The minority control the story: What do we know about the income distribution and what do we think we know?

The way in which resources are distributed across society has been receiving increasing attention in recent years as a growing number of academics attempt to understand and explain why our society continues toward a ‘winner-takes-all society’ whereby some people have the capability to access almost everything, whilst others are limited as a result of their unequal share of resources. Part of current interest attempts to understand the vast scale and speed of changes in levels of income inequality. Though Dorling sums it quite well that ‘inequalities do not rise by accident’ much research interest is involved with understanding the processes behind the dramatic & rapid changes in the income distribution. There has also been a surge of interest among sociologists, psychologists, economists and political theorists to explain the impact across all social groups that extreme disparities in resources have on outcomes. Essentially research is focused on determining what has roused these rapid changes in the income distribution, what are the advantages and disadvantages of high levels of income inequality and who are the winners and who are the losers.

But as academic research interest has been rising, why has public concern been so reserved? Do we as a society not care that the bottom twenty percent of the income scale have only 5.3% of the country’s total income between them, whilst the top twenty percent have almost 50%? Do we not as a society not care that the numbers of those who live in poverty is rising so that the extreme wealthy can fund lavish lifestyles? Do we as a society not care that as the rich have got steadily richer, average incomes of those in the middle have been stagnant or even falling for the last 30 years, even as per capita GDP has grown? Do we as a society not care that the principle divide in our society today is no longer between the top, the middle and the bottom but between a tiny group at the very top and everyone else? Fundamentally, have our values of fairness and social justice changed so much over the past thirty years that we now think that this is just an ‘inevitable part of modern life’ or that the extreme inequalities we see in resources across society exist because those who have more resources earned them and thus are deserving of what they have got.

I refrain from concluding that the majority of people do not care that a small minority of people have control of almost all resources, whilst the rest share a declining proportion of the resources, as I do not think this is an adequate nor an accurate response. I instead will make a couple of observations on why I think the extreme levels of inequality that we witness continue to exist and why public interest has been retained. After all, inequalities do not occur by accident.

One critical issue behind the continuation of the extremely unequal distribution of income in society is how little people know about the way in which income is distributed across the scale, people’s misperceptions of what the income distribution really looks like and how few people can accurately place themselves on the income distribution scale. This lack of public knowledge about what is really going on contributes to the continuation of an extremely unequal society.

There is a vast lack of knowledge evident throughout society regards the income of particular positions across the income distribution. That is, people tend to accurately estimate the earnings of those at the lower end of the scale, but underestimate those at the top. For example, people estimate that a shop worker earns £12000, which is about accurate however when asked about the average earnings of a CEO compared to the shop worker, the average response is about 10 to 1. A more accurate ratio is 100 to 1. Along with this, there is a marked tendency for people, when asked, to assume that they are in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of where one truly sits. John Hills reckons that this is because we all know someone both better off and worse off than ourselves. Thus our tendency to inaccurately place ourselves on the middle of the income distribution inevitably affects our perceptions of fairness and in turn skews reality. I would add to John Hills analysis a tendency in society to justify our perceived position in the middle by categorising people we perceive to work harder than us as more deserving of a higher place on the distribution and people who work less as less deserving of our position.

I do not believe that the public realise that we are currently witnessing levels of inequality across the distribution of income, which have not occurred since the late 1920’s/30’s. But more than this I am not convinced that the public realise that over the past thirty years household income has increased annually by 0.9% for the bottom decile (those in the bottom tenth of the income distribution) and 2.5% for the top decile (those in the top tenth of the income distribution). This means that over time, those at the top have been enjoying annual income increases that are disproportionate to the increases of those at the bottom. The story is more extreme if we compare the extreme wealthy (the top 1%) and everyone else whose pay increases have been greatly outstripping the rest of the workforce at about levels of 9 to 1 in real terms between 1999 and 2006. This means that the average pay of CEO’s in Britain’s largest companies had been increasing by about 11% per year between 1999 and 2006, while the average increase for the rest of the workforce was 1.4%. This leaves us with a situation whereby the extremely wealthy are taking increasing shares of the pie so as the rich get richer, everyone else is left sharing a continuously smaller portion of the pie.

