Tackling inequality benefits the whole of our society, and must be done through policy change

Oxfam's report explores the negative consequences inequality creates for everyone in society. Picture: Esme Allen
Oxfam's report explores the negative consequences inequality creates for everyone in society. Picture: Esme Allen
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Reform is needed at all levels to ‘even it up’, says Ryan McQuigg

The gap between the rich and the poor is extreme and growing. Over the last 30 years we have seen a global inequality explosion, and Scotland has felt it too. Earlier this year, Oxfam revealed that just 85 people have the same wealth as half the people on our planet.

This stark figure tapped into a worldwide awakening on this issue. We have seen calls for action from a range of leaders, from the pope and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the billionaire Warren Buffett and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund.

That is why it is particularly timely that Oxfam has published the global report, Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality.

It demonstrates that inequality is spiralling out of control, with seven out of ten people now living in countries where the gap between the rich and poor has grown in the last 30 years. The report also reveals a shocking contradiction: since the financial crisis the number of billionaires has more than doubled, whilst more than a million mothers have died in childbirth for want of decent health services.

Crucially, the evidence clearly indicates that today’s extremes of inequality are threatening to set the fight against poverty back by decades. The world has seen huge progress in the fight to end extreme poverty in the past two decades, with millions more people gaining access to healthcare and education and approximately 150 million fewer men and women going hungry. However, inequality seriously threatens to undermine, and in some cases reverse, this progress. We simply cannot allow that to happen.

Oxfam’s report also explores the negative consequences inequality creates for everyone in society, rich as well as poor. Unequal countries have higher levels of crime, higher infant death rates, higher rates of mental illness, higher incidence of drug use, higher secondary school drop-out rates, have higher rates of homicide and imprison a larger proportion of their population.

Despite this, some maintain that extreme inequality is inevitable.

Oxfam disagrees and believes that with the right policy choices we can reverse inequality. Many agree, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz, who endorsed our report, calling it “a timely reminder that any real effort to end poverty has to confront the public policy choices that create and sustain inequality”.

Here in Scotland, Oxfam calculates the three richest families have the same wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population. Poverty levels are rising – one in five children in Scotland lives in poverty and half of working-age adults in poverty live in a household where at least one person is in employment, meaning work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty.

So it is right that inequality and how to tackle it was an important theme of the debate surrounding the independence referendum, as people discussed what kind of country we want to live in. And since the referendum, it has sometimes seemed as if there is a battle between political parties as to who is most committed to combating inequality head on. We are pleased that the motion in support of our report at the Scottish Parliament tabled by Ken MacIntosh MSP received cross-party support.

But while they are welcome, calls for action – no matter how loud they are or from which influential quarters they come – are not enough. We need policy change, and we will continue to put pressure on all politicians until this change is realised.

There is no single silver bullet.

But Oxfam’s Even It Up report includes several proposals which could help us narrow the gap between the wealthiest people in our society and the rest

In terms of the tax burden, too much of it is falling on ordinary people rather than the richest companies and individuals. This requires reform at the national and international level, as well as at the individual and the corporate level. Governments need to put an end to the fragmented global rules and tax loopholes which reward those who avoid their civic obligation while the poorest are often left footing the bill.

It is also crucial to reform work and wages, including challenging skyrocketing executive pay alongside poverty wages and increasing minimum wages towards living wages, so that people receive a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.

Women’s rights must also be at the heart of any attempt to tackle inequality: economic policy must tackle economic inequality and gender inequality together.

At home and abroad, we need to even it up. And for that, we need urgent political action.

Ryan McQuigg is public affairs manager at Oxfam Scotland