This isn’t a cost of living crisis. It’s an inequality crisis

Tackling the ‘cost of living’ crisis is, we are told, one of the government’s key aims. In fact, the phrase appeared in the second line of Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement last week. Which is all well and good, except what we’re actually facing is a cost of inequality crisis.

Language matters here. Calling it a ‘cost of living’ crisis is tempting. After all, it accurately describes what people are currently experiencing. Indeed, Oxfam uses the term to talk about what we’re seeing. But it also obscures the real drivers of the appalling mess we find ourselves in. On the government’s part, it isn’t sloppy wording; it’s deliberate spin. And to be clear, this isn’t a party-political point. Ed Miliband first popularised this phrase during his general election campaign against the 2015 coalition, austerity-era government and it seems opposition parties are just as fond of using it today.

But it is a framing that plays to the idea that our current economic woes are somehow the unforeseen, unavoidable result of external, global factors and something the government must now do their best to tackle. They aren’t. As Oxfam has seen from our work on inequality around the world, what is happening in the UK is a crisis caused by deliberate policy choices, by things that can be changed. 

The government and media’s talk of a ‘cost of living’ crisis puts the focus squarely on what can be done in the here and now to secure short term relief, leaving little room for any discussion of the systemic issues that are at its root. It is a phrase so anodyne that it implicates no particular villain and hints at no policy or structural fault. Instead, as narrative strategy experts have pointed out, it fuels a kind of fatalism: if there’s no culprit, no blame to be apportioned, then maybe there’s nothing we can do. And so we are left feeling disempowered and helpless, when what we should be feeling is constructive outrage. 

As Prime Minister, Sunak has inherited an economy – partly of his own making – that is less mansion, more tumble-down shack: a burgeoning recession, mass fuel poverty, crumbling public services, rocketing bills: the cost of living here is painful indeed. But it is the unstable, unequal foundations of our economy that are causing dangerous subsidence. The government may be taking measures now to curb the most severe symptoms of inequality, but that’s only because those symptoms are threatening to bring the house down, or at least badly damage its fabric.

But the fix we need isn’t an emergency lick of paint; it’s a rebuild from the ground up. Less Changing Rooms, more Grand Designs. The economic impact of the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict are contributing factors, but they didn’t cause the recent near collapse of the British economy as Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak would have had us believe. The crisis we face runs much deeper. We’re paying the price of unchecked systemic inequality. And it’s painful, for those living in poverty here in the UK and across the world.

The UK’s wealth gaps between the richest and poorest are now the highest on record and second only to the US when it comes advanced economies. While the wealthiest have benefited enormously from fiscal measures taken to protect the economy during the pandemic and recent economic crises, we’re seeing the re-emergence of poverty on a vast scale in the UKFuel companies are making millions while millions face fuel poverty. Food billionaires are profiting while people go hungry. Ours is an economic system that privileges those who already have the greatest wealth and green lights corporations’ relentless pursuit of ever-increasing profits and we’re paying a heavy price for it. 

We need to change the conversation. We need to tell the story of how we really got into this situation and the systemic solutions that can make a real difference in getting us out of it. We need to use language that reflects the agency we have to challenge the status quo. We need to call this crisis what it is and hold decision makers to account.