Time and time again those who believe in the necessity of these extreme levels of income inequality revert back to notions of merit and deservedness & to the idea that income inequalities are an inevitable part of modern life. However purely through observing trends and levels of income inequality over the past 30 years I question the perception that extreme inequalities are justified as a result of hard work and inevitability. In 2006 the average gap between CEO’s and the average worker was 100 to 1, in 1980 it was less than 25 to 1. I mean, it is highly unlikely that not only are those at the very top of the income distribution are working 100 times harder than everyone else, but it is also unlikely that they are working 4 times harder than their counterparts at the top twenty five years ago. Indeed a common anecdote is often made about hard work and the increased productivity and contribution that those at the top of the income distribution make to society. It is often posited that unless we pay these superiorly talented people extortionate & disproportionate wages to keep our economy going all of our living standards would fall. However the link which is often cited to exist between productivity and wages is inaccurate. Productivity has been deteriorating since 1980’s, with average productivity per year 1.9% compared to 2.9% between 1961 and 1973. Further evidence comes if we consider that even in 2008 at the height of the banking failure extortionate bonuses in the financial sector continued which led to a situation whereby ‘pay was high when performance was good and pay was high when performance was bad’ (p7 Stiglitz). In reality an ever increasing & convincing body of evidence demonstrates that the more unequal a society the less productive both economically and socially.

I have presented two of the key reasons why I believe income inequality is allowed to be so pervasive and accepted in today’s society. I conceive there to be a lack of accurate public knowledge on actual levels of income inequality along with distorted notions that levels of inequality exist only because those at the top of the income distribution deserve their disproportionate share of resources based on an argument which vastly disconnects itself those at the top from both the average worker and their counterparts in the past as extremely superior. Throughout the past number of years the public have been constrained to a discussion led by both politicians and the media which continuously degrades the bottom of the income distribution as undeserving, lazy skivers. The tone of current politics and the media, which, in turn, has been echoed by the public, has been concentrated on reverting the language used in discussions about the social security system to terms used during the Poor Law era. The language which has renewed itself over the past number of years has been focused on distinguishing the deserving poor from the undeserving poor, the strivers from the skivers. It is unsurprising that we are likely to know the income of those towards of the bottom of the income distribution – our newsfeed has been telling us all about their position and their deserving/undeserving status for years now. Added to this, we’re more likely to be in these positions than anywhere else!

Yet, we don’t hear about those toward the top very much. All too often all we hear is that they are hard working, talented and deserving of their reward. But, public knowledge of the income of those at the top of the income distribution is very limited. Thus, if we don’t even know what they earn how can we be so sure that they deserve it? We are continuously told that those who have an income which is extremely disproportionate to everyone else deserve it, yet what do we know about them? There has been a narrative created which exudes that people at the top contribute so much to society and to the economy that they deserve massive rewards. But if the mass don’t know much about the life of those at the top how can we be so sure that they contribute so much? The evidence certainly doesn’t agree that the contribution of those at the top matches their reward. Also, how can we measure any single person’s contribution to society? Given division of labour, surely what one person does only makes a difference when many other people do their part. And, what kinds of contribution are good contributions? For me, those at the top have created the narrative which paints them as deserving, as a means of justifying and maintaining their superior position in society.

Given a climate whereby we can identify almost straight away those at the lower end of the distribution as deserving or undeserving, yet know almost nothing about those at the top, it becomes imminent, the minority control the story, they dont want us to know their story. The poor have been a good distraction.

Find out where on the income distribution you and people you now sit

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Posted by on April 2, 2013 in Uncategorized


Monbiot, We’ve only known a private world

George Monbiot has recently written a number of articles (published in The Guardian) all of which have appealed to my egalitarian spirit. All of which have evoked in me a further yearning for a more income (+ wealth) equal society. These articles have forced me to ask of myself the questions which writers such as George Monbiot have presented. Questions which many are struggling with. I will not call this piece an answer to one of Monbiot’s recent questions; but it is a response. I encourage readers to find their own response.

