Trying to Understand Rising Inequality? Me, too

Some brief thoughts to try to break down the discussion on inequality. There are a lot of theories and discussions bouncing around, and explainers about why inequality has grown so much. Conflict, disaster, urban migration. But rather than putting it in academic terms and rationalizing why it has been happening, let’s just understand it:

“The sense is that the most important thing to look at is not necessarily about different incomes, but what they can do with the services and incomes that they have. Are they essentially free to pursue a life of opportunity, or are they so tied down by satisfying everyday needs that they have no chance?” (Luis Bettencourt)

For example, people need access to (decent) services – which is why you see an uptick in urban migration, where people are more likely to find jobs and services. But an increase in population size doesn’t mean automatically an increase in funding for services by the government, for various reasons. So now maybe you (hypothetically) have an increased income, but you’re probably paying more for housing and although getting food is easier, you’re likely paying more for that, too, and maybe eating less. And when free services like health care are not available, you pay for the private service because medicine is sometimes essential. So maybe your education has given you a leg up to get a decent job, but the other services aren’t in place to allow you to capitalize on that job and improve your quality of life. No matter how hard you work, you can’t access quality health care if there are not enough doctors to go round. No matter how hard you work, if there are not enough places in public schools for your children, their education will suffer.

One aspect of growing inequality is that (quality) government services that the majority of the population relies on (ie: those of us that can’t pocket the cost of private education and health care) hasn’t been able to keep pace with demand. So people either forego those expenditures and suffer – impacting on their capacity to work and excel – or pocket those costs to the detriment of saving for the future, etc.

Certainly there are many other connected and complex reasons for why inequality is growing, but the above quote from Bettencourt aims to help us understand one aspect, in straightforward terms. From the development practitioner’s perspective, sometimes improving services needs to be about both quality AND quantity (despite our shift in discussion from quantity to quality over the past few years).


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