Challenge Poverty Lecture 2018: The Need for a Wellbeing Economy in Scotland


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Rates of poverty and inequality are increasing throughout the UK – but what are the deeper reasons behind this? LGiU Scotland’s Isla Whateley attended a lecture during Challenge Poverty Week to find out…

Challenge Poverty Week took place from 1st-7th October this year, and is organised annually by the Poverty Alliance. The main aims of the week are to:

  • Highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes that about exist about it;
  • Demonstrate what is being done across Scotland to address poverty
  • Increase public support for more action to solve poverty

As part of Challenge Poverty Week, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Challenge Poverty Lecture 2018 on Monday 1st October. Run jointly by the Poverty Alliance and the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit (SPIRU), the lecture was delivered by Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York.

Professor Pickett is co-author of the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009. The Spirit Level has been translated into more than 20 languages and has helped to significantly influence debates about the impact of inequality. Her most recent publication is The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everybody’s Wellbeing. It builds on the case made in The Spirit Level, highlighting how inequality impacts at an individual level. Most of the research I talk about in this blog is cited in these books.

Having not read either of Professor Pickett’s books and not knowing what these ideas are, I went into the lecture with an open mind. I soon realised it was to do with health inequalities, and how these inequalities make everyone worse off (not just the ones suffering the most from them). Having studied health inequalities throughout school and university, I was interested by what Professor Pickett had to say.

Much of her work is based on the idea that income inequality is heavily linked to health and social issues. Put simply, the more income inequality there is in a country, the more problems they have within the population. This is particularly relevant now where the stresses of austerity (which began eight years ago in 2010) are beginning to show in our health data.

Research shows that with more inequality comes more depression, more narcissism, more addictive behaviour, more consumerism and over-consumption, a rise in debt, lower civic participation, lower cultural engagement and lower levels of trust. The list is endless. This all proves Professor Pickett’s point that everyone is better off in a more equal society, and that austerity is not working as a feasible economic model.

Something I found particularly interesting was that inequality of this sort creates deep political divisions. Almost ironically, people suffering from worse health inequalities in America were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. People begin to feel left behind when politicians aren’t doing much to help them (or it doesn’t feel like they are). This could go part of the way to explaining the Brexit vote as well as the Trump election.

After this barrage of statistics and lots of food for thought, Professor Pickett said we need system change and political change on a large level if we are going to be able to get a better, more equal society. There are people trying to change things – the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) is a group of people around the world trying to do things differently, working towards the creation of a wellbeing economy (which is when the economy is less focused on growth and GDP and more focused on sustainable wellbeing, with dignity and fairness, for humans and the rest of nature). Will this gain any traction with world leaders and people who have the power to make these changes, however? Only time, and hard work, will tell.

Professor Pickett finished her lecture with the statement “we are all poorer when inequality is greater” which I think sums it up perfectly. I will definitely be reading her books soon to learn more about inequality and why it is so important to tackle.