The question: ‘Why has the public response to the assault on public life and public welfare been so muted?’ Does anyone care that the current Government are attempting (rather successfully) to rip away the welfare state? Does anyone care that we are being forced into an individual world, where there is no such thing as society? Does anyone care that the only responsibility that we are being encouraged to have is to watch our own backs? Does anyone care that we’re being crushed into a world where nobody is there to help (at least without payment)?

I must admit, whilst I love reading and being asked these sorts of question because my own responses and the responses of others is both enlightening and enpowering, at times they leave me with this feeling of disarray, with a sense of ‘I wish I was born in the 40’s’. That way, right about the age I am now I would be going through life whilst the ‘great levelling’ was taking place. I would have lived right through the era the welfare state was built and at its best. I would have lived right through (and hopefully would have been part of) the golden era of civil rights activism. A time when the collective; the social; the common good was the most important. I would have least known what it felt like to live in an egalitarian society. I would have been taught to value society and all that it does for us. A time when when power was in the hands of the people. I would have chosen this, even if it meant I still had to live through five recessions, Thatcher as Prime Minister, and the drive towards neo-liberalism and individualism.

But I, nor anyone of my generation (I was born late 1980’s), has ever known what it feels like to live in these circumstances. It is on this framework which I base my answer. It is both a response to those who feel my generation simply dont care and it is an encouragement to my generation to educate themselves on more collective societies and what that could mean for life.One doesnt have to look to history, look to Finland, Japan, Denmark or Sweden.

My generation are expected to be more active in preventing this assault on public welfare. But, how can you expect us to get active against the only thing that we know. We have only known a world which drives toward individualism. A world whereby we’re continuously expected to be able to seperate the deserving from the undeserving. A world whereby we’re continuosly told ‘You can be what ever you want’, all you have to do is ‘Be true to yourself’ and ‘Do whatever it takes’ (Ray Dalio founder of Bridge Associates (world largest hedge fund)). A world whereby if you arent self-determined you must be a failure. A world whereby you must prove your worth. Individual goals are everything. How your ‘story’ matches your peers is detrimental.

Going through ‘the system’ the idea that everyone has equal chance and opportunity to be and to do whatever they want has been seeped right through every piece of advice we’ve ever been given. We’re not often told that the very notion of equality of opportunity has been the greatest deception of our time. I’ve had this conversation many a time with peers (many of whom are bored at the very thought of talking about SOCIAL issues) whom believe that equality of opportunity exists. I mean, I cant criticise them for this, even for me, when I look around at my peers I could probably trick myself into thinking equality of opportunity exists. It is easy to forget that social class and the distance between social groups is very very real. It is easy to forget that we live in a segregated world whereby its becoming more and more common for people to live isolated from those of other social classes. It is easy to forget that the welfare state isnt just for those who want hand outs. It is easy to forget the many ways the welfare state has helped me in the past. It is easy to forget the importance of fighting for a system which can protect me in the future.

It is easy to forget all of these things because the only thing that has been asked of me is to succeed and reach my own individual goals by competing against others. My generation have been told over and over again that self actualisation is the only way to move forward. Those who are the most self-motivated in achieving what they want are the most praised. We are told to look up to the guy who is self made, who has done it all on his own, who didnt rely on anyone, who achieved his own dreams. We’re not often told that NO ONE has done it on their own.

I am in a position whereby I spend my life studying these issues and I thank writers such as Monbiot who has encouraged me to learn about those times and places where life wasnt so individualistically driven, where mutual interests and the common good help people get through life. Where helping others helped everybody achieve their own goals. But, I also caution writers such as Monbiot that not many of my peers have the opportunity (nor want it) to study society on a daily basis. Not many realise that we’re increasingly being burrowed into an individual world because this is the only thing that we have ever known. We’re told to deal with private issues privately. They are our responsbility. This is what we’ve been encouraged to be. This is the only thing we know. We have been bound to a world where we are told ‘if you cant beat them, join them’. Being beat isn’t an option in a such a competitive world, the bandwagon of individualism is!

