Over the past decade, the narrative around inequality has changed dramatically. Inequality is now widely accepted as one of the – if not the – biggest issue of the 21st century. Think tanks and charities produce endless research and reports on inequality and its effects, but real people’s voices and stories of inequality specifically are not well evidenced in this work.
There is currently no platform or forum providing information or access to the lived experience of inequality or its everyday impacts in the UK, especially not in an accessible way. There is also a general lack of shared knowledge about what it is like to experience inequality everyday, what that includes and how its specificities range across different contexts. We think that this is stifling the possibilities for change and debate about contemporary Britain.
Inequality affects us all, but we know that it is the people who are most affected by inequality whose stories we hear the least. They’re also more likely to be over-looked, go un-consulted or are simply discredited or shamed when they do speak out about their experience.
This needs to change.
#EverydayInequality aims to bring together blogs, interviews, podcasts, poetry, music, art, videos and photography that showcase the real, diverse stories of what inequality feels like, starting with London – the most unequal region in the country.
Anyone can contribute, you don’t need any experience or a specific story to tell. You just need to be open to starting a conversation and talking about your personal experience, in whatever form you are most comfortable.
Fill out this short form if you’d like to find out more about being involved and to begin exploring the different ways to contribute to your voice to the project
I grew up in Hackney in the ‘90s and 2000s. I returned four years ago to work in the community. I’ve been struck by two main features of its inequality.
Despite its gentrification, there’s much continuity in Hackney
Simplistic narratives about Hackney’s complete “hipsterisation” abound, but having undertaken an extensive research project into the lives of young people locally, it’s clear to me that far from everything has been transformed.
There have been significant changes. Expensive shops and cafes have proliferated. Daniel, one of the brilliant young people I’ve worked with once said: “these new places are so close – they’re just round the corner or across the street – but they feel so far away.”
Young people in Hackney are surrounded by new places which are physically proximate, but economically remote: they can’t afford or access them despite living alongside them. The worst example of this is ‘Hackney Fashion Walk’ – a collection of luxury outlet stores part-funded by the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund after the 2011 riots, which have now almost all closed. An act of corporate vandalism, presented as regeneration.
Young people can see who benefits from change locally. Respondents to our research spoke about the area seeming to “prioritise richer people” or the “upper class”. One 19 year-old put it strongly: “They’re just about bringing in clothing shops, so it ain’t benefiting us… it ain’t helping young people, it’s just helping whoever owns the property.”
Many participants spoke openly about knowing they won’t be able to stay in the community that has always been their home. At a local school, a girl of around 15 said she feared going to university, because of knowing she couldn’t afford to live back in Hackney. Children in local primary schools spoke with sadness about their neighbours having to move out because they couldn’t stay in the area anymore. When talking about the changes they wanted, their answers included “lower rent” and “higher wages”.
The question of who has the most claim to live in a certain area is an incredibly difficult one, as the perpetual debates about migration and asylum-seeking, as much as those about gentrification, attest. But one thing seems very clear to me: it’s not a question to be left to “the market”.
Among all this upheaval, though, there are important indicators of continuity. The young people we spoke to celebrated the area’s continuing multiculturalism, community spirit, and neighbourliness. Less positively, they also emphasised long-running problems affecting local young people: housing problems, crime, youth violence, gangs, drugs, and lack of work opportunities. One 15 year-old put it starkly: “Everything is more expensive here [but] the community hasn’t changed – it’s still poor.” Whack my old postcode (E9 5SX) into the Index of Multiple Deprivation data map, and you’ll see it’s still among the most deprived areas in the country. It was recently announced that Hackney now has the third highest rate of child poverty in the UK, the rate having increased by nearly 7% in the past year, so that now close to half of Hackney’s children are in poverty.
The same issues which affected my generation of young people in Hackney continue today, seemingly untouched by regeneration and gentrification.
Parents from different backgrounds are treated very differently by (some) schools
One of my main roles in Hackney is supporting young people and their parents through difficulties in education. Quite often, after I attend a meeting at school with a parent and/or student, they comment with mixed feelings about how differently they were treated with me there – it’s good that they got more respect, but it’s bad that the teachers can only avoid demeaning them when there’s another professional present.
This belittling treatment is not equally distributed. Parents from poorer backgrounds, younger parents, single parents, female parents, and parents of colour are often victims of the greatest contempt. I’ve seen it.
One parent said to me on the phone, the very first time we spoke: “I feel like the school is classist, Luke. They treat me a certain way because I’m a young single mum from Hackney. My neighbour is [professional], and they treat them very differently.” The idea that a school in Hackney would discriminate against a parent because they’re from Hackney is self-evidently absurd, but sadly very plausible: there is an intense superiority complex shot through some local schools (not all), which seem to view themselves as fortresses of civilisation in a savage neighbourhood.
It goes without saying that this inequality is reflected in exam results and – most notably – in exclusion statistics.
Fighting (the symptoms of) inequality in Hackney
Hackney Quest, the charity I work for, fights the everyday symptoms and the causes of inequality in Hackney, as much as we can. We run free community meals and give out food parcels. We recently partnered with another charity, Build Up, to give local young people the power to design and build a new public space. Daniel, mentioned above, was a paid youth leader on the project.
But much more is needed, from local government, national government, the business world, and civil society. It’s a disgrace that parents can be treated so differently due to class, ethnicity or gender. It’s a disgrace that young people living streets apart in my home borough continue to live qualitatively different lives, due to a degree of inequality that can’t possibly be justified. However tightly you grip hold of the preposterous notion of British “meritocracy”, it’s hard to argue for the superior merit of one 8 year old over another.
By Luke Billingham, Hackney Quest
This article represents the personal views of Luke Billingham not The Equality Trust.
Hackney Quest is a youth charity which provides positive activities for the community’s young people. To find out more about their brilliant work visit Hackney Quest’s website.
Stories of inequality and declining urban areas often focus on larger cities. They speak vaguely about ‘the North’. They bypass smaller towns in the Midlands. They bypass Northampton.
Most people can’t tell you where it is on a map: rarely does anyone visit. Yet Northampton is one of the largest towns in the UK. And just like ‘the North’ it is being hammered by austerity and neo-liberal economics, political collapse and a smashed local government system. Inequality is a living, breathing force that traps many thousands of people, and our town, in a spiral of decline that is unrelenting.
Yet on paper, it’s not poor; it does not trouble complex indices of deprivation; most people work; educational standards are not the worst. But it is collapsing. That collapse is measurable in a range of indicators that are less obvious.
For some two years it has had no elections. No viable system of local government. Trapped by Brexit and fears of electoral loss, its citizens have been denied democracy, since its county council was made bankrupt, taken into special measures, and is allegedly planned for abolition, absorbed into a new unitary also containing two areas to the west.
Some say that this happened because of a tragic combination of officer and councillor incompetence; people who really had no idea how to run anything, working with people with destructive and untested political ideologies, who ran the budget through the ground and headed for Hell.
The local borough council, also due to be abolished, seems to have been mired in corruption and financial mismanagement allegations, and suffered a crippling lack of trust amongst voters and the wider community.
The voluntary sector and community sector is likewise in freefall, destroyed by grant cuts from the statutory sector and ideological drivers of the allocation of what remains.
There is a talent shortage too. A significant percentage of pupils with ambition and good A levels leave the town, largely to London or abroad. This is because there are no suitable jobs for them here.
There are jobs: in warehouses, earning the minimum wage, working anti-social hours on zero-hours contracts. Jobs for young people are especially challenging, with the low wages they supply trapping young people in sofa surfing or staying later than they want with mum and possibly dad.
One of the results of that is homelessness: 120 people attend the Hope Centre’s daily drop in for the homeless and disadvantaged; 100+ people sleep rough every night in tent cities surrounding the town non-centre.
