Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Is equality achievable?

by Dr Rebecca Leach

Part 3 in the 'What is Sociology FOR?' theme on our blog

The report of the National Equality Panel is out today, to much debate in the news. The gap between the richest and poorest is wider now than 40 years ago, and inequalities between black and white, and between men and women remain deep-seated.

Some of the most disturbing headlines from this report focus on the fate of children born into poverty. On the Today programme this morning, Professor John Hills pointed out the 'cumulative' impact that poverty and wealth have upon families, both for individuals and future generations within those families.

For every extra 100 pounds of family income when a child is young, an extra month's worth of educational development is gained. That is a simple, but awful, truth. And Hills points out that the gap in incomes between low- and high-income families runs to many hundreds and often thousands of pounds a month. Draw your own conclusions.

This reminds us that whatever the latest rash of 'initiativitis' that emerges from whichever party, it is still poverty in childhood that matters most when it comes to social mobility.

The other staggering, but unsurprising, headline is the revelation that despite women being better qualified educationally than men up to the age of 44, men are still paid on average 21% more than women. The explanations for women's disadvantage in the workplace are well-studied but can't agree whether it is pure sexism or women's likelihood of being the main carers for their children that is the most important factor.

These inequalities are cumulative, partly because they carry through from early life (and wealth/poverty), right through to pension age. In other words, if you start off poor and unequal, you're likely to end up more so. And you're likely to pass that down to your own children to because the cycle of disadvantage continues. Those at the upper end of the income and advantage scale look 'down', according to Hills, and see the threat of failure and poverty, and so they act to use their resources to bolster their own advantage and that of their children. They prop up their wealth with savings and investments, they buy education by moving catchment areas or supplementing with additional tutoring, they use their social networks to find out how access to education works and so on. So, in fact, the situation polarises rather than stabilises...

The papers are using this as a bunfight to attack the government. But of course, these patterns have developed over a very long time, and have not been eradicated in 60 years of the Welfare State. It isn't an easy job with a quick fix. More than ever, we need to understand the mechanisms and barriers within social mobility and economic well-being. Just at the time when universities, who can generate this knowledge, will be under financial attack along with the rest of the public sector. Social science - in particular - is often attacked by governments, and the public at large, because they struggle to see its point. It is sometimes seen as 'soft', overly politicised and jargonistic. Yet the National Equality Panel is overwhelmingly comprised of social scientists: sociologists, social policy specialists and economists who have spent their lifetime trying to 'make a difference' to exactly this kind of issue.

What is Sociology FOR? It is just this: ultimately, seeking to understand the processes behind child poverty, for example, in order to make it better.

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