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Uncategorized


They didn’t teach me how to be poor

When I listen to arguments about how those living in poverty only have themselves to blame and how welfare payments pamper these lazy, unmotivated people, to be honest, I have a tendency to shut off; to stop listening. I’ve heard all of these arguments, spun in hundreds of different ways; they still don’t wash with me. For me these arguments are irrational, based on twisting the truth and playing a blame game which makes it easier for those not in poverty to accept and be proud of their own situation. After all, They deserve it! They’re motivated! They’re not lazy!  We are taught to believe that life is what you make it, that there are no barriers to our progress except those which we create ourselves. We are taught to believe that if you reach your goals you are deserving of the success that comes with it; you obviously made sacrifices and chose that way of life! We are taught to believe that poor people chose that way of life, it’s their own fault. What they don’t teach us though is how to be poor. They don’t teach us how to make ends meet when there isn’t enough money to go around. They don’t teach us how to cope with the stigma, the embarrassment and the sense of failure one feels because they are poor. They don’t teach us how it’s inequality, unequal distribution of resources and stratification that keeps people in poverty. After all, all you have to do to escape poverty is stop being lazy, take responsibility, be motivated, quit scrounging. It is the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with those who are poor that this piece is concerned. Additionally, this piece will comment on the mismatch that is often presented of how simple getting out of poverty is, and the actualities of lifting oneself out of poverty.  It is the defamatory and vilifying treatment of those who are living in poverty by the recent Coalition government that provides the motivation behind this piece.

In a recent interview with the Independent on Sunday Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles stated that ‘we need to eradicate poverty…. [by being] a little less understanding [of those] fluent in social work’. Pickles went further stating that ‘Sometimes we’ve run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame… [we need to use] more forceful language”. Pickles made these comments alongside a claim that is currently being pushed forward by Government. The Government is claiming that there are 120,000 ‘Troubled families’ who are costing the state £9 billion a year. More serious than this the government is claiming that those suffering from multiple deprivations are the “source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations” (Cameron, 2011).

Let me explore further my first concern regards the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with being in poverty or multiply deprived. When following the commentary around which the Coalition has based their claims on the need to eradicate the ‘culture of poverty’ two things soon became apparent. Firstly, the much documented and repeated figure of what the government calls the ‘120,000 Troubled Families’ is based on a complete misuse of statistics and research. The 120,000 figure comes from an eight year old study on multiple deprivation which found that 2% of families surveyed had 5 or more of 7 characteristics: no parent in work; lives in overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; mother has mental health problems; at least one parents has a long-standing limiting illness or disability; has low income (below 60% of median income – the mid-point of the distribution); cannot afford a number of food and clothing items. What is clear from the original findings of this research is that these people are multiply deprived and surely living in poverty. What is not clear by the way the figure is currently being utilised is the link between how these people living in multiple deprivations are causing a large proportion of our problems. Essentially families suffering from multiple deprivations are transformed into troublesome families with the implication that they are dysfunctional and cause trouble. In other words the government is actively front lining and promoting the perception, based on inaccurate data, that the poor are lazy, scum and shameless.

Secondly I became almost instantly aware of the anecdotal evidence that the government has a tendency to use when talking about the poor.  It goes something like this “Take an alcoholic parent”, “Take a family where both parents are addicted to drugs”, “Take a struggling lone mother”. In fact every single piece of anecdotal evidence that the government uses is very much suited to the story. I have yet to hear of anecdotal evidence which goes like this “Take a PhD college graduate who can’t get a job”, “Take a young entrepreneur trying to get his feet off the ground” ,“Take a minimum wage worker” or all of the other zillion examples that I could give you regarding people I know who are in poverty but their ‘story’ doesn’t match the characteristics set down by the current Government of what someone in poverty looks like. Primarily I have yet to come across someone in poverty who boasts about it! The key reason why I’m writing this piece is because I feel that there is a need to present a case which illustrates to the powers that be that it is not just the feckless, the lazy, the unmotivated, and the scroungers who are living in poverty. There are also hard-working, motivated, highly educated, non-criminal, non-drug-addicts who are living in poverty. I know quite a lot. I bet most readers do too. By standing back and letting the government continue to erode away our welfare state through convincing us that the only people who use it use are those who can’t be bothered to do anything else about their situation, we are giving in to a future of being on our own, whereby the very social support system that we have built is snagged from right under our noses! By allowing them to convince us that it’s only those with the characteristics that they identify who are in poverty, we are giving in to a life of not only self-denial but also a denial of access to resources which we contribute to gathering.

