One of the tightest correlations with income inequality is the proportion of the population with a prison sentence. The only outliers are the USA, which has a disproportionate number of its citizens in prison, and Greece, with a disproportinately low prison population.

Margaret Thatcher's famous assertion that 'there is no such thing as society' occurred in response to the suggestion that 'society' might have something to do with taking up a criminal career. As far as she was concerned, people were respon­sible for their own choices, and some people with bad characters were simply disposed to criminality. As against this, however, Oliver Letwin, in 2002 when he was Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, acknowledged that people are much more likely to drift into crime than to choose it and that the tendency to become career criminals arises from a series of cumulative disadvantages:

'The individual passes through successive stages on the conveyor belt: neglected or abused child, disruptive pupil, anti-social teenager, young offender, first time prisoner, repeat offender, hardened criminal.' And, in an implied repudiation of Thatcher, he added that 'society' has to find 'easily accessible exit points' and 'a helping hand to make those exits'. (Allan Davis, Guardian, 9th Jan 2002).


Letwin focused on the respon­sibility of individual parents for the initial disadvantage: the only source that he acknowledges is 'neglect and abuse'. A neglected or abused child brings few positive resources for learning to school. This makes him or her more likely to be disruptive (or at best inattentive) than pupils whose homes provide them with more resources such as books and parental attention . From this point of view the left hand axis of the following graph is a surrogate for bad parenting. It may be the key factor which explains why criminals are drawn mostly from a relatively narrow social stratum and why they tend to have very low reading and mathematical abilities, and so on.

Clearly, there are other processes of disadvantage at work behind this tight correlation, which are greatly increased when intra-country data are examined. In the USA for example inter-state variabilities are likely to be related to different attitudes towards setting penallties and defining the role of prisons.

Regarding the causes of crime, poverty, inequality of income and status and unequal educational opportunity loom large. Although poverty and economic marginality make crime more attractive, inequality is independently significant. Where data is available (39 countries), income inequality accounts for much of the difference in homicide rates. Countries differ in wealth, availability of guns and the place of violence in their culture for example, and this may be relevant to much of the scatter between countries and within the USA. But it is generally accepted that the relationship between crime and inequality is related to social relations, such as trust, that bind people together, which government cannot do much about.



One possibility to explain the relationship between trust and inequality is that differences in income, including those based on race, ethnicity, gender or age, reduce the tendency of individuals to identify with one another. Greater variation simply leads to less familiarity. By this account, rich people would be as unlikely to trust the poor as vice versa. But other causal linkages may come into play, including class conflict. In an analysis of individual-level data from the United States General Social Survey, the economists Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara found that belonging to a group that has historically felt discriminated against or labelled “economically unsuccessful” reduces trust.

In a classic article, “The Dark Side of the Force,” the economist Jack Hirshleifer explained extreme differences in wealth and power among groups often lead to appropriation or exploitation rather than trade. Not surprisingly, humans have learned to be suspicious of those who have the capacity to do them harm. By this account, the powerless are less likely to trust the powerful than vice versa.

Public policies play an important role. In particular, means-tested programmes – those that make receipt of benefits contingent on an income or asset test – tend to foster mistrust among people. By contrast, universal programmes tend to strengthen social solidarity. Furthermore, less social solidarity means less support for more egalitarian policies. Countries can get caught in a trust trap in which inequality and mistrust feed on one another.



There must, if that is so, be some reason for people making choices that have a tendency to lead to this result. Among the candidates are lack of resources and lack of information (or false information) - much of which is deliberately disseminated by companies to sell their products. One obvious way of 'blaming the victim' is to hold poor people responsible for choices that arise directly from the relatively limited set of options that poverty (by definition) gives rise to in the market. Faced with the same limited set of alternatives - between eating, keeping warm and avoiding having the water cut off, for example -people who are currently wealthy might very well make exactly the same decisions as do those who actually face this range of options. You may be perfectly well aware that a healthy diet requires plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. But if you have a hungry family to feed and are living on state benefits or a job at the minimum wage, you will have to fill their bellies with the cheapest food you can buy, which means carbohydrates.


The observation that children from poorer backgrounds do worse in terms of educational outcomes was first highlighted in Rowntree’s investigation into poverty in York at the turn of the twentieth century. A hundred years on, gaps in educational attainment between children from rich and poor families continue to be marked, and an increasing focus of government policy. The recent White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, acknowledges that ‘a child’s educational achievements are still too strongly linked to their parents’ social and economic background – a key barrier to social mobility’.

The debate continues, however, about whether the current direction of government policy towards increased choice and competition is the most appropriate one for reducing the attainment gap and promoting the achievement of the poorest.


Teenage pregnancy

In most developed countries teenage pregnancy rates are highest in poorer and more deprived sectors of society (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1995; Babb, 1994; Botting, 1998; Kiernan, 1980). Families headed by young single mothers are amongst the poorest in both Britain and the USA. In England and Wales there are also wide geographical variations in the incidence of teenage births (see Table 6) which point to a strong association with poverty. In Scotland a study on Tayside (Smith, 1993) showed that the teenage pregnancy rate for girls living in poor neighbourhoods was six times that for those in more affluent areas and that girls in poor areas were more likely to reject abortion. In Denmark, Knudsen (1997) estimates that approximately 25% of all births in 1993- 1995 to women under the age of 20 were to ethnic minorities. One reason for the poverty of young single mothers is their dependence on state benefits as their sole or major income source. Even if we see teenage births as a symptom of the underclass it would seem that a twin attack on social deprivation and improved contraception holds out more hope for young mothers than a withdrawal of benefits. The success of the Scandinavian countries in achieving both a more just society and much lower levels of teenage births, despite high welfare payments and high non-marital fertility, shows the narrowness of the focus of much of the recent British and American debates. This is a reminder that we must see family policy as needing to move on a broad front - tackling child poverty and embracing the rights of all to reproductive freedom and sexual health - and not narrowly focused on bolstering the traditional family.