Inequality – Current Trends and Reasons for Hope

How can inequalities be addressed and reduced? The Inequality Advisory Group brings together inequality experts from around the world to advise the Foundation in their efforts to reducing inequality. They all share an interest in current trends in the topic and the hope for a better future.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | June 2021
Unequal housing conditions
Johnny Miller - Unequal Scenes

For our work on inequality we take into account different narratives of inequality, recognize various forms of knowledge, and collaborate across sectors to address structural causes of inequality. Therefore, the Foundation is delighted to announce that six distinguished experts from academia, civil society, international organizations, and the philanthropic sector will serve as its Inequality Advisory Group (IAG) in the years 2021-2023. Together, they will discuss strategies to overcome inequality and contribute their expertise regarding current developments and new insights to the Foundation’s work.

In the following, the members of the IAG and Ellen Ehmke, Senior Expert of the Foundation, write about what they perceive are current trends with regard to inequality worldwide and what gives them hope to ultimately overcome it.

Portrait Lucas Chancel

Dr. Lucas Chancel, Co-Director of the World Inequality Lab
at the Paris School of Economics (PSE)

Inequality has been on the rise in most countries over the past 40 years. Levels of wealth concentration are becoming unsustainable in many regards. As a matter of fact, trickle-down did not work: the rise in inequality was the fastest where the incomes of bottom income groups grew the least. The positive news is that economic inequality is not a fatality. The diversity of trajectories followed by countries over the past four decades shows that much more can be done to tackle it. And a fresh look at history also reveals that what seems radical today isn’t necessarily so when we look at the recent history of our own country.

Portrait Naila Kabeer

Dr. Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and International Development
at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

I am interested in the way that gender intersects with the other group-based inequalities that have proved enduring within societies: class, of course, which is common across all societies, but also race, caste, and ethnicity. While international data tells us that there has been a closing of gender inequalities in certain important areas of life, such as health and education, they remain large in terms of economic assets and opportunities, and even larger in terms of political voice and the right to representation. We can be sure that women from the most socially marginalized groups will be further behind in terms of any progress that has been made.

However, a number of factors give me hope that these inequalities can be overcome. One is that there is increasing recognition that these inequalities have costs, not only for the groups at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but for society as a whole. This may give us all a stake in addressing these inequalities. The other is that while globalization has brought many new forms of risks and harms in its wake, it has also enabled marginalized groups to connect with each other and to recognize the commonalities of their experiences. Hope for change in the future lies in their solidarity. 

Portrait Nicolette Naylor

Nicolette Naylor, International Program Director for the global Programming
on gender, racial, and ethnic justice at Ford Foundation

Poverty and inequality are reproduced in the racial, gendered, and class divisions that continue to widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the Global North and the Global South. I am particularly interested in work that addresses the intersecting inequalities of gender and race. We need to ensure that we stop fragmenting and creating silos between an economic inequality analysis and a gender and racial inequality analysis. The failure to explicitly address the intersection of gender and race when addressing inequality at the global level needs to be urgently addressed if we want to tackle inequality at the structural and systemic level.  

I am hopeful when considering the ways in which different disciplines and diverse movements are coming together to consider alternative approaches to addressing inequality at the structural level. We are in a moment in time globally where we see social movements, feminist economists, civil society leaders, critical race scholars, postcolonial feminists, decolonial experts, and climate justice activists all revisiting the ways in which inequality needs to be located within a historical and structural context. Their work acknowledges the roles that colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy play within countries and between countries in the Global North and Global South. This coming together at transnational levels to form alliances and solidarity movements is an opportunity to move away from siloed responses to more holistic alternative theories for addressing inequality. A younger, more impatient generation is also coming to the fore with new ideas, and this allows us to work in ways that place those impacted by inequality at the center of the debate, making sure their voices and perspectives are incorporated within the global policy space. 

Portrait Romina Boarini

Dr. Romina Boarini, Director of the OECD Well-being, Inclusion,
Sustainability and Equal Opportunity Centre (WISE)

Inequality is on the rise in several dimensions, mirrored by an increase in citizens’ concerns about disparities being too high. Since the 1980s, income inequality has increased to unprecedented levels, even in the Nordic countries. Incomes of the richest households surged, while poorer and middle-class households were left behind. In addition, household wealth is highly concentrated at the top and wealth distribution became more unequal over the past decade.

Inequalities of opportunity persist. Social mobility has been deteriorating in many dimensions, including earnings. It can take four to five generations for a child of a poor family to reach the average income. At the other end of the spectrum, opportunity hoarding leads to sticky ceilings. 

But policies can make a difference. Initial policy responses to the pandemic crisis appear to have been of more benefit to the poorer than to the richer in some European countries. An initial rise in income inequality in 2020 was more than reversed by early 2021. Policies for mitigating inequalities and achieving equal opportunities require actions in six key areas:

  • Education policies for better access to high-quality education and care;
  • Adequate health support, notably for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds; 
  • Family policies that permit balancing work and family responsibilities; 
  • Redistributive progressive tax and benefit systems that limit income and wealth inequalities;
  • Combining adequate income support with effective active labor market policies;
  • Policies to reduce regional divides and spatial segregation in cities, including local development and urban planning policies.
Portrait Wanda Wyporska

Dr. Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director
of The Equality Trust, UK

In the UK, the most important trend with regard to inequality is the recognition of the importance of health inequalities as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has unlocked greater discussion of the role of social determinants, even if some discourse has stopped short of making the link to income and inequality. As part of this, discussions are increasingly linking inequality to race and ethnicity, housing, co-morbidities, and occupation, with a key focus on poverty. Increased discussion of geographical inequalities, again linked with income, is also welcome, as the evidence shows that inequalities are interdependent and interrelated to a greater or lesser extent in their intersectionality.

There is a greater understanding of the structural nature of inequalities, which has encouraged many organizations to reflect on their own actions and how they are perpetuating inequalities. I am really encouraged by the social power we see on the ground, whether it is young people organizing against climate destruction or Black Lives Matter. It is that social power that we must nurture and support wherever we can to ensure not only that inequality remains high on the national and international agenda, but that action is taken.

Portrai Ellen Ehmke

Dr. Ellen Ehmke, Senior Expert Inequality
at the Robert Bosch Stiftung

Inequality is one of the great social challenges of our time. Extreme inequality of wealth and income goes hand in hand with highly unequal opportunities to live a long life in good health, with respect for basic rights to education, social protection, access to clean water and intact nature, and the opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect one’s own life. In other words, inequality stands in the way of realizing a self-determined life in dignity for all people. Where people live, their gender, origin and other social categories often still determine their access to and exclusion from essential material and social resources. People who experience discrimination based on multiple characteristics are especially affected. In fact, it is more accurate to speak of inequalities, to reflect the multitude of intersecting economic, social, political, environmental and other forms of inequality. These are deeply embedded both in collective institutions as well as in patterns of thought and everyday actions of individuals. Ultimately, these inequalities do not only harm those who are marginalized, but societies as a whole.

During the pandemic many inequalities have been deepened, yet, there are also reasons for hope: the recognition for how closely the fate of all people is interlinked is growing. So is the acknowledgment that it is necessary to take care of the weakest, that overcoming the climate crisis is a collective task that cannot be postponed – and that these are interrelated. Around the world, people explore practices and create narratives new (and old) about how the world can be better for everyone if we put care for people and nature at the center of our actions.