Why inequality matters

IMG_1269“The people will always forget” was a significant line in the documentary The Divide which I saw this weekend as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. In the film the line refers to the belief repeated by those to blame for the sub prime mortgage crash in the US, the bankers and financiers, who led us into the Global Financial Crisis and then expected us to bail them out. It’s an assumption that one could well believe our politicians make on a regular basis when taking some of the decisions they do – it’s ok they’ll forget about it when it comes to voting! It’s also an assumption that means we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past and that potentially stops us from addressing many of today’s issues and concerns. Which brings me to the subject of this discussion – the increasing levels of inequality in the UK and the growing divide between top and bottom.

The Divide catalogues the stories of different individuals in the UK and US just trying to get on in life. It highlights all too easily the increasing divide between those that ‘have’ and those that don’t. It illustrates the growing extent to which many of us are perhaps mistakenly driven by money and consumerism, by keeping up with our peers or striving to do better than them, and aspiring for things that are, in the end, unlikely to make us any happier. The main message of the film is based on the book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, first published in 2009, but becoming ever more pertinent as time goes on. One of the most important points that the book makes is that inequality affects all of us. The problems are not just confined to the poor, the effects are seen across all aspects of society. Income inequality is a social pollutant because it spreads and everyone is worse off in a more unequal society.

The film illustrated many relevant issues that we are beginning to see the impact of in the UK, but in this post I’m just going to pick up on a couple of them that I think are becoming ever more relevant, that is, the impact of zero hours contracts and the growth of gated communities.

The use of zero hours contracts has become more prevalent in the UK in recent years across a range of sectors. Whilst some in government have tried to argue that it suits both workers and employers, the human impact of these contracts is illustrated particularly well by the film. If you don’t know how many hours you will be working in any particular week how can you budget for rent, food, bills etc? Imagine the levels of stress this type of contract could impose on you from day to day. You don’t know when you will be needed or for how long, so you don’t know what time you need to go in to work, if at all. You don’t know what you will earn in a week, so how can you plan ahead? The insecurity and uncertainly this creates is huge. Imagine having to live with that, even as a single person, but what if you have children and have to plan for their lives too, how does that work? In New Zealand this form of contract has been banned altogether (by a centre-right government), perhaps we could learn something from them?

The concept of gated communities has been around for some time now, with many more at a massive scale in the US, but something that is also creeping into the UK. In the US it’s a way of creating a sanitised community, where white people can feel safe surrounded by other white people, protected by armed guards at the entrance to their ‘community’. The community in the film had its own golf course, lake, play areas and parks and was characterised by large individual houses in their own plot of land. It’s a community that to many would look and feel like ‘prison’ but which in the US is something to aspire to. In the film these places came across as very exclusive, a place to live where people felt safe, but also where people felt isolated. There was in fact little sense of community in evidence, with estate agents promoting the place as lovely and quiet and where you won’t see your neighbours. That’s not a community! In the UK these types of gated community are happening, not on the scale of the US, but they’re there to make people feel safe, so people can surround themselves with other people who have money and status. To me it would feel like a prison, where you have to sign in visitors and go through guard gates just to get home, and where the diversity that makes our communities so rich and fascinating is totally missing. Let’s hope we choose to learn less from the US and focus more on the innovative and creative approach of our European and Scandinavian neighbours.

This point on who we learn from is an interesting one, which was picked up during the discussion with Kate Pickett after the film. It seems the devolved administrations of the UK are more likely to look to Scandinavia, The Netherlands and Germany for inspiration, when it comes to tackling inequality, than the UK Parliament as a whole, where sadly, all to often we look to the US for ideas.

From "The Spirit Level"

From “The Spirit Level”

That is the US where health and social inequalities are worse than anywhere else and where income inequalities are at their most extreme. There are many lessons to learn from elsewhere but let’s please make sure we are looking in the right direction. For example, in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, they are looking at paying citizens a basic income and in Bhutan a Gross National Happiness Framework was introduced to replace measures based on GDP. 

Inequality destroys empathy” that’s why whilst inequality does of course matter, it doesn’t matter how you achieve greater equality. There are a range of many different measures and policies from across the political spectrum that can work. The key is to do something about top and bottom levels of pay to create greater income equality because as Kate Pickett put it “every action we take individually matters and can make a difference”.

The invisibility of homelessness

IMG_3362 The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.

In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.

In one talk I attended the presenter set out the extent to which homelessness has risen in recent years, in Bristol and nationally. The statistics make depressing reading, 90% increase in Bristol in the last 3 years and with the promise of more cuts to services, changes to social rented housing and benefits, this is likely to get worse. Equally shocking is the number of ex-servicemen who are sleeping on our streets, up to 1 in 3 of all homeless according to Crisis. The reasons for this are many and varied but one of the common themes is the feeling of shame associated with being in that position and the reluctance to seek help.

