Carys Mair Thomas looks at how the next Welsh Government can tackle economic inequality and poverty.
The wealthiest 16% of the Welsh population now have as much wealth as everyone else put together.
This, of course, is a worldwide problem. Already the richest 1% of the world’s population owns more wealth than the other 99% put together. In the last 15 years, extreme poverty has been halved. We could eliminate it in the next 15, but increasing economic inequality makes that job much harder.
Oxfam Cymru wants a Wales where economic inequality is reduced through proactive policy choices that reduce poverty and create a fairer and more equal country. The pioneering Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 demands this, specifically in relation to the goal of delivering a more equal Wales, enabling people to reach their full potential.
Today in Wales 23% of households live in relative poverty, which means they struggle to afford the basics, like putting a hot meal on the table. Half of these households already have one salary coming in, disproving the much quoted adage that a person can work themselves – and their family – out of poverty. Much of this results from low pay. Its extent in Wales has remained unchanged for a decade and one in four Welsh workers are currently paid less than the Living Wage (as defined by the Living Wage Foundation – currently £7.85 an hour outside London, and rising to £8.25 from April).
Against this backdrop of poverty and low pay, the rise in food bank use must be addressed. Wales has disproportionately high usage of food banks compared with other UK regions, with three days of emergency food provided to 85,875 Welsh people in 2014-15.
Given that women comprise 62% of all UK workers who are paid less than the Living Wage, it would be remiss to ignore the gender dimension of economic inequality and poverty. Evidently, women are more vulnerable to poverty and the continued existence of the gender pay gap, currently at 19% for full and part time workers in the UK, draws attention to the economic inequality that women experience. This is shaped by their position in the labour market where they are less likely to be in “decent work”. In Wales, women occupy 80% of all part time jobs, 75% of which are in retail, administration, personal services and other typically low paid occupations.
So, what is to be done, when the causes and symptoms are complex and wide-ranging? Oxfam Cymru’s Blueprint for Change offers up a number of solutions. For example, it recommends the appointment of a brand new Deputy Minister within the Welsh Government’s Finance Department, to coordinate effective cross-departmental responses, which is in line with the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK’s Feeding Britain report.
Other Blueprint for Change policy recommendations designed to tackle domestic poverty and economic inequality, include steps to make Wales a Living Wage Nation and to provide an individual, tailored approach to anti-poverty programmes, based on Oxfam’s model.
We must also be mindful of our contribution and impact on the world – Wales does not exist in isolation. Over the past 10 years, the number of people affected by humanitarian crises across the world has now almost doubled. Wales’ consumption of natural resources is far beyond what its population size can justify, exceeding the safe limits for consumption of CO2 by 410%.
Simultaneously, we are facing the greatest refugee crisis of our time. At the end of 2014 there were almost 60 million forcibly displaced people. Alongside other developed nations, Wales must ensure that those fleeing violence and persecution are able to find a safe and welcoming place to live.
These issues affect communities in Wales, as they do around the globe, and it is crucial the incoming Welsh Government places them at the heart of its programme of work. There must be commitment to dramatically reduce our CO2 consumption emissions and establish Wales as the first Nation of Sanctuary, known for its proactive and welcoming policies and practices for refugees.
Not all political power rests in Wales, but, where it does have power, the next Welsh Government should act boldly and, where it does not, it should be a strong and progressive advocate for change.