Too big to change? Everyday actions to reduce income inequality

By Bonnie Chiu

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I grew up in a public housing estate where I saw stumped old ladies collecting carton boxes to sell just to make a living. But I also studied in a private school, where we might take access to basic necessities and education for granted. This made me aware of the fact that Hong Kong has the worst income inequality in the developed world.

Inequality is not necessarily a bad thing; it does provide economic incentives to work hard. But it becomes a problem when it does not matter how hard you work, when you are much more likely than your fellow citizens to remain poor because of who you are — gender, race, class and disability. In the globalised world we live in, where you are born becomes an even bigger determinant of your likelihood to remain poor. Research by Branko Milanovic from the University of Maryland at College Park shows that the greatest disparities in the 21st century are caused by the income gaps between nations.

A scene of poverty in a rural village in Lahore, Pakistan. © Bonnie Chiu

At the Social Business Forum Canada in September 2016 I heard of some very shocking statistics: In 2008, 388 people owned half of the world’s wealth; but within six years, it shrunk to 62 people. I am sure, everyone in the world, apart from those 62 ultra-billionaires, will be angry, or frustrated, or sad when they get to know this, and will want to do something to change this. However, why don’t we know? Why isn’t everyone talking about this in the newspapers, on social media? Do we feel that it is a debate that belongs to the economists or the policy-makers?

I can answer yes to the last question for myself, because the first thing that usually comes to my mind when we talk about income inequality is taxation and redistribution, until listening to Professor Muhammad Yunus and Professor Dambisa Moyo who spoke about this topic at the One Young World conference.

Professor Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, asserted that we need to move away from the greed-based capitalism that defines our civilisation. He said: “The idea of creating completely different businesses can undo all the mess that was created.”

He is talking about social business — a business created and designed to address a social problem that aims to maximise impact, not profits. As everyday citizens, we might not be able to change government policies, but we can change our own consumption (buy from social businesses) and our career paths (work for a social business or start your own) in order to contribute to alleviating income inequality.

© Bonnie Chiu
© Bonnie Chiu

Professor Dambisa Moyo herself was born in a small town in Zambia; and her incredible story is one of education that allowed her to transcend the circumstances she was born into. She demystified income inequality in her talk, and highlighted two actions everyday citizens can do: not to get paralysed or subsumed by negativity; and invest in education, which she said could “stem the tide”.

Indeed, if we look at the most “equal” country in the world, Denmark, and its education system, we can see the relationship between accessible education and lower income inequality. Denmark has the highest public spending on education in the European Union, which accounted for 7.8% of GDP in 2007. Education, including postgraduate levels, is free in Denmark; and students are also offered monthly financial aid. This puts the rich and poor more or less on a level playing field from a young age. While everyday citizens cannot change the wider education ecosystem overnight, we can contribute money, time and expertise supporting education innovations, so that they can achieve scale.

Finally, as the greatest income inequality actually exists between nations, economic migration will continue to be prevalent. Embracing migration which can boost host countries’ economic growth, as evidence shows, is increasingly difficult given the current political environment, but it needs to be done.

I think back on the stumped old ladies collecting carton boxes just to make a living — would they have done so if they didn’t have to? There are instrumental and intrinsic reasons why all of us have the responsibility to work towards a more income equal world. And I think as everyday citizens, there are three things we should champion: social business, accessible education and migration.

© Bonnie Chiu

This is the fourth in the series of blogs by Millennial Bloggers powered by the Global Search for Education, which selected Bonnie as one of the bloggers alongside other young writers from all over the world.