While there does not seem be any significant improvements in the outcomes of income and wealth inequality issues but there is progress in the public conversation relating to the issues, said Teo You Yenn who is an Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University.
Dr Teo was among the panellists in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society which had brought together activists from different areas. The gathering, which titled The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020, was live-streamed on Facebook on 26 July.
“The organizers invited us tonight to speak on how we see the state of things in the causes that we work on, the effort to reduce income and wealth inequality. I think we can think of outcomes at three levels,” she noted.
Dr Teo indicated the first outcome as “the most difficult level to achieve” and if the problem is about the high level of income and wealth inequality, the solution would be to bridge the distance between the “top and the bottom layers of society”.
“This is the most difficult level of outcomes to achieve and I think we have not yet seen significant improvements on this very direct front. This is not surprising because the gap has been generated over the decades and is deeply systematized in how it is reproduced,” she said.
On the second outcome, Dr Teo noted that there is “a radical shift in institutional arrangements”, particularly in public policy but “no fundamental shifts in policy principles”.
“More programs and more people can come under programs but this does not mean a significant shift in terms of what practices are recognized as legible, what family forms are included and excluded, and how people’s contributions to society are rewarded or not,” she added.
Dr Teo further noted, “Despite not seeing much movement on this, one has to remember that this too is a major dream, because the problem of income and wealth inequality is structural and requires systemic shifts. If goal number one is the destination, then goal number two is the train that will get us there.”
The author of the book “This Is What Inequality Looks Like” went on to highlight on the discourse of income and wealth inequality issues.
“As a scholar, this is in some ways the layer that I have most direct input on. I put ideas into words, the words travel, other words by other people are generated, the words fight and dance together they form a discursive context.
“When enough that is unspeakable get spoken, the unthinkable becomes thinkable and vocabularies for thinking and talking about a subject or problem becomes part of how public conversations are conducted. On this, I have seen progress,” she elaborated.
Dr Teo recalled her first research on poverty in 2013, where poverty was not generally connected to inequality. But now she noticed that poverty is “almost always linked to inequality”.
“This is sometimes window-dressing, a mere semantics shift that is not followed through. But sometimes it is not, and that matters because words matter, they shape how we think, how we diagnose problems, the solutions we can imagine, they put things on the agenda that were not there before, that has the potential for shifting the first two goals I outlined earlier,” she added.
Dr Teo concluded her talk by emphasizing on the importance to view activism and social movements as “aiming at goals that exist at different levels with different timelines” so that civil society will always be reminded that they cannot work alone and change takes time.
“Different levels and pressure notes means that we need variance skills and capacities. We need opportunities for interacting with or putting pressure on agents of power. In activism as many things in human life, we have to contribute individual efforts to larger longer-term projects that then become more than the sum of our parts.
“So looking ahead. I think we need the same two things activist have always needed to keep working. We need patience and we need friends and both can be cultivated,” she asserted.