The next concern of this article is to explore the misconception often put forward that getting out of poverty is easy. That those living in poverty only have themselves to blame because they choose that way of life. I can’t fully understand the logic behind this argument; I mean why would anybody choose a life of deprivation? Or put differently, if it is so easy to get out of poverty and poverty is only associated with negatives then, why would one choose to remain there? My only conclusion is similar to Furedi (2003), through the government promoting, creating and recreating an individualistic perception of poverty, which is chosen by those who suffer its consequences, the end amounts to nothing but an ‘attempt to dress up social problems as emotional problems’. Those who hold this view ignore the significant societal barriers which exist in society which often prevent certain groups from getting out of poverty.

The easiest way to illustrate this is through exploring the life of someone on minimum wage. Now consider what the actual cost is in your area for the following – housing (rented or privately owned), lighting, heating and hot water, food (3 meals a day), clothes, public transport or private transport to get to work for 5 days a week, communication (phone/internet), TV, entertainment (one evening socialising with a friend and one outing at the weekend), modest savings (for emergencies, treats etc).

In the end, any government which reckons it can save money tackling the problem of poverty is deluded!


Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized


Life as a Census Enumerator

My life as a census enumerator began at a training event in early spring last year. I remember it because it became symbolic of all the training events which I was required to attend before and during my time as a census enumerator. These training events soon became boring, bureaucratic processes which I had to endure. Trying to keep my eyes open and remain interested in these back-patting events became one of the duties of being a census enumerator that I hadn’t foreseen. In fact, I was amazed how quickly these training events made something as exciting, informative and revealing as the census sound mundane, statistical and routine!! Thank god for coffee and tray bakes! I had to watch a video on how to lift a box without injury; another on storing census forms safely; another on the administrative tasks that had to be completed throughout our post; another which involved a role play of a census enumerator carrying out his role. As these were the highlight tasks at training days, I sighed as I began to regret what I had let myself in for.

The reality of being a census enumerator, thankfully, came to be quite different. The census well and truly is exciting, informative and revealing. I received many lessons in life simply because of the diversity of people that I was coming across and the stories that I was being told. I seen and heard things, some good others bad, that I never would, had I not took the census enumerator position. It wasn’t the information that was collected on the census form that was most revealing of the day-to-day characteristics and life of the population in my census area. Actually, it was probably the opposite. The reality and, at times, truth of life is often very different both from what a routine training day can prepare us for and what the information provided on a census form can tell us about the characteristics of a population. I have since deliberated many times over the reliability and validity of information collected on the census form. When we collect data on every member of the population how can there be issues of reliability and validity? I sat with countless people who had some questions about the census. These included, but by no means was confined to questions such as why questions were being asked, what questions asked meant, how information provided on the census form was going to be used, who has access to their responses, what was the point in some of the questions. It turns out that it is not just social scientists that scrutinise the value of questions on a questionnaire.

My main task as census enumerator involved carrying out three reminder visits to houses that hadn’t sent back their completed census form. I had very specific tasks to complete, but reality was getting in the way! It was at this stage that most of the bureaucratic, rationalised training went out the window. I helped people complete their census forms. I explained to people what the census was. I heard countless illuminating narratives of life. I drank tea. I saw absolute poverty. I witnessed the value of social connections. My concern though – none of this information is captured in the census form. I’ve thought considerably about the extent that the census misses capturing reality in favour of the collection of data which can be statistically analysed. How can we overcome this though? How can we collect information on the characteristics of the population from every single person who lives in the country, without making it manageable and adaptable to statistical manipulation? I have a tendency to ask myself this question differently. At what stage can standardised, descriptive questions which are necessary when collecting data on such a mass scale make room for the rich, prescriptive reality of human life? How can we capture the sound of the world in which people navigate their lives, alongside the collection of standardised, statistically robust information? I got some ideas on this while working as a census enumerator.