Another is the upsurge of local crime. The grandad told by his 13 yr old grandson that every classmate carries a knife; the local newspaper reporter who bemoans that they no longer have the capacity to cover every stabbing; the TV blue light show that told victims and criminals alike that there was only 1 police officer available at some times of day for over 200,000 people.
It’s a sad story, much sadder if you live here. For many, there is profound apathy about achieving change. There is a very small middle class; this is not Bristol, Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge. There is no thriving green movement or visible LGBT energy at scale. Advertising of an event is often greeted by stony silence on social media. This is a seriously depressed town with few moments of energy and respite from the harshness of hardscabble existence. And this has led down some very dark paths indeed: nationalism and hostility to those communities who share the same inequalities – eastern Europeans most particularly.
There is a weary sense that solutions are not going to come out of traditional sources: local authorities, political parties, middle class activism. Solutions, if any, will come from the very communities and services working at ground level that are most aware of, and most victims of the problems described.
In the next submission to #everydayinequality we will look at some emerging responses to austerity in Northampton.
By Robin Burgess, Chief Executive of Northampton Hope Centre
This article represents the personal views of Robin Burgess not those of the Northampton Hope Centre or The Equality Trust.
Hope is a progressive anti-poverty charity that works to improve the lives of anyone affected by poverty, especially homelessness, through services, training, campaigning and advocacy.
“It’s hard to think of anything better calculated to exacerbate all your insecurities about whether you appear as successful or as a failure, interesting or dull, clever or stupid, well-educated or ignorant, than being ranked by class”—The Inner Level.
Home is a fiction I manufacture, a question I sidestep, a place in my heart that I can only see when I sleep. I am a social migrant, born to a place where the dilapidation screams of a dearth of opportunities, even as ideas on the periphery of the mind. I resettled in a ‘better’ place where jobs are abundant, but only to those for whom prior knowledge and social conditioning have prepared them to enter, and my now Oxbridge-educated, but inherently proletarian, brain inculcates how much I will never truly belong here. I am stuck in the chasm between a culture I never truly fit into and one I cannot hope to reach.
The books that I collected from 10p boxes outside second-hand shops and angled between myself and the incessant glare of the talking screen, that shielded me from my mother’s admonition of what they represented, are not even worth noting, don’t qualify as real books, compared to the volumes your parents put into your hands, the works they taught you had meaning and value and discussed over dinner. I defer to you to tell me what inequality means from things you read in books because your roots, your middle class ones, gave you the confidence to speak them and mine, mired in the lessons of an entrenched class system, taught me that my thoughts are not as good as yours, that I am not as good as you. You speak over me because you know this inherent class truth and the power of hegemony.
I still have my childhood copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which gave me a language with which to translate my thoughts and values into a tangible expression. I left university and I learned that all of the words in the English lexicon couldn’t teach me to speak the same language as you; that culture, confidence, and business-savvy say far more than the most articulate discourse; that, at best, the things your parents taught you in conversation (and mannerisms), would take me years of immersion in a plethora of books and articles to uncover.
We are taught that working class is a lack. It is a lack of middle classness, a lack of opportunity to be better educated, to have better employment. But really, just to be better. All of the hours I spent teaching myself out of a world in which learning is rejected while caring for someone who couldn’t care for themselves are a blight on what matters and, moreover, a lack of just being in an environment of relative ease and privilege of opportunity. Denial of the past, a total obliteration of one’s own history, is the best step to forgiveness of this flaw.
My arms are still soft from where other children hit me to get here. My neck still aches from dodging their attempts to trip me by staring at my shoes. My lungs still expire their cigarette smoke from venturing into the school toilets. My stomach still churns from years of bad food. My struggle to be your shadow, to sink into inferior jobs, to fit around your superiority, burnt into my memory, is nothing, has no value, is merely a lack of what I could have been if I had not endured this.
