The inequality debate

Let's talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity

When a family struggles with caring for their children, a society has to look at what their unmet needs are, and not just wonder if they have opportunities for social mobility

In recent months, in response to my book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, I have been repeatedly asked whether opportunities for upward social mobility have decreased.

I see creased foreheads when I say yes. This is clearly something that deeply bothers people. It violates Singaporeans' sensibilities of fairness, built primarily around the ideal of equal opportunities.

Meritocracy, opportunity and social mobility are regularly invoked as the answer to inequality. We talk a lot about protecting our meritocracy and ensuring opportunity for (upward) social mobility.

Next to this, the issue of equality of outcomes has been sidestepped.

Yet, if we take seriously the realities of inequality and the experiences of people living with less than adequate income, we must talk about outcomes, which is about how people's lives actually are.

For a start, we need to centre attention on meeting people's needs.

If everyone has certain similar needs and some cannot adequately meet them, that is inequality.

Whether they are needs for secure housing, for affordable childcare or for adequate healthcare, needs have a concreteness and measurability that allow for more precise understanding and intervention than vague references to opportunity. The writer sa
Whether they are needs for secure housing, for affordable childcare or for adequate healthcare, needs have a concreteness and measurability that allow for more precise understanding and intervention than vague references to opportunity. The writer says that if we are serious about resolving the inequality problem, one good place for our attention is that of needs. ST FILE PHOTO

If people are facing many of the same challenges - work-life balance, care for loved ones, some semblance of a dignified life - and some face conditions far more favourable than others, that is inequality.

The people living with low income with whom I spoke dreamed of better lives. They have immediate needs that can be observed in concrete living conditions and everyday lives.

We overlook clear differences in people's abilities to meet their needs with dignity and without undue struggle. Ultimately, by insisting that it is mainly opportunity that matters, we come to accept unequal outcomes.

They need decent employment that allows them to pay their rent and buy food for their families.

They need time to care for their kids, and this includes some degree of flexibility to deal with unanticipated emergencies.

Their children have needs for learning and thriving in school.

Ultimately, people need to feel like they are valued as persons in our society.

When families have unmet needs, there are complex and long-term consequences.

A family that lives in cramped conditions, for example, suffers more than from a lack of space.

Space is linked to parent-children relationships.

When I visited rental flats, I saw people use bed sheets and furniture to create partitions for some semblance of privacy for teenage children. Parents spoke of wishing they could give their growing children separate bedrooms.

When kids have private space at home, they are more likely to spend time there, including with friends.

When there is insufficient space at home, teenagers may prefer to spend their time outside the home or at public places.

The teenage years, difficult under any circumstance, can become especially fraught.

Space alone cannot solve all problems, but its inadequacy makes parents' capacity to maintain communication with and understanding of their kids particularly challenging.

People are not obsessing over how they can succeed more than others; their priorities may not lie in climbing the proverbial social ladder. Being higher on a social hierarchy will not resolve their problems. Meeting their basic needs can resolve those problems.

Their circumstances, as well as their dreams and aspirations, alert us to needs - universal ones that we share as persons, and as yet unmet for some members of our society, because the conditions they face are relatively unfavourable.

We can examine needs directly.

Whether they are needs for secure housing, for affordable and accessible childcare, or for adequate healthcare, needs have a concreteness and measurability that allow for more precise understanding and intervention than vague references to opportunity.

If we are serious about resolving our inequality problem, one good place for our attention is that of needs. We can decide as a society to meet those basic needs.

WHAT IS MERITOCRACY, REALLY?

How does this sit with the focus on meritocracy and social mobility?

Here it is useful to take a deeper look at what meritocracy really is.

The term comes from Michael Young's 1958 book, The Rise Of The Meritocracy, which sketched a dystopian society in the year 2034, with a ruling class whose dominance is based on their success in intelligence tests.

The book is satire.

Young coined the term pejoratively to critique the British education system as leading to a new form of social division and elitism to replace the aristocracy, rather than to less social division and greater equality.

Education systems built on meritocracy are designed to separate - to generate hierarchies where different classes of people are differentially rewarded.

Meritocracies take systematic steps to select and reward individual capability, to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, to identify the supposed creme de la creme.

They do this while obscuring the fact that those capabilities that are rewarded are only a small, narrow subset of human capabilities.

The cultivation of these qualities is not at all random but deeply class-related.

The empirical evidence that educational systems focused on narrow forms of "merit" reproduce social inequalities and generate new forms of elitism is well accepted within sociology, in Young's work and those of scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jerome Karabel, Annette Lareau and Shamus Khan.

Meritocracy is powerful because people have come to accept it as fair and natural that narrow forms of "merit" should be the basis for unequal rewards.

The term is often used without its original negative connotations, as a positive ideal instead, a standard to aspire to. Sometimes I have nearly forgotten my sociological training and used it this way too.

When meritocracy is accepted unquestioningly as virtuous, social mobility - some people being able to climb the hierarchical ladder - is taken as an end in itself.

We think that as long as there are equal opportunities, all is well.

We overlook clear differences in people's abilities to meet their needs with dignity and without undue struggle. Ultimately, by insisting that it is mainly opportunity that matters, we come to accept unequal outcomes.

DISMANTLING OLD NARRATIVES, BUILDING NEW ONES

For those of us who have built our life stories on meritocracy, these are difficult ideas.

When we encounter the idea that meritocratic education systems reward a small group of people based on narrow qualities, we confront the fact that other persons also have valuable capabilities, talents and strengths that are not visible to and not rewarded by the system.

This challenges those who succeeded under this system to question their individual narratives of their own deservedness.

Why would they do so? Yet, the responses to my book indicate that many have.

As human beings, our interests are complex. If people acted only on their crude interests in maximising individual material well-being, many people who bought my book really shouldn't have.

As someone with relative class privilege, I myself should not have written it at all. But, as people, we also have interests in meaningful lives and in building good societies.

We have interests in a sense of shared well-being with other members of society, and in upholding values of fairness, equality and justice. We have interests in ensuring the well-being of other people's children so that we can collectively build a stronger society - including an economic ecosystem - with diverse talents.

Giving up our obsession with an individualistic and narrow narrative of meritocracy and mobility is worth it, to meet our needs for solidarity and genuine community.

Space for more qualities and capabilities to emerge will also develop a broader and more diverse talent pool. Because we live in society and not as isolated persons, in the long run, all of us have much to gain from this.

We can already witness the terrible things that happen when inequality and injustice tear societies apart. We cannot afford to keep avoiding discussion of unequal outcomes, of unmet needs.

When we eventually achieve more equality than we now have, we can trade the narrative which depends on other people being worse off than us, for a far superior narrative where we are stronger together.

•Teo You Yenn is an associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2018, with the headline 'Let's talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity '. Print Edition | Subscribe