UK needs bold new direction to solve social inequalities

The UK Government’s current approach to tackling inequality should urgently address the multiple levels of disadvantage that some people face, according to a new UCL report.

Structurally Unsound finds that women, working class, ethnic minority and disabled groups often face multiple disadvantages affecting their educational outcomes, employment prospects, home ownership, health and life expectancy.

The report highlights lessons learned and provides recommendations for policymakers and researchers to adopt when approaching structural inequalities.

Within this, it notes that there is a clear need for the voices of those experiencing inequality to be included in policy - changing society by changing who designs our policies. Although the proportion of Civil Service applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds doubled between 2015 and 2018 (from 8 per cent to 16 per cent), the makeup of Civil Service employees remains predominantly white, drawn from middle and upper class backgrounds and privately educated.

The report notes that minority groups in particular face multiple disadvantage. Figures show that significant employment gaps exist for working class, BAME and disabled adults.

Notably, while the proportion of BAME adults in work has increased in the last decade, it still lags the rate recorded by the white population by 10.6 percentage points. BAME people are also on average six percentage points more likely to be underemployed than their white counterparts. While black make graduates can expect to earn 17% less than white male graduates, after accounting for background and job.

To understand this disparity, the researchers say there is a growing need to obtain qualitative data and for businesses, government and the public sector to consider reporting on race and socio-economic background of employees.

In addition, the report highlights that where you live in the UK has a significant impact on your life chances. These issues are heavily intertwined with disparities in infrastructure across the UK and investment in both hard infrastructure, such as roads and rails, and soft infrastructure, such as schools and libraries.

The report finds that while there is significant data around the nature of inequalities, key evidence gaps remain. This affects understanding of how structural inequalities are experienced across regions and ethnicities, and by class, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. The report therefore sets out ways in which research and policy design can be driven forward in a way that addresses the complex, nuanced, structural nature of inequalities in the UK today.

Dr Olivia Stevenson, Head of Public Policy at UCL, and report author said:

"The UK has a deep-set and entrenched level of structural inequality and the UK Government has a powerful role to play in addressing this.

"Current instruments being used in government to measure inequality are not ambitious enough. We have a patchwork of policy, rather than a comprehensive fabric for policy delivery.

"Instead of merely focusing on compliance, they must consider issues of multiple disadvantage and come up with a bold new strategy, working collaboratively across government departments and with businesses and the public sector."

Matthew Whittaker, Deputy Chief Executive of Resolution Foundation, and Co-Chair of Exploring Inequalities project said:

"While Britain has taken great strides in tackling many social inequalities in recent decades, these inequalities still persist. It is still too often the case that someone’s gender, race, class or disability results in a pay and job penalty, and lower living standards as a result.

"In order to tackle the UK’s structural inequalities we first need to have a better understanding of the complex lived experience of inequality. That evidence base is crucial for the development of good policy making."

The Exploring Inequalities project is a collaboration between UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality, UCL Public Policy, and the Resolution Foundation, funded by UCL’s Knowledge Exchange Fund (HEIF).The research was carried out between January to October 2019 and brought together a broad range of experts from academia, business, the charity sector, NGOs, and government, to discuss current evidence on inequalities and seek out gaps in collective knowledge.

Key research findings:

  • Resolution Foundation research has found that the largest employment penalty is recorded by black male graduates, who can expect to be paid 17% less than white male graduates after accounting for their background and their job.
  • While unemployment rates have fallen for all other groups since 2008, they have increased for disabled white men. Such figures are even higher for BAME groups - with unemployment figures for disabled BAME men and disabled BAME women of 14.5 per cent and 14 per cent.
  • Location has an impact on the employment prospects of BAME individuals. Research by the Resolution Foundation finds that just 48% of BAME people in Northern Ireland are employed, whereas over 76% are employed in the South East of England.
  • A disproportionate - and increasing - number of BAME individuals are moving towards self-employment and the gig economy. It is unclear whether these people have been driven away from ’traditional’ employers by discrimination or a lack of opportunity and choice.
  • Categories such as ’BAME’ are too broad and fail to acknowledge the highly divergent experiences and outcomes of ethnic minority groups. For example, Indian people have an employment rate of 74%, whereas Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have among the lowest employment rates (55%).
  • There is a clear link between income inequality and housing. Low income groups are much less likely to own their own home, and as a result the relative housing costs they face are much higher.
  • Class is a crucial determinant in the likelihood of an individual owning a home. At the age of 30, those without parental property wealth are approximately 60% less likely to be homeowners than people whose parents are homeowners (Resolution Foundation). Furthermore, home ownership rates are much lower than the UK average for all ethnic minority groups.
  • The UK is marked by extreme geographical and spatial inequalities, both between and within cities and regions.
  • The healthy life span for people in the most deprived areas of Scotland is 22 years less than those living in the least deprived areas (NHS Health Scotland).
  • The unequal distribution of teachers across the UK is a core driver of educational inequality. High quality, experienced teachers, with greater subject-matter expertise, are clustered by place.

Siobhan Morris, Exploring Inequalities project lead and report author, comments:

"Structural inequalities emerge before birth and accumulate throughout an individual’s life. To understand the nature of inequality and its effects over the life-course, we need to adopt an intersectional perspective to identify and plug gaps in understanding.

"Research and policy should be developed with and not on the individuals that experience disadvantage. Securing change in society can only be achieved by changing who designs our policies.

"In addition, with a rapidly changing society, analysts and researchers should be considering how best to ’future-proof’ data collection to allow access to continuous, comparable data that can track and measure progress in tackling inequalities over time."

Key actions:

The report outlines a number of actions for employers, policymakers, third sector and researchers. This includes:

  • Governments need to embed a common language and joined up approach to policy-making. A joined-up approach to inequalities will also enable policymakers across the UK to better collaborate and adopt learning from other regions and nations.
  • A centralised funding pot would help government departments to work collaboratively on cross sector issues, rather than working in silos.
  • After the introduction of gender pay gap reporting, businesses should be considering race reporting to ensure resources are ready and they proactively remain ahead of government enforcement measures. Likewise, employers should consider reporting and capturing data on class/socioeconomic background of employees.
  • There is a growing need for employers to understand choice constraint. Undertaking qualitative research to critique ’choices’ (degree of agency and opportunity a person has to make meaningful choices) is crucial to better understanding the changing shape of the UK labour market and structural inequalities within it.
  • Likewise, shifting definitions and the changing nature of work are resulting in difficulty in capturing true rates of employment for different groups. For example, a quarter of all workers in the gig economy are BAME but this type of work cannot be captured by a single tick box on a traditional workforce survey with such workers often having multiple jobs or changing hours of work per week. Business and governments alike should therefore consider alternative, innovative methods for capturing employment statistics to better understand the nature of inequalities and constraints of choice.
  • Policymakers and researchers should prioritise citizen engagement and research conducted with, rather than on, those experiencing inequality.
  • There is a need to diversify the make-up of research and policymakers, avoiding ’tokenistic’ representation.
  • There is a need for data that captures the nature of disadvantage and its effect over the life-course and over generations. This could be addressed through more quantitative research, which would also help to better understand constraints and determine ’true’ choice across a range of domains, including the gig economy, education, and the housing market.
  • In addition, there is a need for more robust statistics on intersectional disadvantage and geographically weighted statistics.
  • Whilst the UK Government National LGBT survey is the world’s largest, providing a wealth of information and statistics on LGBT lived experience LGBT data must be captured systematically, routinely, and as standard. Currently, there remains a chronic lack of data on LGBT individuals, and consequently, the structural disadvantages they face.
  • With the last national study conducted in 2000, there is a pressing need to invest in a nationwide longitudinal cohort study. Without this data gap being plugged, there will be a generation of children, born into a rapidly changing society, that are not being followed on a large enough scale.

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