SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 136 - March 2010

Broken system, damaged lives

Exposing Britain’s class divide

RECENT REPORTS have exposed the deep, structural inequality in Britain. And the gap between the richest and poorest is growing. First off, the Prince’s Trust charity and Citi Foundation commissioned one of the largest ever UK studies of young people (16-24 years) not in employment, education or training (neets). It found that thousands of young people will not meet their career aspirations because of the lack of education and training. As a result, 19,500 doctors and nurses will not be trained, along with 62,000 teachers, 31,000 social workers and 16,000 mechanics, derailing individual people’s futures as well as harming the economy.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment costs the state £3.5 million each day in Jobseekers’ Allowance, according to the Office for National Statistics (Labour Market Statistics, January 2010), a massive drain on resources. It also indicates the extremely low level of this state ‘benefit’, condemning the near one million young unemployed to dire poverty. All this inflicts long-term damage to people’s lives. Young people out of work for more than twelve months are three times as likely to believe that they do not have any skills or talents. Forty per cent of them are not hopeful about finding a job in the next six months, and 57% worry that they will never be able to afford their own home. One in ten turns to drugs and alcohol abuse.

They will not find a way out through further and higher education as both face massive cutbacks. Around 160,000 students have been denied university places this year as the government’s plan to cut university expenditure by £900 million by 2013 begins to bite. The axe is falling hardest on teaching and new building projects. (The Economist, 4 February) Tuition fees are set to rise to £3,290 a year from September, although Lord Browne, the former boss of BP, is reviewing higher education funding and is expected to recommend large increases in fees.

Before young people get anywhere near the neet stage, however, they are off to a bad start. On 26 January, the charity, Save the Children, published a briefing paper, Measuring Severe Child Poverty in the UK, which revealed that an additional 260,000 children were pushed into severe poverty during the four years 2004-08. That was before the financial meltdown and recession – in the so-called good times. It takes the total to a shocking 13% of Britain’s children. England saw the biggest increase, with more than 1.5 million children now living in families earning 50% less than the average UK income, with inadequate food and clothing, and other daily essentials. With no significant improvement in the economy in sight, this grim situation can only get worse.

Another report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, chaired by John Mills, a London School of Economics professor, puts the spotlight on Britain’s growing class divide. The richest 10% of the population is now more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10%. The report looked back over the last 30 years – a searing indictment of the neoliberal policies of successive Tory and New Labour governments. Britain today has its highest level of income inequality since just after the second world war.

Household wealth of the top 10% is at least £835,000, compared with £8,800 or less for the bottom 10% by the time people draw close to retirement age. This includes cars and other possessions. But the higher up you go, the greater the gap, with the top 1% possessing household wealth of £2.6 million or more each.

This gap will increase with the austerity measures pursued by all the establishment parties to make working-class people pay for the crisis of their system, above all, through savage attacks on public services. As Mills reports, "… your origins and your parents’ income provide a series of nudges that tend to push people in a particular direction, from your chances of being read to as a child, whether your parents can buy a house in the catchment area of a good school, educate you privately, pay for a second degree, provide help with a deposit to buy a house, or leave an inheritance". (Financial Times, 27 January)

Mills draws attention to the fact that women’s median hourly pay is 21% less than men’s, and that race continues to be a major factor. Compared with a white British Christian man with similar qualifications, age and occupation, for example, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and black African Christian men have an income 13-21% lower. Nearly half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are in poverty.

The gross inequality caused by the profit system, exacerbated by the particularly rotten nature of British capitalism, promises only increased misery for the majority of working-class people. The Guardian (11 February) carried news of a Department of Health report, Fair Society, Healthy Lives. In it, Professor Sir Michael Marmot warns that plans to increase the retirement age to 68 will cause hardship for millions: "Three-quarters of the country do not have disability-free life expectancy [at 68]. So you have to address the inequalities for the bottom 75% of the country if you want to have a healthy population working at 68". To talk of ‘the bottom 75%’ means that this system is a catastrophic failure. Surely it is time that society was run in the interests of this vast majority, not for the benefit of the rich and powerful at the top?

The report found that those living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England die on average seven years younger than people in the richest, and that there is a 17-year difference in life without disability between the rich and the poor. There would be 202,000 fewer ‘premature’ deaths each year if everyone over the age of 30 had the same death rate as wealthier sections.

The waste of human talent, potential and health is obscene, the economic costs staggering. According to Marmot, up to 2.5 million years of life are lost each year in England because people die prematurely. Inequality in illness accounts for productivity losses of £31-33 billion per year, with lost taxes and higher welfare payments in the range of £20-32 billion. Additional NHS healthcare costs associated with inequality exceed £5.5 billion per year.

Marmot concludes: "The health and wellbeing of today’s children and of those children when they become adults depends on us having the courage and imagination to do things differently, to put sustainability and wellbeing before a narrow focus on economic growth and bring about a more equal and fair society". But that is a forlorn hope under capitalism. Behind the statistics in these reports are people’s lives, thrown on the scrapheap by this short-sighted, brutal, divisive and unequal system. They cry out for fundamental change and a socialist society based on human solidarity and long-term democratic planning.

Manny Thain


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