Poverty and inequality never went away - we just stopped looking

For a time, compassion became unfashionable and all discussion was rubbished by Mrs Thatcher
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IT WOULD be good if Professor Amartya Sen, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics last week, could turn his scholarly attention to Britain. Professor Sen has made his reputation in welfare economics, challenging the view, for instance, that shortage of food is the main or only explanation of famine in India, Bangladesh and the Saharan countries. He has also created indices for measuring deprivation in all its aspects.

For we have been reminded in the past few days that substantial and dangerous poverty with horrible consequences still exists in this country. Sir Donald Acheson, a former government chief medical officer, has written a report showing that it is almost impossible for the poor in the United Kingdom to obtain cheap, varied food. Local shops have closed down because of the growth of out-of-town supermarkets, leading to the creation of food deserts in inner cities. If you live in the centre and lack a car, you simply cannot get to the supermarkets where the best bargains are to be found.

Sir Donald added that the food gap between the rich, who eat more fruit and vegetables, and the poor, who eat more salt and fat, parallels the health gap. Indeed, he said, actual hunger is prevalent in some groups today, particularly single mothers. This is famine, not of a region, but of certain groups, defined by their income, status and locality. The phenomenon has the same paradoxes that Professor Sen has analysed in Third World countries. The badly off in Britain pay more for their food in local shops than do those with higher incomes in supermarkets. The upshot is that the gap in life expectancy between those at the top and the bottom of the social scale has widened. Whereas one in five professional men aged 45 to 64 has a long-standing illness, the proportion for unskilled men is almost half.

But inequality extends further than food and health. In the 1998 British Crime Survey released last week, there is a section which got little attention headed "Unequal Risks". I found it just as significant as the slight fall in the incidence of crime which was trumpeted in newspaper headlines. For it provided ample evidence and many examples of how the poor suffer more from crime than the rich.

In England and Wales, one in 20 households experienced burglary in 1997. However, the following types of household ran an above-average risk of being broken into: where the head of the family was single, where the head of the family was unemployed, where the household income was less than pounds 5,000 a year, or where the property was rented from a council or housing association. On the other hand, if a family had an income of more than pounds 30,000 and was living in a detached house which it owned, its chances of suffering a break-in were very much less.

In the case of vehicle crime, the picture is similar except in one respect - car thieves do like expensive cars. Nonetheless the categories most at risk of theft related to vehicles remain single parents, the unemployed and those living in council or housing association property. When we come to violent crime, a high percentage of the victims are found in exactly the same groups. The only special factor is the regularity of going out in the evening. As one would expect, the more often you go out, or the more often you visit a pub or wine bar, the more likely you are to be involved in a violent incident.

Sir Donald's work and the Crime Survey together provide an updated, if incomplete, account of inequality in British society. We didn't get rid of the problem just because all discussion was successfully rubbished and stopped by Mrs Thatcher. For a time, compassion became unfashionable. In 1980 Mrs Thatcher was able to make sure that a report that linked deprivation with ill health written by the consultant physician, Sir Douglas Black, was buried in a Whitehall filing cabinet. Only a few cyclostyled copies were printed. It is said that Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, obtained one and that is why, when he came into office, he commissioned Sir Donald to revisit the subject. Nor was poverty much mentioned by any of the political parties in the general elections of the 1980s and 1990s. After all, the poor don't vote in large numbers.

Of course, inequality is a permanent feature of all human societies; it even exists in a significant way, I have no doubt, in North Korea. The task is to soften its rigours to an acceptable degree. To this end, an important preliminary piece of work is to make better understood the situation in our society. I am thinking here of visibility, of which the account of Sir Donald's findings published on the front page of The Independent on Thursday was an example, as compared with the invisibility of the Crime Survey's work on unequal risks.

When the homeless finally started sleeping rough in doorways and corners for all to see, for instance, the Conservative government at last took action. It is here that economists working in Professor Sen's tradition can make a useful contribution.

There needs to be a regularly published variety of measures that show whether inequality is increasing or decreasing. The first step towards solving a problem is to measure it and, if a political solution is required, to publicise it. Then we shall have to rely on the three parties which are always involved in social initiatives - charities, local authorities and government.

During the 1980s and 1990s, charities have become like bodies of irregular troops which armies use to work behind the enemy's front line. They are quickly formed; they are light of foot; they identify targets. They are often staffed by bright, committed, progressive young people who could have earned a lot of money in the City or become MPs, policy advisors or spin doctors had they gone into politics. They find ingenious solutions to social problems, obtaining backing for their ideas from private donors of charitable funds as well as by way of government grants for undertaking specific projects.

Local authorities have a bad reputation and indeed there are plenty of horror stories. On the other hand, for different reasons, I have had to deal recently with three different London boroughs - Southwark, Bromley and Tower Hamlets - and in each case I have been impressed by the quality of service and willingness to innovate. As enablers, many local authorities have become effective. They can make a large contribution to alleviating poverty.

Finally, there is the present government, where the Prime Minister's initiative in setting up a Social Exclusion Unit at 10 Downing Street may prove to have been one of its most significant moves. For whether we like it or not, inequality is back on the agenda.