Today's report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on their minimum income standard, a barometer of household living standards, shows just how many people are struggling to keep their heads above water. However, this is only half the story; not everyone is living in penury.
At the top, Rich List billionaires are doing better than ever, with wealth greater than that of the poorest 40%. Research by The Equality Trust found that last year their wealth increased by a staggering £82.5 billion, the equivalent of £226 million a day, or £2,615 a second. That's enough to pay the grocery bill for all of the UK’s users of food banks for 56 years. At the same time, top CEOs are 'earning' vast multiples of key workers' pay. On average FTSE 100 CEOs are now paid 165 times more than a nurse, 140 times more than a teacher, and 312 times more than a care worker. These are people almost all of us rely on at one point or another. They are the glue that binds our society together, and yet some are now in such dire financial straits that they are having to visit food banks.
Worse still, the gap is widening. Uneven property wealth has seen the wealth gap increase over the past 10 years, with the richest stretching away from the rest of us. While many are trapped in over-priced, sub-standard private rental accommodation, around a quarter of the Sunday Times Rich List made their wealth, at least in part, through our dysfunctional housing system. In this context, it seems reasonable to question whether this is the best, or fairest, division of resources, or whether such concentration of wealth in the hands of so few is sustainable.
The past 12 months has been characterised by hugely unpredictable economic and political events. There is a palpable sense of social unease, but as others have pointed out, we should not be surprised. Inequality creates angry and unpredictable voters. In fact, in more unequal countries, trust in political institutions, and in other people, is significantly lower. Given the UK's extreme levels of inequality, it's perhaps unsurprising that our politics is so volatile, or that voters are thumbing their nose to the received wisdom of politicians.
Those struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their head can see how the odds are stacked against them, and how the decisions of successive governments have led to the huge divisions we see in our society today. If there is a positive to be drawn from all this, it is that politicians can no longer ignore the public will for serious change. Voters want a fairer tax system and institutions that help to support everyone to reach their full potential. They won't accept systems that simply funnel a predetermined group of 'high-born' into the best jobs, and positions of power and authority, leaving them to fight for low-paid, low skill jobs.
The sooner politicians recognise this change is sentiment the better. That's why we're calling on the Government to commit to an Inequality Reduction Strategy that tackles structural inequality, and commits the Government to reducing inequality as a priority. For the public to believe that politicians are for the many and not the few, they need to develop real, tangible measures to reduce the gap between the richest and the rest.
Dr. Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director, The Equality Trust