Vital Statistics - Mapping the widening UK gap between rich and poor
The Guardian, 8th February 2006
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His work in human geography shows the widening gap between rich and poor
in the UK, and that where you live determines your chances in life. Mary
O'Hara meets Danny Dorling, the man who maps the social reality behind raw
Mapping Poverty and Wealth in the UK
For the past 15 years, Danny Dorling has been "rummaging around" in
numbers, crunching his way through reams of raw data, building up an
extraordinary picture of poverty and wealth in contemporary Britain. In
study after study, he has uncovered evidence that the government would
perhaps prefer stays buried: that Labour has presided over an era of
unprecedented inequality widening and declining social mobility.
Working independently and with other researchers, Dorling has demonstrated
that where a person is born remains the primary determinant of their
status, health and wealth in later life. He has steadily chipped away at
progressive politicians' most treasured policy ambitions. "By 18 or 20
your life is largely mapped out for you," he argues. "You'll either have
interesting jobs where you use your mind your whole life, or your life
will be working in a servile occupation."
Dorling relishes uncovering in numbers "what matters to people". He is
outspoken and passionate about his chosen field. But he stands out because
he is adept at publicising important findings beyond the pages of obscure
academic journals. He has a gift for making complex statistics palatable
and has a way of humanising abstract facts. When journalists want to make
sense of poverty or inequality, it is Dorling they turn to.
Last year, a study Dorling worked on led by George Davey Smith, professor
of clinical epidemiology at the University of Bristol, revealed huge
differences in life chances depending on where in the country, or where
within a single city, people lived. It found that thousands of people in
deprived areas were not only dying prematurely but that the gap in life
expectancy between rich and poor - a key indicator of progress - was
The findings reinforced a 2004 study for Bristol that revealed the number
of deaths of under-65s in Glasgow was two and a half times that in more
affluent parts of the south of England. In another study, Dorling helped
demonstrate the prevalence of the "inverse care law": in which areas with
the greatest need for health resources had proportionally less allocated
to them than areas with less need.
The Davey Smith work showed that wealth inequality has increased under New
Labour, despite its attempts to address poverty. Between 1990 and 2000,
the share of wealth held by the richest 10% of the population rose from
47% to 54%. The wealthiest 1% saw their share leap from 18% to 23%. The
numbers, Dorling, says always bring him back to the same question: why?
The answers, he suggests, lie in the concentration of more and more wealth
in the hands of the rich - and the government's failure to address it
with, for example, more progressive taxation. As a Labour voter, he says
New Labour's failure to tackle the flourishing wealth of the already rich
is "very odd because there's more and more evidence that shows that having
more and more rich people in a place is bad for people in that place".
"Ask people [of my generation] to imagine their grandchildren's lives," he
suggests. "Grandchildren who by 18 will have 100 times less wealth than
[some] other 18 year olds. That is where we are heading, and very
Dorling admits that things might have been even worse had the
Conservatives been re-elected in 1997, but the figures are, he feels, an
indictment of Labour none the less. "This is the first supposedly
progressive government that has seen inequalities widen under it. Wasn't
New Labour supposed at least to be about equality of opportunity?" he
says. "We've not only gone back to 1930s levels of inequalities between
places but we are on the reverse trajectory. It's not just that things are
unequal, it is that we are heading towards dramatic levels of future
inequality between areas."
Dorling could merely dig around in data hoping that someone notices. But
he has an appreciation of the power of the press (particularly, he says,
the rightwing press, which gives him access to readers who perhaps
normally would not encounter his findings) as a means of "percolating"
information on poverty and inequality out to the public.
And Dorling is quick to challenge inaccurate or misleading figures. When
Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, claimed
during a speech last year that the UK was "sleepwalking in to segregation"
Dorling swiftly put pen to paper for the Times, rebutting the assertion.
The evidence, Dorling argued, showed that Britain did not have racial
ghettoes in the US sense. Data from the latest census saw the indices of
segregation for all ethnic minority groups fall between 1991 and 2001.
What the country did have, and what needed to be addressed, he asserted,
was "the segregation that is really occurring: by poverty and wealth".
Dorling puts his interest in maps and the origins of inequality down, in
part, to being "really slow" at reading and writing but good with numbers,
and, in part, down to the influence of his grandfather, who was a
geography teacher. But he was also shaped by his early observations while
growing up on an estate on the fringes of Oxford. He says that, looking
back to his childhood, he could almost have predicted which boys would
have gone on to a prosperous future by where they lived and which school
they went to. "I thought as a child that what people did or where they got
to depended on the estate they lived in. That was my perception."
Dorling is most enthused and excited when he is surprised or his arguments
are disproved. Accepting you are wrong is vital, he says. "When I first
looked at the statistics on ethnicity changing over time I thought there
might be some evidence of white flight and I looked closer. Part of the
reason I think Trevor [Phillips] is wrong is that I [once] thought the
same thing [and] was made to change my mind."
With characteristic clarity, Dorling explains why the government needs to
pay careful attention to the trends that his work identifies. "The New
Labour project failed partly because these are very caring people who have
lived very comfortable lives. Their policies are often ineffectual because
"The key thing is recognising what's happening. Just wanting something to
be better doesn't mean it happens. They thought [in the mid 90s] that by
not doing really horrible things, things would get better; thinking that
moving the rudder slightly would help."
Dorling confesses that a life spent exposing inequality is a recipe for
pessimism. Yet he is far from despairing. He does credit New Labour with
some achievements, such as "tipping some children" out of poverty and
expanding higher education.
And he is chirpy thanks to a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, which will
allow him to spend much of 2006 indulging in his favourite maps and
numbers. Every day this year Dorling will post a new map online (www.worldmapper.org)
specially constructed to make all kinds of statistics accessible, ranging
from how many people live on a dollar a day to who makes money selling
medicines. In keeping with his ambition, the maps, he says, "will show
people what is happening."
Danny Dorling is professor of human geography at the University of
Sheffield; from 2000-03 he was professor of quantitative human geography
at Leeds University; between 1996 and 2000 he was a lecturer at Bristol
University; and from 1991-95 he was a research fellow at Newcastle
© The Guardian 2006 www.guardian.co.uk