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July 16, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Welcome To The Rich Pakeha Club

How Your Bachelor of class entrenches inequality

“There’s class warfare…But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” says Warren Buffet, the worlds’ third richest man. This is the world we live in. But how did we get here? Class divisions aren’t new, but the rate at which they are increasing is unprecedented. As the other side of the tracks becomes further away, Salient looks at why, and what it means for society.

Social stratification is the separation of classes, which we can understand as the haves, the have-nots, and the have-a-lots. Inequalities between these different classes reflect society, and many factors ensure inequalities are perpetuated over generations. The more we understand about these factors, the better chance we have of improving society by minimising inequalities. While economic capital–like money–is often the measure of inequality, the less-quoted cultural capital is also a major factor. Cultural capital refers to non-economic personal characteristics which enable social mobility; intellect, appearance or education, for example.

Cultural capital is what determines class distinctions, and it is important for acceptance into certain institutions, be they workplaces, private schools, or universities. A university excludes individuals based on cultural capital; whether or not you have gained University Entrance (UE), for example.

When you look at the general characteristics of a university student, exclusivity is evident: even if you survive on two-minute noodles and DIY cup-a-soups made from Oxo cubes, you’re probably reasonably financially secure. Even with loans, our qualifications will ensure we earn 18 per cent more than the non-qualified, on average. We will get the jobs we want. We all gained UE and have the intellectual nous to take part in papers at 100-level upwards. Every day we spend at university, we are networking with the future elite. We’re doing pretty well across a lot of dimensions. In a broad sense, we are a narrow band of society (work that one out) with copious amounts of slicker-than-your-average cultural capital.

Education is a key mechanism for creating inequality. Education builds cultural capital, affecting chances of upwards social mobility, and ultimately social distinction. Thus, education is sought after. New Zealand’s population increased 19.7 per cent from 1994 to 2010; in that same period, the number of individuals undertaking tertiary study increased by 55.5 per cent. We are whores for cultural capital, and justly so, considering the personal, social and economic benefits that accumulation brings.

Our pursuit of education combines with another pursuit—one of a more carnal nature—to society’s detriment. Enter the principle of positive assortative mating, essentially where similar people meet, hit it off, and breed.

Positive assortative mating relies on unions between similar people. We discussed earlier how university students are broadly similar in terms of class and cultural capital. Students are also of a similar age and life stage where mates are sought. Everyone here is reasonably proximate–another factor positive assortative mating relies on. The result is a high likelihood of university students and graduates partnering with other university students and graduates.

This leaves those outside tertiary education to partner between each other, multiplying the effects of lower individual incomes. This creates increased social stratification, evidenced by the inequality of household incomes exceeding the inequality of individual incomes. In 2009, the richest 10 per cent owned almost half of New Zealand’s wealth.

Flip forward to the next generation. The university-educated couple are well-off, have kids, and can put them through the best schools and ensure they too receive a university education alongside other similarly well-off graduate-offspring. The opposite occurs with disadvantaged families, perpetuating the cycle through successive generations. This is observed through the positive correlation between school decile and gaining UE: the odds of gaining UE at a decile 9 or 10 school are 7.3 times the odds at a decile 1 or 2 school. The result is further inequality in society; ever increasing, self-perpetuating divisions which arise through positive assortative mating. It’s the result of well-off individuals’ rational micro level decisions manifesting poorly at the macro level.

While inequalities are increasing, the gaps between Māori and non-Māori and between men and women are closing. In a way, it’s depressingly heartening to know different sectors of society can all be equally disadvantaged regardless of ethnicity or gender. How’s that for progress?

Ongoing class stratification means more people have less. This has its own implications, explored by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. They argue that inequality causes unhappiness and unhealthiness, reduces life expectancy, increases violence, obesity, incarceration rates, teen pregnancy and addiction, all while destroying societal cohesion and exacerbating resource depletion rates.

Their claims centre on correlations between economic inequality and social ills. Indeed this does not imply causation, yet Wilkinson and Pickett postulate possible causes. Daily life at the lowest rung of the social ladder impedes the accumulation of cultural capital, so many individuals have no routes—educational or economic—available in the pursuit of social mobility. Being pushed in a corner this way breeds anger and resentment towards society; the natural reflex for this group is to push back, harder.

Violence, imprisonment, and teen pregnancy may seem distant evils to most of us, yet inequalities have common effects felt widely by individuals. Illness rates for preventable conditions such as obesity and diabetes are correlated with inequalities, even when extraneous variables such as education are controlled for. Bastions of equality like Sweden and Japan have fewer than 10 per cent of the population experiencing mental health problems, while this rises to 25 per cent of the more unequal British and higher still for the blithely disparate Americans.

Though counter-points exist—higher suicide rates and restrictions on individual freedoms in more equal countries—the arguments for the evils of inequality are certainly compelling. While political philosopher Robert Nozick argues inequality is ‘fair’ provided distributional disparities are a result of free choice, free choice is plainly not in play. Being born into a certain class impedes social mobility through difficulties in attaining cultural capital, a trend backed up by Victoria’s Professor of Urban Geography Phil Morrison who related this to neighbourhoods. While it’s not impossible, argues Morrison, “those leaving very deprived areas are less likely to upgrade their neighbourhood”—significant when considering this makes negative effects (poor service access, for example) of a neighbourhood possibly inescapable.

So what can be done? The answer espoused in The Spirit Level is the “removal of economic impediments to feeling valued,” including low wages, low benefits and investment in education. Though education is desirable, the ongoing macro level effects of positive assortative mating mean education helps perpetuate and exacerbate inequalities.

On this basis, should access to tertiary education be restricted in order to slow the bourgeoise conveyor belt? Or should access be widened, perhaps making education free, so that everyone has a chance to increase their cultural capital? It’s a fine line: if everyone achieves UE, it’s hard to see what value the qualification provides. If we subsidise places for the lower classes, will this help to break the cycle, or just create more middle and upper class people to continue the cycle?
It is not just a case of making everyone richer regardless of widening gaps—the gaps hurt society. Wilkinson and Pickett contend “the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance.” There is class warfare, but Buffet is wrong. The rich aren’t winning—no one is. ▲

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