School taught patience and endurance, to learn despite unremitting interruption and a lack of teachers and resources. As one of only a few pupils who cared to pick up a book, it did not teach me to be creative, innovative, collaborative, confident, or at ease. My education, fought against the tide, offered a lack of what is necessary to succeed in the modern world.
And home. Home is a place where my life, thoughts, and values matter, a milieu I slip into rather than jar against. Home is where I belong.
Fighting inequality in the UK follows the stories of three activists:
Hannah, an 18-year-old Muslim woman from Acton, West London;
Aisling, a Brighton-based activist organising around the housing and homelessness crisis in the city;
Tracey, a community worker supporting local people in Teesside to take local action and campaign for economic and social justice.
The UK is the world’s 5th richest country, and 14 million people are living in poverty – including one in five British children. Meanwhile, the wealth of the UK’s richest continues to grow by billions year on year. The ever-increasing divide between the rich and poor is destroying British society.
But inequality is not inevitable; it is a result of deliberate, political decisions.
Fighting inequality in the UK shows us that by coming together and acting with haste and urgency, a different future is already being built from the grassroots up.
For the last day of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, we’re sharing this powerful animation in which Katherine, Simon, Martin and Muna explore what a fair and equal world would look like to them, and what it would mean for health and happiness.
Accompanied by beautiful animation from Yujie Xu.
A massive thank you to Yujie Xu, Cate Latto and the service users at St Charles Hospital in Kensington & Chelsea for contributing both their time and their stories to this project.
This animation short was originally created for The Equality Trust’s ‘Speaking to Power’ festival, part of the Fight Inequality Alliance’s Week of Action in January 2019.
A long read exploring the differences between material poverty and perceived cultural inequalities, and how the author began to recognise the impact of inequality on her self-esteem whilst at university.
I grew up in Tottenham, North London for the first 18 years of my life as a very conscious and progressive child and teen. I cared deeply about equality from a young age, despite being raised by parents who were ‘apolitical’ and who allowed me my say over their votes by the age of 12. This blog serves as my way of understanding how I came to recognise inequality in my own life and the ways it has impacted on me.
Mine and my sister’s upbringing was in many ways so incredibly different to the struggles of economic deprivation that our parents had been through. Our parents had both grown up in relative poverty and had both left school early with very few academic qualifications between them. Whereas for us – materially – we wanted for nothing. My dad owned our house, we could go on every school trip, we always had enough food to eat, got new clothes when we needed them and usually got a fairly decent haul at Christmas and our birthdays.
I went to an all girls’ secondary school in Hackney, East London. It wasn’t fantastic but it certainly wasn’t a “bad” school by London standards. I worked incredibly hard to be one of the top students, and I regularly felt satisfied that meritocracy had truly prevailed. That said, we all knew somehow that we could never go to Oxbridge (regardless of how many As we got in our A-Levels), but other than that me and my friends felt like we were all doing well and that nothing could really stop us or get in our way.
My sister was the first person in our family to go to university in 2008. I followed suit three years in later in 2011. It was this experience that truly thrusted me into experiencing inequality and in uncovering my sense of self formed through living in the most unequal place in the UK.
Horses, holidays and skiing trips
I was the first person to arrive in my new flat in halls. When my first flatmate walked in, my fear and class self-consciousness emerged immediately. This person, now a very good friend of mine, reminded me recently that the second thing I said to her after “hi, nice to meet you”, “what’s your name?” was “are you posh?”. Within the first week, I had also freaked out when someone had mentioned a horse in a story and another had mentioned skiing.
I was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor.
Looking back, this seems like such an odd way to behave, but I can understand now why I reacted like this. On arriving at university, I left the bubble of those who had experienced a similar upbringing to me and was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor. I felt out of place and I was terrified that I’d be rumbled; I obviously didn’t really deserve my place there.
