A version of this article was published in Church Times
When Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital with covid-19, a number of commentators suggested that the coronavirus was a great leveller. When even heads of state can succumb to the illness, then we are all equally susceptible. The truth of course is that the virus is not the great leveller but instead the great revealer. In particular, it has exacerbated the inequalities that pre-dated this virus and it has created, or at least highlighted, some new ones.
Analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown markedly different impacts according to pre-existing income, work, health, education, age, ethnicity and gender. It has also demonstrated new inequalities in respect of type of housing, ability to work from home, requirement to commute on public transport and access to green spaces. As their report concluded, ‘We might all be in this together, but we are not all in it equally.’ So while we are aware that from a health point of view, the virus affects older males more severely than other groups, we may be less aware that in terms of employment it is women under 25 who are disproportionately affected. Perhaps more troubling is that there is clear evidence that medical vulnerability to the virus tracks income deciles with poorer communities impacted to a much greater extent than the wealthiest. Similarly, recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund has shown that while the health effects of an epidemic/pandemic last as long as the outbreak, the economic impact on the poor can extend for at least five years beyond the life of the disease. The same economic shock is not experienced by the wealthy.
But does this matter? Is there something inevitable about inequality, that it is perhaps even God-ordained? My answer to is yes to the former, but a resounding no to the latter. There is a parallel with sin here. Yes, it is inevitable, but that does not mean that it is God’s intention. A misunderstanding of this simple truth is why we so often misappropriate Jesus’ statement that the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8). In saying this, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11: ‘There will always be poor people in the land.’ But what we miss is what the Deuteronomic passage goes on to say, ‘Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.’ What we have here then is a both an empirical statement – ‘There will always be poor people’ – and an ethical imperative – ‘Therefore I command you to be generous.’ The inevitably of inequality is no more a prescription for passive acceptance than it is in respect of sin. None of us say, ‘Sin is inevitable, so why bother doing anything about it?’ Yet, for some reason that can be our attitude to inequality – one of the fruits of sin.
So how can we tackle it? Well there are many ways but at least one of them involves ending the unfair tax system that impacts both the global and national poor. Globally, it has been estimated that up to three times the amount we give in aid to Africa leaves that continent via tax-dodging by multinational corporations. Recently, the OECD has been leading a process to reform the global tax rules but many wealthy nations oppose reforms that would help the poorest. Here in the UK, the most recent analysis suggests that when all taxes are taken into account (not just income but also council, VAT, taxes on wealth) - and when we consider growth in the value of assets - then the richest in our country pay just 18% of their income in tax compared to 42% for the poorest. This is fundamentally unfair.
Recently, we celebrated the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. It was instructive to me how many of the Christians commenting on this drew attention to the care she showed the soldiers dying in Crimea. That is true of course, but what they all seemed to miss is that her real contribution was not in one-to-one care, but in the way she used statistics to analyse disease and death rates, and recommend policy solutions in response. Nightingale raised her head above the parapet of the immediate to ask the question ‘Why are so many dying?’ Hygiene standards that save countless lives today are the result. I wonder if as Christians we need to do the same. Of course, in our communities there are many individuals suffering and we must minister to them, but at the same time there is a need for some of us to raise our heads and look at the big picture of what is going on, and tackle these structural causes of inequality too. And that is what tax justice is all about.
Church Action for Tax Justice
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice