The world is a drastically unequal place according to figures released by Oxfam on Monday. It revealed that 82% of the wealth generally globally in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while
a few dozen people now possess the same wealth as the poorest 50% worldwide.
The data should prompt urgent discussions about the consequences of inequality in the global economic system; but what does it mean for Kiwis?
Aotearoa New Zealand is no stranger to serious inequality. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it is among the most unequal societies in the developed world, with exceptionally high levels of child poverty.
The Oxfam report found that the richest one per cent of New Zealanders own more than a quarter of the country’s wealth and just ten percent own more than half. By contrast, the poorest third of the population- many of whom were in employment- got their hands on less than 1% of the wealth created last year.
The report also showed that the inequality gap widened in 2017, beyond previous extremes.
This has important implications for social work. When poverty is reproduced on an industrial scale with less of the population able to access wealth, no matter how hard they work, the more reliant they become on social services that are already under-resourced.
Where people have less access to wealth, including assets like homes, they are more likely to get into debt and struggle to meet every day needs. This can lead to increased stress, creating conditions for deterioration in mental and physical health; such circumstances particularly impact Whanau and Tamariki, having an impact on the development of children with lasting effects on their wellbeing. The evidence shows that poverty in childhood often has life-long negative consequences affecting all aspects of life, such as capacity to learn, health and employment.
Social workers already struggle to deal with heavy workloads, stretching to meet the needs of those under their care. Without more support, as inequality keeps rising, the pressure on social workers will keep growing.
Inequality is a matter of social justice. Women are disproportionately affected by inequality, finding themselves earning 12% less than their male counterparts in Aotearoa New Zealand. Stark social differences such as these are indefensible in a modern developed nation.
In an unequal system, the wealthy are typically able to maintain their status by denying a living wage to their employees, seeking the lowest costs from producers and lobbying governments to avoid tax hikes.
The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few also has powerful implications for democracy. Where parties rely on campaign donations from corporations and rich donors, they find themselves expected to reward these contributions with preferential treatment, often undermining the needs of society in favour of the demands of the market.
There is also the issue of how inequality is reproduced. Inter-generational deprivation is maintained by structures that primarily reward wealth above other merits. Those who are very rich are able to pass on advantages to their children that others simply cannot access, a state of affairs that hardens divides between the haves and have nots. Those with very little often find that their children struggle to move beyond the position they occupied in the wealth ladder.
Polls show that most Kiwis are not happy with this state of affairs. Leading economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have called for measures to address inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers wants inequality reduced and have high hopes for a future in which all New Zealanders have equal opportunity and fulfilment.