Verso Five Book Plan: Inequality in the UK


Dawn Foster is deputy features editor of Inside Housing and editor of Sustainable Housing magazine, having previously worked at the Guardian. She writes on politics, social affairs, and economics. Recent articles have focused on the rent/housing crisis in the UK, the role of miners' wives during the infamous strike of '84, benefit cuts and bedroom tax. In this new Five Book Plan she presents her top 5 books on inequality in the UK today.

Source: anonymous artists from the SQUASH Campaign (2013) Climate, Land and Homes, Strike! Magazine, June 4th. Featured in Inequality and the 1% by Danny Dorling.

1) Inequality and the 1% by Danny Dorling (Verso, publishing in September 2014)

Social geographer Danny Dorling provocatively, though not unreasonably, asks in his latest book - can we afford the super-rich? A worthy companion to  2011’s Injustice, Dorling looks at the yawning chasm between the wealth of the top 1% of society, and the rest of society, busting the myths around the contribution the super-wealthy make to society and exploring the decreasing life chances and standard of living in post-recession Britain. ’Although the rich can fuel a particular kind of wealth-creation - one of ever more wealth for themselves - there is no perpetual-motion machine causing the top 1 per cent to become richer and richer and take an even greater share year on year, with their salary reviews and property value escalators. There is no iron law dictating that everyone else must step down in times of austerity, with those at the bottom drowning’.

2) Estates by Lynsey Hanley (Granta Books, 2007)

Part memoir, part history of municipal housing, Estates explores the idealism and reality of post-war housing: how a grand house-building plan to give everyone in Britain a home to be proud of, with outdoor space, and a proper community turned sour. More than anything else, Hanley perfectly captures the internalised stigma of growing up on an estate: the simultaneous pride and shame: ‘I wonder if the stigma of coming from a council estate is ever turned to an advantage, and whether that inherent sense of inferiority ever becomes a source of pride. You believe yourself to be proud of having overcome the limitations of your environment - literally, of having escaped a kind of prison - and yet you know that in some ways you will never escape. That’s because, to anybody who doesn’t live on one (and to some who do)  the term ‘council estate’ means hell on earth’.

3) The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (Allen Lane, 2009)

Wilkinson and Pickett’s book made a splash when it came out, compiling hundreds of dataset to show the social and economic cost of inequality. The physical and mental health of a nation worsens as inequality deepens, a fact Wilkinson and Pickett argue eloquently, with intensely readable prose alongside the data. Incarceration rates, obesity, mental illness, violence - all of these social and personal problems are far more prevalent in unequal societies, and increase with social division. Five years on, there’s still plenty to take away from The Spirit Level - the central message that inequality, rather than just poverty, is a stain on society.

4) The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu (Allen Lane, 2013)

Poverty kills: Greece, particularly badly hit by the current economic crisis and austerity cheerleading is a case in point. Basu and Stuckler, public health experts, show the far-reaching effects cuts in public health programmes, and poverty cause. When Greece stopped spraying insecticide after the crisis hit, malaria and West Nile disease rocketed. With jobs disappearing, heart attacks amongst women and young people reached staggering rates.  When the needle exchange programmes in Greek cities was slashed, HIV rates shot up. Examining the public health fallout of every financial crisis and subsequent austerity package in the last century, The Body Economic shows how cuts have far-reaching effects that physically destroy people, and cause damage that lasts far longer than austerity cycles.

5) Austerity Bites: A journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK by Mary O’Hara (Policy Press, 2014)

Comprised of hundreds of first hand interviews with people affected by austerity across the UK, O’Hara’s book shows the aftermath of the swingeing cuts to disability and unemployment benefits. O’Hara spent 12 months travelling around the country, and weaves first hand accounts of the homeless, pensioners, disabled people and the poorest in society into a scathing book that shows how horrific even a small cut to paltry benefits mean the difference between eating and heating for many people. If Cameron’s tired mantra ‘We’re all in this together’ sounded hollow before, O’Hara’s documentation of how austerity has devastated thousands of lives shows it for the spiteful lie it is. As O’Hara points out, ‘I consider myself to be a graduate of the welfare state – and I am proud of it. I know the crippling shame of poverty and what it feels like to internalise that shame, but I also know the liberation of moving beyond it and, therefore, why supporting those less fortunate within our society is not just desirable, but necessary. We all do better if our poorest citizens do better – it is the most fundamental riposte to neoliberal individualism and to austerity.’

And five more because we're generous like that!

6. Injustice: why social inequality persists by Danny Dorling (Policy Press, 2011)
7. The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young (Penguin Books 1970)
8. Border Country by Raymond Williams (Parthian Books, 2005)
9. Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (Holt, 2002)
10. Chavs by Owen Jones (Verso, 2012)

You can follow Dawn Foster on Twitter @dawnhfoster.