3 Reasons Inequality Persists in Our Society (And What We Can Do About It)

Do you think the world is becoming a more equal place?
The answer to that question is more complicated than it sounds, and may depend on your own politics, the particular part of the world that you live in, and how you define inequality. For a communist, the idea that one person earns more money than another could count as inequality; but a capitalist might see it as unequal if two people earn the same amount of money even though one works twice as hard as the other. Some liberals would argue that relative wealth is not necessarily the most important marker of inequality, and that we should look at other factors such as rights, freedoms and status. To which the communist would most likely respond that differing rights and status all come back to wealth in the end anyway.
So one problem with assessing inequality is that a society that seems entirely equal by one measurement may have inequalities by another. Yet very few of us live in societies that anyone would claim are entirely equal. Across the world, there are differences in wealth and status based on race, gender, nationality, age, class, and countless other factors besides.
A plurality of British adults in a YouGov poll a few years ago said that they would prioritise reducing wealth inequality even if it came at an overall financial cost. So if we’re generally in favour of reducing inequality, why does it persist? It’s not because we’re bad people with a natural tendency to discrimination; as with so much to do with inequality, the answer is much more complicated than that.

1. Reducing inequality is not always a top priority

A man gives money to a homeless person.
Reducing inequality doesn’t often penetrate our fog of self-involvement.

In the poll mentioned above, British adults said that they wanted to reduce inequality even at a cost to overall wealth. But as soon as policies were suggested to them that would have that effect, such as an 80% top income tax rate, a global asset tax or an increase in inheritance tax, the majority were opposed (and in the case of inheritance tax, by a striking margin). Of course, it may be that they simply considered these to be bad policies that wouldn’t have the desired effect.
In general, though, even when people say they want to reduce inequality, the preferences they reveal in their voting patterns look quite different. It may be that the calculation the typical voter is making when they say that they want to reduce inequality is that they feel less well-off than average, so reducing inequality would make them richer relative to the general population. When they are confronted with a policy that they fear would make them poorer, they change their mind.
It may also be the case that to a typical voter, the gap between the richest and the poorest doesn’t matter all too much. If your pay is consistently increasing, does it matter all that much if the amount the CEO of your company gets paid has gone up by more? How much do you care about how many zeroes there are on the bank balance of the super-rich in your society, if you’re getting richer too? The answer in practice seems to be “not very much”, since this has been precisely the situation in many countries across the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, most notably the USA and China. Though nominally a Communist country, the Chinese authorities have been relaxed about the idea that as their country becomes steadily wealthier, inequality may increase; in the words of Deng Xiaoping in 1992, “Let some people get rich first”. That doesn’t sound too different from Peter Mandelson’s statement in 1998 that Tony Blair’s government was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (provided they paid their taxes).
All this changes, of course, in times of downturn when it’s not that everyone becomes richer and some just become richer faster, but instead that some become poorer while others still appear to be as rich as they were. Under those circumstances, inequality feels much more unfair – think about the wave of protest that happened across the world in the aftermath of the Great Recession, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement. These protests might have had other causes, but a sense that the poor were suffering while the rich prospered certainly didn’t help. Voter tolerance for inequality is much higher when things are going well.
But this state of affairs doesn’t just lead to inequality in terms of wealth. Wealth typically echoes and reinforces other inequalities in our society; when the rich get richer faster than the poor, these other inequalities may be exacerbated too as privileged groups become wealthier and, by extension, grow in social and political power. Restricting the amount of power that wealth grants can help tackle this, but tackling this reason for continued inequality is mostly about each society finding the right balance that works for its economy, political system, and citizens.

2. Inequality feels natural to us – until it doesn’t

A Victorian wedding.
Both Mr and Mrs Smith naturally accept that she is inferior…which is laughable today.