These experiences continued as I discovered more about the gulf between my own experiences and those of my peers. When people spoke about their extravagant holidays, I was forced to confront the fact that me and my family had been abroad only twice (to stay with family in Italy) and the rest of our very infrequent holidays had been to Pontins or Butlins. Everyone seemed to somehow be proficient in a musical instrument and good at cross-country. They seemed shocked to find out that my music lessons at school had consisted of us writing pop songs with a 90s Yamaha keyboard shared between 10 of us, and that our entire outside area was a concrete playground no bigger than the car parking space outside our uni halls.
Books, newspapers and debates
Within the first few weeks, I was paired up with a classmate for a group presentation. He told me that his dad has just written a book on a related issue to whatever it was we had been asked to present on. My class-conscious self clearly affronted by this, I quipped “I don’t think my dad’s ever read a book.”
He looked at me with a look of disgust that I honestly was not expecting.
We were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia.
As my first year went on I realised that yes I was smart, but I still felt like I didn’t really deserve to be there. The people I was studying alongside had grown up in the sorts of houses that had huge bookcases, with families that had dinner around the table and debated whatever world issue was topical on that day. Their parents had been to university and were in highly-skilled, academic jobs. On the other hand, we were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia. Newspapers, if any, were whatever free London paper my dad had found on the tube and brought home for the cats’ litter tray. I realised that my comment about the books had not really been joke, it was true. No one in my house read and we had never been encouraged to discuss anything critically. I was severely lacking the wide perspective and understanding of the world and its history that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else.
You sound like you’re from Tottenham
Through taking on this self-deprecating persona, I inadvertently started to embolden others to speak to me with the same level of disdain as I spoke about myself. The guy whose dad had written a book once asked me in front of our entire group if “my parents had bought their house off Thatcher” (in an effort to humiliate me in front of our wealthy classmates), and my home of Tottenham and my accent were regularly mocked. Another classmate told me that I didn’t deserve the grades I got because I clearly didn’t know anything. One housemate regularly ‘joked’ in menial conversations that I couldn’t have a say over household decisions because I was from Tottenham.
I worked in supermarkets and restaurants throughout my degree and in every summer holiday, while many of my friends went on long holidays with their families or undertook amazing volunteering opportunities and unpaid internships that I’d have never even had the family connections to get, let alone the months of unpaid work my parents could never have afforded to subsidise. I slowly found out that a few of my friends didn’t even have student loans, their parents had paid their fees upfront and had given them enough money to live on for the full three years.
As I got older, more and more people told me they thought I had “imposter syndrome”. That’s the fairly common feeling that you are a fraud who has only got to where you are by chance or luck, accompanied by the constant feeling that you’re going to get ‘found out’. A real life example: I was awarded a prize for the best dissertation in my cohort at my graduation. What I took from this was that I’d somehow tricked the person who had graded it, or that they must have not known anything about the topic. Anyone who has ever felt this way will have a host of stories like this they can think of.
While mental health is of course incredibly complex, I do believe that the extreme social and economic inequality that is rife in our society (and intensely amplified at elite institutions) is somewhat responsible for my mental health problems.
I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries.
Inequality has been so damaging to my self-esteem, my self-confidence and my ability to feel happy about my life. Until I was placed face-to-face with those who had much more than me, I was content with what I had and what I thought I could do. But after beginning uni, instead of appreciating the very comfortable and safe life I had and the opportunities I had access to, I was angry that my friends had more time to write their essays while I had to work, and they were already set up to get good jobs from their parents’ connections after we graduated. I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries. I was annoyed that I couldn’t lose the ever-present hints of my mum’s cockney accent. I struggled to be happy while I constantly compared myself to people who had completely different upbringings, opportunities, incomes and lifestyles to me.
My advice for working class folks at university
Knowing that many people reading this might have had similar experiences or be going through this exact problem right now, I thought it might be worthwhile giving some tips on how I personally came to understanding and dealing with these experiences.*
Acknowledge how deeply unequal our society is and the impact that this can have on our mental health. It is easier to understand why it is so natural to feel like this once you understand more about inequality.
