We must tackle the evils of inequality

President Barack Obama branded it 'the defining challenge of our time'. Picture: Getty
President Barack Obama branded it 'the defining challenge of our time'. Picture: Getty
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WHEN IT comes to inequality – at what point will we say enough? We estimate the three richest families in Scotland now own roughly the same wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population put together.

This stark comparison highlights the sheer scale of inequality in Scotland. Such an extreme gap is not only bad for the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country; there is increasing evidence that inequality actually hinders economic growth too.

Even global institutions like the International Monetary Fund are warning about the dangers posed by extreme inequality. As such, this is not only a problem for Scotland.

Across the UK, and indeed across the globe, wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated. Last year, the income of the richest 100 billionaires was enough to end poverty twice over. No wonder President Barack Obama branded it “the defining challenge of our time”.

As we countdown to the referendum on independence, people in Scotland are thinking about the sort of country they want to live in, regardless of the outcome. We believe the issue of inequality should feature within that debate.

Between now and polling day on 18 September, we’re asking Scots to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge both sides to tell them how they believe we can best tackle inequality.

As such, on 25 July, Oxfam Scotland hosted an event in Glasgow in which senior politicians from Yes Scotland and Better Together were challenged by an audience of 150 people.

There was a welcome acceptance that levels of inequality have reached unacceptable levels; that it undermines the fight against poverty; and that political action is now needed.

But why does inequality matter anyway? Doesn’t wealth trickle down so that everyone benefits? The evidence shows this is simply not the case.

Data revealed by the Scottish Government in June showed that 820,000 people in Scotland are living in poverty; that’s a rise of 110,000 on the previous year. Some 180,000 are children. Many people are forced to walk the bread line too – last year 71,000 people used Trussell Trust foodbanks alone – a five-fold increase.

All of this means that, as a society, we are failing far too many people. For us, like two sides of the same coin, poverty and inequality are inextricably linked; we don’t believe there can be a sustained end to poverty without challenging extreme inequality. The good news is that we can close the inequality gap.

We know that inequality arises because of our economic and political choices but we must move beyond recognising this to actually tackling it.

Globally, there’s an opportunity to ensure that reducing inequality is central to the development of the new Sustainable Development Goals for the post 2015 period.

But politicians at the UK and Scottish levels cannot simply stand aside. Oxfam doesn’t take a view on the outcome of the referendum but we are clear that we need policies on work and wages that allow people to provide for their families.

For those who are unable to work, or who can’t find employment, we need adequate social protection.

We need to ensure that our public services, particularly health and education, are strong tools in challenging inequality.

But we also need a fairer redistribution of resources. The tax system must ensure those who can most afford to contribute pay their fair share.

And crucially, as we seek to tackle inequality the voices of people living in poverty must be heard because inequality isn’t just about money – it’s also about power, influence and life chances.

Here in Scotland, a boy born in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas has a life expectancy that’s 14 years below boys born in the least deprived areas.

And this is transmitted through generations.

Women are impacted by inequality worst of all. Around the world, women make up 70 per cent of those living in poverty.

We must recognise that inequality harms everyone, and that tackling it will benefit us all. Momentum is growing, but political rhetoric is no longer enough.

That’s why we will continue to work with our partners, allies and supporters to make sure politicians demonstrate the bold and courageous leadership that we all know is needed.

• Jamie Livingstone is head of Oxfam Scotland, www.oxfam.org.uk