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Inequality as a constraint on well-being

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Chiara Saraceno



There is a broad agreement not only amongst scholars, but also in international organizations, in particular the OECD, that the GDP is not a sufficient indicator of the well-being of the population. There are several initiatives underway that aim to identify appropriate indicators for "measuring" well-being, not at the aggregate level of society, but at the individual level and including not only the availability of income, but the state of health, education, security, social participation, employment status, satisfaction with one's life and more. The route was opened by the first Stiglitz report. Now a second one is being prepared. In the wake of that first report, the OECD for some years now, publishes a report on How is life, with a set of markers for each country. In Italy we are now on the third report of the ISTAT on Equitable and Sustainable Wellbeing.
All these exercises, as well as broadening the dimensions of well-being and ill-being show the close link that exists between economic inequality and other forms of inequality which affect even individual capabilities and chances in life. As noted by the Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn, inequality, when it has an impact on the possibilities in life, "is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody's human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world."
To counter inequality, it is definitely necessary to strengthen equal opportunities, starting from the youngest. In this sense, child poverty is one of the main issues to be addressed and one of the biggest scandals of a democratic society. However, one cannot stop at an investment in equal opportunities in the initial stages of the course. It is also necessary, as pointed out by Atkinson, Stiglitz and, in Italy, Franzini, Granaglia and Reitano to deal with the inequality of the results, not only for reasons of equity but also for instrumental reasons, linked to the social cohesion and well-being of a society as a whole. With regard to issues of equity, we must remember that even the most attentive equal opportunities policies and the fairest of competition cannot exclude misfortune. It is also necessary to distinguish between competitive and non-competitive opportunities, between the chance to run the same races on equal terms and the possibility, as Sen would say, to lead the life one wants, knowing that the structure of the awards achieved in both cases is strongly differentiated and determined by social conventions that do not always have to do with the fundamental value of a particular activity. Also, to focus only on inequalities at the start, is likely to cause inattention to the obstacles one meets along the way not only in a random manner (a sudden illness, a company crisis that produces redundancy), but also in a way specifically linked to one's characteristics. It is not enough, for example, to make boys and girls study in the same manner, if the mere hypothesis of motherhood is enough for them to be regarded differently from one another by employers, or if the division of labour in the family produces new handicaps for some and symmetrically benefits for others. Finally, unequal outcomes also have effects on subsequent generations, as shown by all the sociological studies on the intergenerational reproduction of inequality. From an instrumental point of view, it is necessary to remember that much empirical evidence shows that inequality has a high price in terms of weakening of social cohesion, crime rates and morbidity and behavior that is in itself risky and potentially costly for society. For this reason, it has negative effects on the very development and overall well-being of a society. Lastly, economic inequality has a price even for democracy itself, in so far as the concentration of wealth and income also generates the concentration of political power, therefore of influence on fiscal and budgetary decisions, or on the direction to be taken by technological development and so on, that is on issues of vital importance regarding living conditions and opportunities for everybody.




Atkinson T., Diseguaglianza, Cortina 2015
Franzini M., E. Granaglia, M. Reitano, Dobbiamo preoccuparci dei ricchi?, Bari, Laterza, 2015
Therborn G., The killing fields of inequality, Polity Press 2013
Stiglitz J. E., Il prezzo della disuguaglianza, Einaudi, Torino 2013


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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

Who we are

The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


Centro studi Souq Management commitee: Laura Arduini, Virginio Colmegna (presidente), Silvia Landra, Simona Sambati, Benedetto Saraceno ; Scientific commitee: Mario Agostinelli, Angelo Barbato, Maurizio Bonati, Adolfo Ceretti, Giacomo Costa, Ota de Leonardis,  Giulio Ernesti, Sergio Escobar, Luca Formenton, Francesco Maisto, Ambrogio Manenti, Claudia Mazzucato, Daniela ...
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ISSN 2282-5754 Souquaderni [online] by SOUQ - Centro Studi sulla Sofferenza Urbana - CF: 97316770151
Last update: 28/10/2019

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