Realise that you can’t change your family and you shouldn’t want to. Our parents have done their very best to give us the things their parents couldn’t give them, and we should be grateful for everything they’ve done. Most of all, we certainly shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of our culture, accents, experiences or upbringings. Be proud of working class culture!
Don’t self-deprecate or put yourself forward for ridicule as a way to cope with those feelings of fraudulence – it only makes other people think they have the right to speak to you in that way too.
Remember that you deserve your place and your success as much, if not more, than many of your peers.
If anyone decides to make a comment (like some of the anecdotes I’ve relayed above), simply remind them that you’re both at the same institution despite you not having benefited from the privilege of a private education or any other benefits of a middle or upper class upbringing.
At the same time, try not to compare yourself to others. I recognise that our current obsession with social media platforms like Instagram (not really a thing during my days at uni fortunately), can make it really difficult not to. But do your best to focus on what actually makes you happy and the things you are grateful for.
Realise that you’re not alone. I shared the title of this article on my social media and got so many responses from people saying “I have a story just like this” – there will certainly be other people at your institution just like you who will understand.
Take action to campaign against inequality. While it’s not “our” responsibility to resolve these problems, I have found that being a part of fighting against inequality does help to give your own experiences more clarity and purpose. Most importantly, a world with less inequality will be a world in which we’re all much happier, so it makes sense to get started.
Rianna – Tottenham, North London.
* A note that none of these suggestions preclude also seeking professional support for your mental health, by going to see your GP and being referred to whatever psychological services or medication you may require. For many people, including myself, this has also been a necessary part of un-learning the behaviours that can make you feel like this.
The following is a poignant and insightful blog from Georgina, about the strong resonances she found when reading The Inner Level, the 2018 book from Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett following on from their acclaimed work The Spirit Level.
When I read The Inner Level I was struck in a way I haven’t felt before when reading a book. I felt that the authors had articulated something I’d been struggling with my whole life. They’d put words to my experiences and the causes of my experiences that no one else had managed to do before.
I’d always been an anxious person and I’ve experienced several of what the current research and the authors call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). But therapists (and I’ve had eight of them – I’m 33 now) could, or would, only focus on my inner experiencing, my feelings and my close relationships. The impact of my culture, my society’s values and its economy and the impacts of these on me as an individual were never looked at. I guess it’s presumed that this is the realm of sociology and economics, not psychology. What my therapists lacked in understanding of my socio-economic context (and therefore couldn’t help me to understand it) meant that I could only make sense of half my own picture.
I came to the book launch of The Inner Level because I wanted to thank Dr. Pickett and Dr. Wilkinson for making sense of the missing pieces of my picture for me – for making my feelings, responses and fears understandable in a way that no therapist has. Reading that a society that is more unequal will lead to people internalising the society’s evaluation of them made complete sense to me and I could think of many, many instances of this happening in me.
Understanding this new concept freed me from feelings of blame that I’d put on myself, for example, by feeling like a failure for not keeping up with my successful older siblings. It made me see that I couldn’t expect to be fully well, flourishing and fully functioning if the society I live in has an illness – an illness it isn’t even aware of. I felt like I’d woken up to what was going on around me in the same way I’d started to wake up when I first started training as a therapist.
We aren’t encouraged to look up from ourselves and to understand, query or contrast our socio-economic situations with other cultures – and the impact that this is having on us is an epidemic of as yet unprecedented proportions. Our society’s mental distress is at an exceptional level and no one other theory can explain and encompass the cause of it like the conclusions in this book and in The Spirit Level.
The Inner Level helped me to realise the importance of psychology and sociology being more combined and shared across disciplines. This is to ensure that therapists (myself included) do not end up tacitly colluding with the inequality inherent in our society by being unaware of it on a macro and micro level. Anyone involved in supporting people in health and social care should read it to ensure a broader and deeper understanding of people and their patients/clients. I now work in the Equality Improvement Department for a national mental health charity and hope that I can bring some of this new understanding with me into my own work.