Understanding Inequalities
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Understanding Inequalities

Stratification and Difference

Lucinda Platt

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Inequalities

Stratification and Difference

Lucinda Platt

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Bringing together the most recent empirical evidence and the latest theoretical debates, this fully revised new edition gets to grips with a broad range of inequalities in people's lives. Examining social class, gender, ethnicity, disability and migration status, it demonstrates how these play out in relation to education, health, poverty, neighbourhood and housing and how they cumulate across the life course. Richly illustrated with figures and concrete examples showing the distribution of life chances across social groups, the book demonstrates how people's lives are structured by inequalities across multiple dimensions.

Comprehensive topical chapters are framed by an exploration of the meaning and interpretation of inequalities and a discussion highlighting the important intersections between them. With new chapters on disability and international migration, this updated edition continues to provide a wide-ranging but detailed and theoretically sophisticated account of contemporary inequalities that will be invaluable to undergraduate and masters students alike.

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Chapter One

1.1 The importance of inequality

Within countries and across the world, individuals face very different life chances (Commission on Global Poverty 2016; Milanović 2016). They encounter inequalities of income and class, differences in health and life expectancy, and unequal access to education, housing, leisure and rights. And these inequalities differ systematically between low- and high-status groups, between those with valued skills and abilities, and between those who were born into more or less advantaged economic circumstances – whether of place, time or family circumstances (Dorling 2015; Dean and Platt 2016; Milanović 2016). Those who are the ‘lucky’ ones can look forward to longer, happier, healthier, more satisfying and highly respected lives, while the unlucky ones face costs. Inequalities derived from the social class into which you are born can mean, quite simply, having fewer years of life to live. Inequalities experienced by disabled people can mean reduced opportunities for achieving educational qualifications and consequently greater difficulties in obtaining employment. Inequalities associated with minority ethnicity or religion can increase the chances of being unemployed and of being in lower quality housing, and can result in higher chances of being the victim of violence. Gender inequalities can mean lower lifetime incomes for women and greater possibilities of being poor in old age. In addition, the inequalities faced by disabled people, ethnic minorities, women, and those from lower social classes can involve daily humiliations of being patronized, insulted, demeaned or denigrated. Such discrimination can cause psychological or emotional damage and impact self-perception, aspirations and overall engagement with society (Reay 2005). The impacts can be internalized as shame (Sayer 2005; Skeggs 1997) as well as resentment, anger and lack of self-worth. Inequalities mean some people having fewer or no choices to live their lives in ways that others take for granted. They matter.
If inequalities matter at the individual level, there are also strong arguments that they are bad for society and that unequal societies are bad for individuals, regardless of where they are placed in the social hierarchy. In The Spirit Level (2009), Wilkinson and Pickett enumerated the ills of inequality in its consequences for societies. As they graphically summarized: ‘Across whole populations, rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal compared to the least unequal societies. Similarly, in more unequal societies, people are five times as likely to be imprisoned, six times as likely to be clinically obese, and murder rates may be many times higher’ (ibid.: 176). In their work, these authors highlight the fact that inequality brings social costs. Other studies have emphasized the invidious effects of inequality on political participation and democratic processes, on social cohesion, and on the lives and livelihoods of populations (Marmot 2015).
This recognition that inequalities are of fundamental importance to both the welfare of societies and the wellbeing of individuals is the rationale for revealing, analysing and attempting to understand them. An investigation of inequalities is fundamental to grasping how people live, how they relate to and are treated by others, and how those relationships are maintained or altered. This is the motivation for this book. Describing and accounting for inequalities is the main focus of the chapters that follow. But, first, this introduction aims to provide some context and to outline some key conceptual issues in discussing inequality.

1.2 What do we mean by inequality?

Discussion of inequality has increased substantially in recent years. As inequality in many countries, including the UK, has grown over the last few decades (Stiglitz 2015; Jenkins 2016, 2017), increased attention has been paid to the reversal of the levelling of incomes in the decades following the Second World War and its implications (Atkinson et al. 2011). Similarly, attention to the accumulation of wealth and its consequences in Piketty's best-selling (2013) account of Capital in the Twenty-First Century has shown how wealth inequality has escalated and capital has become concentrated to a degree that approaches the levels not seen since before the First World War. There has been heightened recognition of the exceptional position of the ‘top 1%’, who are increasingly distant in economic and cultural terms from the other 99 per cent (Jenkins 2016; Dorling 2015; Anand and Segal 2017), while executive pay has reached exceptional levels (Piketty 2013; DiPrete et al. 2010). Influential researchers with years of accumulated knowledge and experience of analysing inequality have addressed themselves to broader audiences, considering not only the consequences of inequality for societies but also, in Atkinson's words, what can be done about it (Atkinson 2015; Stiglitz 2015).
At the popular level, the formation of groups such as ‘We are the 99 per cent’ has focused on that peculiarly privileged – and powerful – position of a small section of the community and has highlighted the implications of the size of the relative inequalities in economic position for a cohesive and democratic society. While the children of the rich benefit from intergenerational transmission of rewards, with wage stagnation, the living standards of the previously comfortable – the squeezed middle – have come under pressure (Machin 2016). Concern with inequality has in some contexts replaced concern with poverty or disadvantage as the ‘problem’ to be resolved.
At the same time a focus on global inequality has highlighted how the biggest inequalities are those between countries rather than those within countries (Milanović 2016), even if the tide may be beginning to turn, and the top 1 per cent (or some smaller share of them) are perhaps best seen as a global rather than a national phenomenon (Anand and Segal 2017). Yet the internationally equalizing forces of globalization are experienced as uneven in their benefits. In rich countries, globalization as well as the migration of those aiming to improve their life chances may be felt as threatening traditional livelihoods and as limits on the potential of those in rich countries to achieve the sorts of social mobility for themselves or their children that characterized the experiences of earlier generations (Stiglitz 2002). This anxiety about declining living standards or the challenges to a comfortable existence have been linked to the rise of populism in Europe and the US (Inglehart and Norris 2016). Thus questions of fairness within and between countries and generations, as well as between individuals and different groups, together with issues of who is affected – and how – and the potentially far-reaching consequences, are stimulated by these proliferating discussions of inequality. So what is at stake?
Inequality and its counterpart, equality, can refer to different concepts and to different understandings of the world. The term ‘inequality’ is deployed in diverse settings by a range of actors. It is both assumed as a fact of everyday life and denounced as an offence to a civilized society. Inequalities can be distinguished in terms of whether they are inequalities of opportunity, inequalities of outcome, inequalities of access or inequalities in entitlement, and they are also differentiated as to whether they are characterized as just or unjust, avoidable or unavoidable, ‘natural’ or artificially sustained. At the same time, these uses often merge or overlap, creating apparent contradictions or confusions or resulting in slippages that allow for different understandings of inequality to operate side by side. One person's equality is another's inequality. Inequality and the discussions and debates associated with it are underpinned by normative perspectives on human motivation and the way that society functions, perspectives which themselves are subject to re-creation as different discourses come to dominate and shape people's thinking (Foucault [1969] 1972). These discourses and the different meanings and uses of ‘inequality’ are the focus of the first part of this introduction, which looks forward to the ways they are employed in subsequent chapters. It focuses on discussions of inequalities within rather than between countries, though recognizing that the global context is also relevant, particularly when we come to consider migrant inequalities.
The first aim, then, is to describe how the terms ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ are used and to identify both the underlying concepts and literatures from which they derive and how they are reworked in practice. In particular, the intention is to highlight how commitment to equality may opera...

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