shatter our capitalist economy. 

Daily male(factor)

I really like this succinct post which captures how and why the language we use is so important. Time to realise it is used to mislead, misinform, seduce and control…

Nick Baines's Blog

I wonder if the Daily Mail has finally succeeded in opening the eyes of its apathetic readers to the true nature of its anthropology (that is, what they think is the intrinsic value or meaning of human beings in society).

The Miliband saga has intensified, with expressions of anger from some unlikely people.

What interests me most is how this feeds into a more general problem in the public discourse: the conscious and deliberate corruption of language. It is disingenuous of the Deputy Editor of the Mail to say in yesterday's Newsnight debate with Alastair Campbell that “headlines have to be read in conjunction with the text of the article” when the world and his wife knows (a) that headlines often mislead (deliberately?) and (b) that deliberate association goes beyond the literal text or juxtaposition.

Repeated use of simple phrases makes a powerful appeal to the subconscious that goes beyond…

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