Imagine being a white, British man in 1800. Unless you were a very unusual thinker (such as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who held that “All inequality is a source of evil”), you would be confident in your complete superiority over just about everyone else on Earth. It was given to you to rule over “savages”, and for your wife and children to obey you in all things. It would be strange to think of this as a topic for discussion; it was simply the way of things. And what’s more, your wife, servants, children and everyone else at your command would probably agree with you.
Most of those unquestioned assumptions have now been thoroughly dismantled. But it shows how we often don’t question the inequalities in our society until they’re pointed out. One example is the idea of the social model of disability. A traditional model of disability takes it that people are disabled. Adaptations can be made, such as adding lifts to buildings where the keypad includes braille, cutting kerbs for wheelchair users, and assorted medical interventions. The social model of disability turns this on its head. In this view, the problem with a wheelchair user who can’t get up a flight of stairs lies not in their ability to move their legs, but in the decision of the architect who chose to install stairs instead of a ramp. The problem with a student who is visually impaired and unable to read their textbook isn’t with their eyes, but with the publisher who didn’t produce an audiobook version. You can undoubtedly think of further examples yourself.
The social model of disability has been criticised. Yet it illuminates how we perceive inequalities more generally. Do we see the person who is at the lower end of the inequality as inferior or merely disadvantaged? Switching from the former perspective to the latter brings a lot of inequalities to light which might otherwise have been ignored. Was the wife of our British man in 1800 less able to hold an intelligent conversation than him because she was inferior – or because the education system of the time never gave her a chance? Both the husband and the wife might have said the former; we would undoubtedly say the latter.
And there remain areas in our society that some would identify as unequal and in need of changing, while others would see them as natural. Stupid people earn less than more intelligent people – is that natural, or discrimination? Parents are allowed to tell their children what to do but their children may not get a say in most parts of their life, including the school they attend, the friends they spend time with and the clothes they wear – is that natural, or discrimination? A human can keep a hamster in a cage that it can never escape from – is that natural, or discrimination?
Most people in the 21st century would say that these are all natural, or at the very least, justified (and you might well think these examples are ridiculous). But not everyone agrees, and it may be that in 200 years’ time, we sound just like that man in the 1800s who thought himself so much better than his wife. Until opinions change and a new consensus forms, old inequalities – of whatever kind – persist. We can tackle inequalities by keeping an open mind and not necessarily accepting that something is right and natural simply because it’s the way that things have always been.

3. There are competing access needs

Two men working on a whiteboard.
Maybe you’re comfortable with classroom assessment, but your socially awkward friend my not be.

A real-life example of tackling inequality is the difficulty of assessing students at school. There are significant gaps in attainment among pupils at UK schools along lines of race, gender, family wealth and location within the country. Many of these differences are correlated (an obvious example is that pupils belonging to racial groups which are typically poorer, typically do worse at school), so let’s focus on one that isn’t: gender. It’s reasonable to assume that the family wealth of the average boy and the average girl is the same. But in 2012/13, following a trend that’s been established over several years and continues today, girls significantly outperformed boys in the standardised measure of getting 5 or more grades A*-C at GCSE (including English and Maths). 66% of girls got these grades compared with just 56% of boys. Assuming they’re equally capable, what can be done?
It’s clear that there are lots of different factors at play. But one thing that can be changed – and indeed, that has changed in more recent years – is the ratio of exams to coursework in assessing GCSEs. To generalise massively, girls do better at coursework; boys do better at exams. The more exam-based the assessment, then, the better boys will do – and assessments have moved more in the direction of exams.
But it’s not quite as simple as adjusting the exam to coursework assessment ratio until boys and girls are achieving the same grades. For one thing, the difference in coursework performance isn’t sufficient to explain the attainment gap. For another, increasing the amount of weighting given to exams also leads to worse performance by poorer pupils. The risk is that a potential inequality is cancelled out in one area – only to increase it in another. The worst performing group in the country is white, working-class boys, so there’s a clear danger of benefiting boys from wealthier families at the cost of boys from poorer families. Where to strike the balance is an impossible question to answer.
Competing access needs can even exist within a particular group. For instance, one person with autism might find it calming to hear a rhythmic sound, preventing them from feeling sensory overload (which can be overwhelming for people with autism, like being forced to stand next to a car alarm going off), while another autistic person might find that rhythmic sound causes their sensory overload. Or among trauma survivors, one person might find it beneficial to share all the details of the event that caused their trauma within their support group, while another person there might find those details trigger unbearable flashbacks of their own experiences.
Solving problems caused by competing access needs can seem impossible – as if there’s always someone who’s going to be disadvantaged. But all of the problems listed here have solutions; they’re just more complicated and long-term solutions. For the trauma survivors, the answer is probably going to two different support groups, where one encourages sharing experiences and the other doesn’t. For the autistic people, they could avoid being in the same space, or the person who would like to hear the rhythmic sound could wear headphones, or find a different way of soothing themselves. For the boys and girls sitting their GCSEs in the UK, it’s worth looking at the root causes of the problem: for example, the difficulties with sustained study that cause some boys to struggle with coursework, and the anxiety around exams that causes some girls to underperform in a more stressful exam environment. The persistence of inequality in our society can seem daunting and demoralising, but it’s important to remember just how much progress has already been made – we just need to take the next steps.
Images: victorian wedding; man helps homeless person;