Part 5 of 6: Concerning Inequality

Most measures of poverty applied in low- and middle-income nations are for absolute poverty. They do not concern themselves with inequality. But it is not possible to understand poverty and its consequences without an engagement with inequality and what underlies it. Studies of inequality, like studies of poverty, also focus on income. They show that economic growth is often associated with growing income inequality, as demands for skilled workers push up wages at the top end of the salary scale and the low-paid cannot keep up. However, economic recession is also difficult for unskilled workers, who often face greater competition from the numbers looking for work. Yet many of the most dramatic (and unjust) inequalities are in relation to the other deprivations — housing and living conditions, access to services, the rule of law, and voice. These are also reflected in the very large inequalities in health status and in premature mortality that Chapter 3 documented.

It is clear that inequalities in access to infrastructure and services within cities also reflect inequalities in political power, voice, and capacity to hold government agencies to account and to access entitlements. In some nations, those living in settlements with no legal address cannot register as voters, while in most informal settlements residents face difficulties getting the official documents needed to get on the voter's register, access entitlements, and hold government or private service providers to account. In all nations, the inequalities faced by those living in informal settlements are reinforced by the stigma associated with living in these neighbourhoods.

Understanding these deprivations also requires attention to the spatial aspects of inequalities — i.e. inequalities between neighbourhoods and districts within cities; so often, the data collected on incomes, living conditions, or service provision is from too small a sample to show these spatial inequalities. An understanding of the many different factors that create or exacerbate inequality also means more routes by which inequality can be reduced.

There are also other aspects of inequality that throw light on deprivation — for instance, inequalities in household assets or capital, or inequalities caused or exacerbated by social or political status and relations, including discrimination. An understanding of inequality also needs to consider the implications for low-income groups of a larger and wealthier elite with the city — for instance, as their demands and influences restructure cities (and city planning) to serve their priorities. They can separate themselves from 'the poor' through gated communities and highways that link their homes, places of work, and places for leisure.

There are also some nations where governments have reduced some of the most profound inequalities among the urban population — for instance, through extending provision for water, sanitation, schools, and health care (and sometimes the rule of law) to a larger proportion of the low-income population, or through transfer payments that reach large sections of the low income population with supplements to their income, such as pensions, conditional cash transfers, and child allowances. Where these reach low-income groups, these certainly reduce absolute poverty — although they may not reduce income-inequality, as incomes may rise more among high-income groups. But these cash transfers also do nothing to address the inequalities in provision for infrastructure and services.

Next: What We Have Learned

Summarized from Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature, by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Routledge, January 25, 2013.

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