Escaping the inequality trap: Grounds for new inequalities

In response to the significant and systemic inequalities in Birmingham, here’s a suggestion:

What we can do in here is invest in activities where cues for social status, high income in particular, are irrelevant. That’s not to say we’ll all be equal in such environments — far from it. We’ll have grounds for different inequalities.

And here’s why it matters, and how it might work.

On Wednesday, Professor Richard Wilkinson spoke at the FairBrum Active Inclusion Summit.

He’s one of a pair of epidemiologists from York University (t’other is Kate Picketts) whose analyses of international datasets showed many serious social dysfunctions are highly correlated with income inequality,rather than with poverty, as you might suppose; see their book The Spirit Level.

Richard showed graph after graph indicating that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the world and, lo and behold! also has higher levels of the usual trope, homicide levels, low educational levels, mortality and ill-health, obesity, teenage mums, etc. (Moreover, we all are affected; even people near the top don’t do as well in these dimensions as others in more equal societies.)

And, according to the Cities Outlook 2013, Birmingham along with Glasgow is the most unequal of UK cities.

We can’t begin to address the income inequalities without radical systematic change. That’s not within our power.

But instead of handwringing and yet another strategy or iconic whatever-take-the-fancy, here’s a hint of a different approach.

I repeat: What we can do in this city is invest in activities where cues for social status, high income in particular, are irrelevant. That’s not to say we’ll all be equal in such environments — far from it. We’ll have grounds for different inequalities . . .

Here’s an example:

  • Growing whether growing fruit’n’veg or trees and blooms:  at least one major cue for income inequality is absent on a vegetable patch. Turn up with soft hands newly manicured, a tailored suit and expensive shoes and you will, rightly, be considered as an idiot. Soil under the fingernails, scruffy old clothes and mud-encrusted boots are de rigeur on this, a feral cat-walk.
  • There are inequalities, sure: Some people are far better at growing plants that others — some have more knowledge, some are grafters, some learn quickly . . . others are better than others at some aspects of the work, others are brilliant at noticing who needs help . . . 
  • And, perhaps key to a wider social cohesion, because plants — particularly edible plants have been part of aeons upon aeons of our evolutionary past, growing stuff attracts people from all social classes, from all social groups . . . So on allotments, there are ‘small worlds’, locations in the city where social contacts reach far wider, where the strength of weak ties matter.

What hyperlocal activities could have similar impact macro-societal impact?

I’d wager it’d be on activities similar to those that featured in our ancestral past — song, dance, drama and art spring easily to mind, as does working with animals that have been important to groups of our forebears, such as dogs, cats and horses as well as livestock. 

Where are these activities? What are they? And how can we expand or replicate their impact?

* * *


  1. These arguments were first put forward in this TEDxWarwick talk and  then in the Birmingham 2050 Scenarios Project Report (p35-36).
  2. The presentations from the FairBrum Summit can be found here.
  3. The New Optimists Forum Response to the Birmingham Social Inclusion Process Green Paper is here.
  4. The image above is by the Greedy Gardener, and it’s of the Hazellwell Allotments shindig in 2012.


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