Great stuff goes on helping people in extreme poverty to transform their lives, but we still haven’t eradicated poverty. Why? This fascinating article suggests it might help if we asked better questions, so that we get better answers to the problem.
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!
I have to declare my bias at the start of this piece. I look at the policies of this Conservative-led coalition government and I’m shocked and appalled at how they ride rough-shod over the weak and vulnerable, caring nothing for communities or the environment. But sometimes I’m even more shocked at how other people don’t see it this way! The same welfare changes which horrify me are viewed by others as perfectly fair and reasonable. How can this be?
Many will say, and I believe them, that this is down to the way the policies have been framed, and the language and stories used in the media. So those who claim benefits are painted as scroungers and shirkers, while on the other side of this divide we have the hard-workers who deserve better. Once this is our context, then Conservative policies make sense.
Therefore, if the Left wants to gain support for different policies, it cannot counteract the argument using the same frames, it must change the frames of our conversation. I don’t think it has had much success at this, not least in part because it is not always easy to come up with alternative frames. I came across this article from nef, which outlines some of the frames used by the Right, and some suggestions for alternative frames for Labour to start to tell its own story and take control of its own discourse, instead of always responding to the Tory narrative.
So, I thought I’d look at Ed Milliband’s conference speech and see what frames he was using. Zoe Williams got there first, and in her piece, she also puts forward some of the dominant frames from the Right which Labour needs to avoid. Tom Crompton has done the same in more detail about a previous speech. But I’ve had a go anyway, to see whether the speech is stuck in someone else’s discourse framing, or is beginning to find its own way.
As Zoe Williams points out, there are still Conservative frames running through, sticking to the ‘transactional’ frames with phrases such as “some people are getting something for nothing”, and many references to the “cost of living crisis” and the “housing crisis”. Most disappointingly of all, he doesn’t just stick with the ‘no alternative to austerity’ and ‘dangerous debt’ frames, but accepts them as true, saying “we’re going to have to stick to strict spending limits to get the deficit down. We’re not going to be able to spend money we don’t have”. Although, confusingly, he does also use the ‘austerity is a smokescreen’ frame as he says “the cost of living crisis isn’t an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy, it is his economic policy”. But for these parts of his speech, Ed Milliband hasn’t broken away from the Tory narrative.
However, the biggest strength in the speech’s framing comes with the ‘Big guys and little guys’ frame, worth spelling out in full here. “There are two types of people in Britain, the little guys who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and power and play by their own set of rules.” The speech is full of this. Full of “people working hard for longer for less”, people who have “made the sacrifices but haven’t got the rewards”, working people who are “unable to afford to bring up their family”. There’s a lot of talk about “standing up to vested interests” and some specific examples such as Rupert Murdoch, and land developers who don’t develop their land. He also talks about the big guys, or the Tory’s “friends at the top” as he calls them. He talks about “a government that fights for you”, with “the strength to stand up to the strong, to powerful interest” and spells out some of those who play by their own rules such as “shady employment practices” or the big 6 energy companies.
Some of this framing links with another frame suggested in the article which depicts the economy as being in need of stability and reform so as to be useful. He doesn’t go so far as to call the economy a ‘casino economy’ but does highlight how “the link between the growing wealth of the country and your family finances [has been] broken” and talks about the need to “reset the market”. He makes the link between the need for reforming the economy with the ‘Big guys and little guys’ frame when he talks about the “recovery for the few” and says “They used to say a rising tide lifts all boats, now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts”.
There is some use of the ‘time for renewal’ frame, with phrases like “we have to rebuild anew”, “turn the page”, accepting “responsibility for the next generation” and “a Britain we rebuild together”, but it is not a frame which is strongly developed throughout the speech. His key phrase “Britain can do better than this” does not strongly tie in with any of the frames suggested in the article. It seems closest to the ‘treading water’ frame, suggesting we are not making much progress, without using the visual imagery of treading water. But it does also imply that this need not be the case, and that collectively, we can make things better, which helps to connect with values of community and relationships.
So, in some areas the speech is still grounded in ‘transactional’ frames and still accepts the ‘austerity’ frame, even while arguing against it. It is built around the ‘big guys and little guys’ frame, and this is the one which comes across most strongly to me. There is some framing around renewal, and resetting the casino economy, but not much based on the other suggested frames. The speech also makes lots of use of stories to get its message across, which helps set the context of policies much better than facts and figures. There is still room for argument about whether the narrative suggested by nef is the one to go for. But in his speech, Ed Milliband is beginning to tell a new story, and create Labour’s own narrative.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has created quite a stir with his comments about payday loan company Wonga. This is my attempt to process my positive feelings about the fact that he has spoken out about this issue, alongside other feelings of discomfort about what he said.
I agree with the Archbishop when he says that we are not aiming to “legislate” Wonga out of business. Some kind of outright ban on companies like this is not a helpful solution. For people on the most precarious of incomes, this kind of credit is often the only credit they can get. And while it might be nice to suggest that people should save up for the things that they need, unexpected outlays (such as fixing a broken down boiler), by definition, cannot be planned for, even if saving were possible.
This does not rule out some legislation which would be helpful. Church Action on Poverty, along with MP Stella Creasy, have long campaigned for a cap on interests rates and charges and greater transparency when loans are agreed, as well as data-sharing between companies so that people can improve their credit rating and access to mainstream credit.
So while people need alternative means of borrowing money, it is great to hear the Archbishop argue that we need to expand Credit Unions, and offer the Church of England as a resource for this. And it’s clear that this is not going to happen overnight, so while Credit Unions are growing, we should continue to campaign to make payday loans better for the people who use them. For me, the worst thing about these type of lenders is the way advertise themselves. I loathe the new Wonga adverts, which normalise and sanitise a way of borrowing money which could be considered extortion. But worse is the way that people are bombarded with offers of money over and over again, without any clear explanation of what it will cost to repay.
So what’s my problem? I agree we shouldn’t ban Wonga and its like, although I think some legislation would be helpful. I agree that we should expand Credit Unions and think the church is a great resource to help do this. I think my problem is with the word “compete”. This leaves the debate firmly in the transactional frame. Yes, I know we are talking about money and debt, but the debate could be framed in terms of people instead.
Competing with payday lenders legitimises their business and puts the Church of England and Credit Unions in the marketplace. While this is a fair description of the situation on the surface, it does not deal with why the Archbishop got involved. Clearly it is not because he thinks the Church of England should be making money in this market. Rather, the church sees that people are in need, and they are suffering because of their indebtedness to payday lenders or lack of borrowing options. Churches up and down the country see this need on a daily basis, and their call to show the love of God demands that action is taken. It is not enough to feed needy people through Foodbanks, but there must be a call to change the structures that cause people to need this help in the first place. I believe the church is called, not to compete with Wonga, but show a radical alternative. To show love, and in doing so, to change the rules, to treat people with fairness and equality, and not as people whose needs make them easy to exploit. In short, I think the church should love (other people and so put) Wonga out of business.