As I went door-to-door reminding people to complete their census form I was often asked to come in to help with completion. Although I was supposed to arrange a fulfilment visit and go back with another census enumerator, I often made my own risk assessment and entered numerous households to help with census completion. This made me think about the usefulness of the method that the mass of census forms are collected. Forms are dispensed in the post to each household; the majority of people complete their form and post it back. Most people do not come in contact with a census enumerator. Though already there is a story missed, a part of history left untold. As census enumerator I got a mirror to the lives of many people. The poverty that I saw some people live with was definitely the most eye opening part of being a census enumerator. The difference I saw in living standards from one house to the next was another. I am going to present snippets of life and some of my thoughts on the beat as census enumerator. My only regret is not writing these stories down as they happened. I had many more.

One house I entered there was no paint on the walls, there was ripped lino on the floor of the living room and kitchen, it was cold, and well, frankly, it was run down and in need of maintenance. The elderly pensioner who lived on their own couldn’t carry this out themselves. Their worry was turning on the heater for me whilst I was there. My worry was that the heater would not be on after I’d left! Another house I was met with a gasping woman who had been diagnosed with throat cancer that same day. As she puffed on her cigarette, she told me how she had been worrying about getting the census form filled in. She had seen the advertisements on the television about the legal consequences for not filling in a form. This elderly woman had been in bed sick for the past three weeks and couldn’t believe her luck when I called the same day that she was up and about for her hospital appointment! In her eyes she avoided a day in court. In my eyes the census form tells us nothing about the reality of census completion.

I often noticed a distinct difference between those who had social connections and social support and those who didn’t. Those who did had a home with comforts like cushions and ornaments. Those who didn’t had a house with a roof, a door and basic necessities. Food wasn’t always a necessity. I heard stories about how untimely it was that summer was on its way. For this mother it became a choice between eating and buying new clothes for the children for summer. Relative poverty has a lot to answer for.

I came across numerous people who, when declaring they had a mental illness under the health section of the census form, were very clear about how this mental illness was conveyed. They worded it in ways such as “I get a wee bit of depression from time to time, but I’m not mad or anything!” or “Well I take tablets for bi-polar but I’m normal”. These stories often left untold, even from those closest to them, illuminated, to me, the stigma and the pressures of the social world that people must live. I heard stories from ex-navy and ex-army officers about their life, past and present. These were fascinating insights into how people perceived the world around them and how people choose to construct and explain the reality of living in Northern Ireland.  I saw social support in full swing as children were dropped in neighbour’s houses at the last minute. I saw the social companionship that a cat or a dog can bring. I heard about the comfort and security that having a neighbour’s phone number to ring in an emergency can bring to one’s peace of mind, even if it’s never used. I saw the value of community, as people were concerned with each other’s lives. As I continuously hear Prime Minister David Cameron argue that society is broken. I deliberate over how those in close contact with society can report on the rich societies in which we still live.

Other houses I seen nothing. They had nothing for me to see. I hear that absolute poverty doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland. It does. I saw it.

Life as a census enumerator was one of the most fulfilling, enlightening jobs that I have had. Sadly though most of what I seen is not captured in the census. I am not suggesting here that the census should try to carry out data collection ethnographically. I’m suggesting that perhaps there is a need for the expansion of the role of the census enumerator. Had all census enumerators wrote a detailed diary describing some of the things that they saw on the field, then perhaps we might be better equipped to describe the characteristics of life in Northern Ireland in 2011. My census enumerator experience is one I’ve talked about many times. I wonder how many other census enumerators are in the same position.

A story to be told left untold.


Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Uncategorized