The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter 24
Patterns of Social Inequality
Kathryn Dwan and
John S. Western

Social inequality is a major feature of virtually all societies, and it is generally associated with differences in income and wealth. Such a view prevails among academic circles, as 'most of the modern literature on inequality and economic wellbeing is based on measures of after-tax income adjusted for need or equivalent disposable income' (Saunders 1998:1; emphasis added).The general consensus appears to be that the gap between the 'rich' and the 'poor' is increasing (Harding, Lloyd and Greenwell 2001;Tsumori, Saunders and Hughes 2002). More controversial is whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing, as it is associated with increases in income for the 'poor'. For instance, recent research has demonstrated that the disposable income of people in the lowest quintile (or one-fifth of the population) increased noticeably throughout the 1990s, although not as much as that of the 'rich' (Harding, Lloyd and Greenwell 2001).

Some researchers claim it is 'implausible' to label people at the bottom of the income hierarchy as 'poor' simply because the gap between their income and that of those at the top is increasing (Tsumori, Saunders and Hughes 2002:1); to do so is to engage in the 'politics of envy' (Hughes 2001:13). Others consider that the 'inherent injustices' of such a divide is an 'offence to moral sensibility' (Turrell 2001:83). At issue here, apart from methodological differences (Tsumori, Saunders and Hughes 2002), are the differences between relative and absolute poverty, and the normative standards by which they are assessed. Although these debates are of some importance, we believe that they arise from a lack of conceptual clarity. Turrell and Mathers (2000) are among the few researchers who have addressed this issue.

Theoretical framework

A feature of all societies is the presence of socially defined scarce and valued resources to which access is limited. These resources can be understood as factors impacting on quality of life and human wellbeing, and access to them leads to an enhanced quality of life, while their absence generally has negative consequences. We describe these scarce and valued resources as dimensions of inequality. They include income, to be sure, but also employment, health, education, welfare, housing, access to the legal and


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