Inequality and violence

Deborah Hardoon Inequality

In this blog Deborah Hardoon explores the wider social impact of inequality, and in particular the relationship between inequality and violence.

At Oxfam, I have focused my research on the evidence behind our global campaign on inequality, which highlights the trend of extreme and rising inequality. At the global level, we found that 62 individuals have the same amount of wealth as half the planet. Within countries, where poverty sits side by side with extreme wealth, we find that the richest people are capturing an increasing share of national income.

There are many good reasons why we at Oxfam and Saferworld, among others, have taken this focus. Inequality slows down efforts to eradicate poverty. Inequality slows down overall growth. Inequalities intersect, creating unjust barriers based on an individual’s gender, where they live or other ethnic, religious or demographic characteristics. Inequality also has an impact on social cohesion, ‘eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption’. Inequality makes people sadder.

Given the importance of this global trend and its consequences on society, for this blog series I was asked to think about the relationship between inequality and violence. First stop (for me as an economist) is to look to the data. This chart from the Spirit Level, for example, handily charts a correlation between murder rates and income inequality.

But correlation does not equal causation and both inequality and violence (beyond just homicide rates) are complex issues, so let me make an attempt to break it down to a few different ideas, broadening the idea of violence a little to include crime and conflict:

  • Extreme economic inequality creates tension between the haves and the have nots (or the have nots and society and in general) resulting in conflict, resentment and crimes like theft and mugging, which can be violent. South Africa, by some measures the most unequal country in the world, is characterised by gated communities bordering impoverished townships. It experiences extremely high rates of violent crime with more than 200 street robberies a day, providing a powerful example of how violence can manifest when people take it upon themselves to challenge social exclusion and redistribute wealth.
  • If economies grow, but the proceeds from this growth are increasingly captured by elites, those that are marginalised are left behind; neither participating in economic progress, nor receiving adequate benefits and opportunities that allow them and their families to prosper. And it’s not just economic inequality that it is important here, but also social and political inequality, typified by people experiencing a relative lack of inclusion, voice and influence in society. Being left behind whilst others prosper can generate resentment, violence and conflict between the have nots and those with money, power and influence. But it can also create disenfranchised, frustrated and angry communities that use crime and violence within their own communities. In a rich country like the US for example, being relatively poor can predict your likelihood to be murdered, commit suicide, or experience other forms of violence. Low income women in the US for example are disproportionately likely to be victims of domestic violence.
  • Even according to new research from the IMF, it is suspected that extreme and rising inequality is driven by neo-liberal economics. It makes individuals more self-interested and concentrates resources in the hands of the few, making competition for resources more intense. The accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism – and democracy. “Extreme inequality makes it impossible to have proper working of democratic institutions,” Thomas Piketty told a recent meeting at Washington’s Urban Institute. Inequality means people are less connected and concerned with society and therefore more likely to act without respect to other people or their property – even, potentially, illegally. Crimes which may appear to be physically non-violent may be easier for people to reconcile to commit, even if they still hurt others. Rampant Tax evasion for example, particularly by those at the top of the distribution, stretches public services such as law and order and welfare, directly hurting the people that need help the most in society. Or bribery and corruption, which directly effects society even if the transaction itself may appear removed.
  • Once extreme inequality is established as a status quo, whereby extreme wealth coexists with extreme poverty, a powerful elite may be able to ‘control’ society and the apparatus and levels of violence active within it. This may mean that something as justified as challenging the injustice of inequality can be met with a violent response by those in positions of power who feel threatened. This presents an interesting paradoxical reality, whereby elite controlled violence (or at least the threat of it) protects unfair levels of inequality by dissuading protest, but in doing so will inevitably encourage much larger levels of public violence as the only available means of eventually challenging that very control.

This blog was originally published on Saferworld.


Laila Barhoum