Sheffield Equality Group

Jason Leman discusses divisions across the city, and what we can do

Jason Sheffield Equality Group is a local group affiliated to the National Equality Trust, and essentially what we do is we campaign to reduce the gap between people on high income and low income. The National Equality Trust came out of research that Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson did, summarised in the excellent book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Those countries that are more equal, that do a better job of both not having people on very low income, but also in reducing the incomes of those at the very top – those countries had a much better outcome. So what the National Equality Trust does is it essentially lobbies, and says, look, we need to be thinking about how to become a better society. We’ve done all the economic development that matters, to a certain extent. What we really need to be looking at now is how we become a better society, how we work towards that.

With regards to inequality and division, particularly in Sheffield, how important a factor is income disparity?

Jason Firstly, Sheffield’s a really interesting city, in that it has this divide between north-east and south-west, because it’s unusual for a city. You look at most cities and you look how income inequality and health inequality and education inequality happens across the city. You find your millionaires living cheek by jowl with someone who’s working two jobs just to get by. But in Sheffield it’s really a divide which is probably a legacy of the industrial history of the city. Across the city you’ve got people living ten years less in some areas to the north and east than people do in the south-west. That’s directly related to income inequality. It’s directly related to people’s day to day lives and people’s day to day experiences.

How do the the public respond to issues raised by Sheffield Equality Group?

Jason People are usually ready to believe that these differences exist, but I think the biggest issue is really people’s reasons for why the differences exist. I think often a response is, ‘Well, that’s just the way the world is. You can’t change it. That’s just how things work’. Most people appreciate that there is an inequality, but certainly it’s why there is an inequality and what we can do about it. That’s really where the conversation begins.

What is Sheffield Equality Group campaigning on at the moment?

Jason One of the harshest things that’s going on at the moment that we’re campaigning on is the benefit sanctions, where people are claiming income support. It’s a horribly bureaucratic, red tape system, where the criterias are massive tick boxes. If you’ve applied for 19 out of 20 jobs in the last fortnight, but you just have missed it by one, then you get your benefits sanctioned, and that can mean some or all of your support being taken away for 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 13 weeks.

If you haven’t got friend or family to turn to, if you’ve had your benefits cut and you find yourself without any income, you’ve literally got nowhere to go. We’re talking about starving people into compliance. Essentially what welfare reform is about is it’s about starving people into following a horribly bureaucratic process, but it’s a bureaucratic process that’s so tangled and so driven by targets that no-one can meet it. And it’s penalising people who are trying hard.

There are some people who try and swing the system. There are some people who don’t want to get out of bed, there are some people who just can’t be bothered, but there’s the majority who are really trying hard – trying the hardest they can to get a job at a time when there’s five times more people unemployed than there are jobs, trying hard to look after themselves, maybe look after kids or parents, trying to get through life – and they are finding themselves up against a system which is putting them on the breadline.

So we see in Sheffield the number of food banks has tripled over the past couple of years, and that’s because people are having this support taken away from them, so the benefits sanctions are removing their support and the only option they’ve got is to turn to food banks, is to beg, is to find food in skips, is to turn to friends and family and plead with them for support. I think that’s a horrible system. It’s a horrible way to run society, but it’s the position that we’re now in because of welfare reform.

One of things we’re campaigning against is the current system of welfare reform. Sure, reform welfare, but make it better. Don’t make it a system where people are being driven to the brink. So how to make things better is really to roll back welfare reform, and to do everything we can locally to say this is the situation that people are facing, and to make it quite clear, this is an inhuman situation.

What can ordinary people do to make Sheffield a fairer place?

Jason I think what ordinary people can do is... the first thing is to talk about the inequality that’s there. Talk about, perhaps, their own experiences of inequality and how they see it. It’s having a conversation, because that’s an important part of it. When we look at what we want the Council to do, what we want the government to do, it’s to talk about it. But it’s also to recognise that Sheffield is a very divided city. If you’re living on the west side, if you’re living on the south side, and you’ve got all these resources... What people call social capital – you know how to network, you know how to do things, you know how to move stuff on – think about sharing a bit of that.

What is fairness?

Jason Currently we’re making a leaflet and we’ve got a piece of cake on it, a slice of cake. I think that it is about having that sense of, look, everyone’s got the right slice. At the moment what we’ve got is people walking off with two-thirds before anyone else even gets started on it. We need to equalise it out in terms of how we help people make sense of those opportunities, access those opportunities, get to those opportunities, because we do need help. I think it’s something that’s often missed. We all need a bit of help, and as a society we need to recognise that – that people need support. Not at every stage. Enough support that people get to know how to do stuff themselves. But to give them support so they can get that slice of cake.

People are usually ready to believe that these differences exist, but I think the biggest issue is really people’s reasons for why the differences exist.

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