Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Facing up to inequality

Peadar Kirby: Tasc's survey of public opinion on inequality in Irish society is both welcome and significant. One of the remarkable and disturbing aspects of the Celtic Tiger years is the neglect of inequality as a objective of public policy, and its replacement by the much more restrictive goal of 'combating poverty' (a goal that is arguably now even further weakened by the incorporation of the former Combat Poverty Agency in the Social Inclusion Office). Even the Equality Authority, now also greatly weakened by budget cutbacks that can only be described as vindictive, had no brief to reduce socio-economic inequality, despite the efforts of its former CEO, Niall Crowley. Tasc's Inequality Survey shows that this is an issue that matters to the public thus strengthening its claim to become the object of public policy.

The significance of the Tasc survey, however, goes further than this. For, at long last, it draws in a forceful way into Irish debates, the topic of socio-economic inequality. For its accompanying text on "The Solidarity Factor" undertakes a valuable social science exercise (unfortunately neglected by most Irish social scientists) to make an approximation of the changing dynamic of the income structure (so influential in constituting a society's social structure) in the immediate aftermath of the Celtic Tiger boom. While those of more strictly quantitative persuasion may fault it for jumping to certain conclusions, those of us who are constantly frustrated by the profoundly conservative and cautious bias of the output of the ESRI stable, will welcome a valuable contribution to debate on what is happening to our social structure in a time of immense social change. 

I particularly welcome the emphasis on precariousness as it has seemed to me for some time that this is a crucial concept to capture the distinctive impacts of processes associated with what we label as 'globalisation' (see my 'Vulnerability and Violence: The Impact of Globalisation', Pluto Press, 2006). I agree completely with Tasc's conclusion that 'when viewing income groups through this prism, it becomes obvious that earlier boundaries (e.g. of occupation) which made income groups relatively impermeable in the past are now much more blurred. Thus - especially in the context of a recession - those who are 'comfortably off' may share precarious employment with the 'working poor' ' (page 6). This, of course, contradicts (rightly, in my view) the attempt of the ESRI to use the concept of vulnerability to identify a 'vulnerable class' in Irish society which they limited to 20 per cent of the population (see their 'Best of Times?' book). As Tasc makes clear, in the conditions of today's world, precariousness or vulnerability are much more generalised in their impact. We urgently need to attend to the public policy implications of such an insight.

Tasc's initiative is also to be welcomed in the context of the recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better' (Allen Lane, 2009). This assembles a range of evidence that correlates socio-economic inequality with social ills. In doing this, it raises very important issues that require urgent consideration by policy makers. There is a danger that the conditions of our current economic and social crisis may lead us to believe that such issues are a luxury to be postponed for better times. However, since we so totally failed to address them during our boom years, their urgency requires that we don't postpone them any more. Hopefully Tasc's initiative will stimulate a badly overdue public debate.

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