As a result of taking part in all these talks and discussions, about social inequality, homelessness, and poverty I found myself seeing my own city, Bristol, in a different way. I started to reflect once more about how I experience the city compared to others and how I take certain things for granted. On my way to and from some of these talks, at the Watershed in central Bristol, I walked past a young person wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a dog for company, several times. He was sleeping alongside a bar and outside the Bristol Green Capital unit, where hundreds of people must have walked past him all day long, and largely ignored his existence. The irony of the situation was one of the things that made me stop and think – I’d just come from a discussion about homelessness, where we had talked about why people sleep on the streets, frequently don’t ask for help and see themselves outside of society. We talked about our reaction to these people, how we ignore them and fail to even see them. We’d been talking about making Bristol a place for everyone, where opportunity and hope are part of what makes Bristol great. But when confronted with a homeless person, we walk on by, pretending not to see.

This whole debate then reminded me about a situation I found myself in a few years ago in an area of Bristol I know well and have walked through for many years. There was a young man, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, just gently asking passers by if they could spare a little cash to help him out. Most people were ignoring him, but then the chap walking along just in front of me stopped and shouted at the man on the bench, berating him for begging and telling him to get a job. The young man (we’ll call him Greg for now) looked stunned and didn’t respond, other people seemed to speed up their walking and move on as quickly as they could. At the time my first inclination was to walk on quickly and ignore this, after all what’s it got to do with me? Then I thought about it some more and I hesitated, then stopped. The shouty man had moved on by then, thankfully. So I sat down next to Greg on the bench and asked him if he was ok (quite possibly a really stupid question), but he responded with a grimace and then a smile, saying that he had been worried things would turn nasty, that he would be attacked and was just glad the shouty man had gone. He thanked me for stopping and was incredibly polite.

We got chatting, I stayed there for well over an hour talking to him (after I’d popped round the corner to get us both a hot drink and a snack). He seemed to want to talk, so I just listened, I was concerned not to ask too many questions but was equally curious about why he was in the situation he was. So, as ‘Greg’ explained to me, he was an ex-serviceman, invalided out with PTSD, his partner had left him and he was alone, without a job and without anywhere to live. He’d tried to get a job but because of the PTSD he found it hard to adapt and fit in sometimes, as he put it, his temper and depression occasionally got the better of him. So he’d come back to Bristol, which is where he’d grown up, and moved around the parks and open spaces, sleeping out most of the time, begging for money to buy food and surviving day to day. He was articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and ashamed of his situation. He blamed no one but himself for this, although he did admit that he thought there should be more support from the armed forces for people like him, at the point when they are discharged as well as later on. All he wanted was a chance – a chance to prove himself again, to get a job, to do something worthwhile, to make him feel proud and valued. It was difficult to get up and walk away from our discussion, to leave him there on the bench, open to abuse but mostly invisible to everyone, but that’s what I had to do in the end.

I often wonder what became of Greg, as I never actually saw him again. The situation left me feeling powerless but also ashamed that we as a city and a country don’t do more to help those who have put their lives on the line for us, and ashamed and disappointed that our automatic response is often to pretend they don’t exist. Behind every homeless person on our streets is a story, often a depressing, sad and complex story. I’ve heard politicians and policy makers say that some of these people don’t want to be helped, as if that is something that excuses from trying. Sorry but I just don’t believe that, no one chooses to live like that, on the streets, in the cold and the rain, at constant risk of violence and abuse. There are many different reasons why people may refuse the help offered, or not feel able to accept or even seek out help. Maybe they just don’t want to be helped in the way we are offering, maybe they need a very different type of help and support, or maybe they just feel we don’t actually care that much or that they’re not worth it?

The challenge for me, and many others, is working out what we can do to help, who are the people that can take the decisions that will prove decisive and life changing for homeless people and how we can raise the profile of this very difficult and complex issue. A good starting point are the many charities that do help homeless people, such as Crisis and Shelter, as well as those that focus on helping ex-servicemen who are having difficulty adjusting to life after the forces, such as Rock2Recovery. But surely more can and should be done?

In a wealthy and prosperous city like Bristol homelessness should be a thing of the past. Instead of which it’s actually increasing, it’s getting worse! We have some excellent charities in Bristol and nationally providing some outstanding services to homeless people and ex-servicemen, but still the problem exists and is increasing. Someone at the Bristol Mayor’s Annual Lecture asked if we could become the first city to ensure no ex-servicemen were left to sleep on our streets. An excellent question and a superb ambition. If anywhere can do it, then surely Bristol can?