Inequality is root cause of poverty

Inequality is root cause of poverty 

Laurence Demarco
Regeneration & Renewal

Now and again there emerges a regeneration academic who truly understands the need to respect, enable and empower communities.

One such example is David Donnison, emeritus professor in Glasgow University’s department of urban studies. To mark his 80th birthday last October, he gave a public lecture in which he reflected on the way his field of work had evolved in post-war Britain. Starting in 1945, he traced how the welfare state ultimately failed in its brave mission to end poverty – but he struck an optimistic note worth sharing.

Donnison suggests that our historic concern with poverty – interpreted sometimes humanely, sometimes punitively – has shifted from the welfare state’s original health and education ideals to concerns about inequality, social justice, social inclusion, human rights and social capital. He identifies four new influences that he believes will, in the long run, prove as important as those that followed the 1945 election.

First, is the ‘happiness’ factor: people who recognise that subjective well-being is not achieved by simply getting more possessions – that it depends more on our living standard compared with that of others.

Second, says Donnison, is the ‘environmental’ lobby: people who understand that the relentless pursuit of economic growth will exhaust the resources of our planet and the need to distribute what we have fairly – nationally and globally.

Third, he says, is the ‘public health’ interest: people who realise that more equal societies are healthier, happier, more trusting and less violent.

Fourth, he cites the pressure from communities for the devolution of power to local groups – for every enterprise, public, private and voluntary, to be rooted in the community it serves.

Donnison argues that these emerging influences are converging on the belief that inequality is now our most fundamental underlying problem.

Some may think this is not much different to our historic efforts to eliminate poverty, but he believes it is: ‘Whereas poverty focuses attention on others (the poor minority), concerns about inequality bring us all into the policy agenda. We have to ask questions about the health of our whole society – about the rich as well as the poor.’ Tony Blair and Gordon Brown know this and don’t want to go there. David Cameron says that he does. We live in interesting times.