How poor do the poor have to be before you care about inequality?

In the last few days a number of people have put forward their opinion that inequality doesn’t matter, and that relative poverty isn’t important. They argue that what matters isn’t relative incomes but the absolute incomes of the poorest. According to their straw man argument, anyone that objects to extreme inequality wants everyone’s income and circumstances lowered to the lowest common denominator, where everyone should be equally poor.

Never mind the fact that the evidence shows that more equal societies are healthier, with less crime and the IMF and OECD think that more equal societies might even be richer; the argument that inequality doesn’t matter doesn’t even work on its own terms.

Let’s start with the perspective on poverty. Those arguing that we shouldn’t be concerned about poverty in this country seem to believe that the “worst-off still have “plenty”” “all-too visible in the expensive trainers, kids’ bikes and other consumer gizmos often festooning low-income houses”. But maybe they should consider how poor they actually want people to be. The huge rise of foodbank usage in recent years shows the real levels of need seen across this country. Judging from these comments it seems that owning shoes and a mode of transport but not being able to afford hot meals regularly is having “plenty”.

This shows a complete failure of understanding on two levels. Firstly, shoes, bikes and TVs are irregular capital spending. They are investments that provide access to the rest of the world. If people chose not to buy shoes or bikes for their children, they would not be able to travel to school or play with friends, and they would still struggle to make ends meet. The largest elements of expenditure for poor households are rent, food and fuel. All regular and all far larger than any small one off spending. The poorest households spend the equivalent of £6.70 per week for their whole family on clothes and £1.80 TV, video or computers. Cutting these out won’t do much to help them meet the £77 per week on rent, £30 per week on food or £20 per week on fuel. All it will succeed in doing is making their life worse.

All this points to a deeper failure of understanding in their definition of ‘plenty’. Most people’s idea of plenty isn’t someone who can’t afford to heat their home, afford a winter coat, or pay for regular decent meals. This may seem like plenty when compared to Victorian squalor, but that in turn would have looked like plenty when compared to the poorest living in the dark ages. Absolute definitions of poverty are still based in some way upon relative standards, based on what we find acceptable for a dignified life. Unless people think for some reason we should perpetually benchmark poverty against Dickensian standards.

The most bizarre comments on inequality though have emerged from quotes from a new book by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. “First man: “How are your children?” Second man: “Compared to what?”” This example is forwarded by the latest inequality apologist to demonstrate the supposed absurdity of interest in inequality, but it actually points toward the truth of the matter.

If the first man had just described how his child was suffering from a serious medical condition, the second man is unlikely to respond by bemoaning the plight of his child suffering from a nasty cold. He would respond according to the context. This is because humans are inherently social and relative creatures. We judge ourselves and others based on our own social context. Suffering is relative and therefore poverty is relative. Inequality matters because it is a fundamental part of how we understand ourselves as human beings, to suggest otherwise is to deny reality.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor