7 March 2007

Defending the poor

Who will defend the rights of the poor within our political system? The yawning gap in terms of power within the economy represented by the increase in inequality is barely challenged by the three political parties that are granted access to the levers of political power in this country. Now that the Liberal Democrats are being taken more seriously they too have abandoned their policy of a minimal increase in the top rate of tax for the richest earners. This demand was always startlingly inadequate: the political demands of those who are pledged to represent the underprivileged are depressingly limited. Why the discussion over whether the top rate of tax should be 40%, 50% or 60% when the rich keep their advantage not through earning but through owning?

This inequality has damaging psychological consequences. There is understandable anxiety in the medical community surrounding the statistical evidence that those in professional occupations live considerably longer than those in manual occupations. Data from the Office for National Statistics indicate that men in social class I live 7.4 years longer than men in social class V; for women the difference is 5.7 years.[1] More surprisingly, US researchers have found that inequality is bad for life expectancy of all in a society, since the relationship they found between a measure of inequality across society as a whole (the Gini coefficient) and the life expectancy of that society remained after they had controlled for poverty. They called this finding the Robin Hood Index, suggesting that Robin Hood’s redistribution deserves the warmth it has always received. The authors conclude:

The paper suggests that that there is a relation between income distribution and life expectancy. It concluded that variations between states in the inequality of income were associated with increased mortality from several causes. Relative poverty, i.e. the size of the gap between the wealthy and less well off, seems to matter in its own right: the greater the gap between the rich and poor, the lower the average life expectancy. This association is independent of that between absolute income and life expectancy. Therefore it matters, not only how affluent a country is, but also how economic gains are distributed among its members.[2]

Jeremy Seabrook argues that what is so damaging about inequality under capitalism is that it is used to spur us to greater economic effort and to do this we must feel ashamed of our relative lack of affluence. Our desire to remove the shame of poverty is what generates our energy to engage in capitalism, to increase our monetary holdings, to ensure that we are on the winning side of the unequal distribution:

If at the earlier moment of industrialization the persistence of poverty could be explained by a productive capacity only rudimentarily established, such an excuse is no longer possible. It becomes clear, therefore, that the survival of poverty is essential for ideological and no material reasons. Indeed, the maintenance of a felt experience of insufficiency is essential to any capitalist version of development.[3]

[1] ONS (2002), Trends in Life Expectancy by Social Class 1972-1999 (London: SO), Tables 1-4.
[2] Kennedy, B.P., Ichiro, K., and Prothrow-Stith, D. (1996) ‘Income Distribution and Mortality: Cross Sectional Ecological Study of the Robin Hood Index in the United States’,. British Medical Journal, 312:1004-1007.
[3] Seabrook, J. (2001), Landscapes of Poverty, p. 4


  1. I used to think that this relationship was pretty strong too. Certainly there are good theoretical reasons to think that more inequality should lead to worse health.

    However, in a paper published in the Journal of Health Economics in January, Christopher Jencks and I found no relationship between inequality and mortality. I think it's fair to say that this is now the consensus in the literature (Angus Deaton has a terrific review of the health & inequality literature). The authors you cite are probably not the mainstream position.

  2. Thanks for that. I wonder if your findings were related to the way you chose to measure inequality?