A review of public attitudes to economic inequality, poverty and redistribution.
Economic inequality in the UK stands at historically high levels and there is emerging evidence that a high level of inequality may cause socio-economic problems. However, little is known about public attitudes on this issue. The study:
Economic inequality – the unequal distribution of financial resources within the population – is now a marked feature of the socio-economic structure of the UK. However, relatively little is known about public attitudes on this issue. This study examines public attitudes to economic inequality, and related issues of poverty and redistribution.
Economic inequality has become a striking feature of the UK's socio-economic structure. Income inequality stands at historically high levels, and asset inequality has increased since the 1990s, with the top 1 per cent now owning nearly a quarter of all marketable assets.
Inequality and poverty are closely related, but inequality is also a distinct phenomenon. There is growing interest in economic inequality, and evidence that a high level of inequality may cause socio-economic problems.
The Labour government has displayed concern with some forms of inequality but its position regarding economic inequality is somewhat ambiguous. It has focused more on tackling equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.
This study has been carried out because relatively little is known about public attitudes to inequality and redistribution.
Over the last 20 years, a large and enduring majority of people have considered the gap between those with high and low incomes too large – a view held by 73 per cent of people in 2004.
Figure 1: People's views of whether the income gap is too large/about right/too small (1983-2004)
This figure uses summary data from the BSA survey series, available from the Britsocat website, and the UK Data Archive. No data available for 1988, 1992 and 1996.
Figure 2: Views about the income gap and support for redistribution
This figure uses summary data from the BSA survey series, available from the Britsocat website, and the UK Data Archive.
Public attitudes to redistribution are complex, ambiguous and apparently contradictory. The study found that:
As with inequality and poverty, there is a lack of knowledge about how people interpret and understand issues relating to redistribution.
The free personal care policy is perceived to have benefited many older people with care needs, but also to have either directly or indirectly disadvantaged certain groups of people, such as the under 65s. It is widely regarded as inequitable and discriminatory in limiting eligibility to those with care needs aged 65 and over. Budgetary constraints experienced by authorities are seen as limiting further community care service development for other client groups.
Recent evidence on public opinion (2005 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey) shows that 59 per cent of Scots believe that personal care should be paid for by government, and 68 per cent would pay an extra penny in the pound in income tax to finance spending on personal care.
There is continuing variation at a significant level between local authorities, and developments are inconsistent across the country, with some authorities apparently increasing overspends and others controlling expenditure more successfully.
The particular situation in each local authority depends on a culmination of previous decisions on care policies. Before free personal care, authorities had a variety of different ways of charging for care. Under the free personal care policy, authorities faced new expenditure. The impact of this varied according to previous charging practices. For example, where authorities had not previously charged for personal care, the financial impact of the policy was not large. Elsewhere, many older people previously charged for care-related services are now entitled to free personal care. This affects the balance of funding local authorities receive.
Nearly all local authorities report that they are under-funded for the delivery of free personal care. They welcome the fact that evidence of numbers receiving personal care is now emerging. Prior to the introduction of free personal care, personal care was not distinguished in data collected by local authorities and the Scottish Executive, and therefore its costs could not be ascertained.
Nevertheless, variations in spending now provide evidence that some local authorities have had more success than others in controlling expenditure. Indicators also show that the highest spenders do not necessarily provide the best quality services. There is evidence that whole system reform at local authority level can contribute to success in this area.
There are large differences between local authorities in expenditure on delivering care at home.
In the light of the contradictions in public attitudes to inequality and redistribution, examining the more underlying values people draw on offers a potential way forward, and is a more powerful way of explaining attitudes than demographic and socio-economic variables, such as age and income. In more detail:
Economic inequality should be the focus of far greater policy attention. There is growing interest in the potential effect of economic inequality on society, and emerging evidence that a high level of inequality may cause socio-economic problems.
There is considerable public concern regarding economic inequality, and certainly no evidence that people see the income gap in the UK positively. There is also public concern with the position of those on high earnings. But attitudes are highly complex and apparently contradictory.
What is clear is that the available knowledge on several relevant issues is very limited. Future research needs to take a more sophisticated approach to talking about 'inequality' and 'redistribution' as these vary in form, and attitudes may similarly vary depending on the particular kind of inequality or redistribution that people have in mind. Future research also needs to focus more on people's underlying values, and the discourses they draw on.
The project was undertaken by Michael Orton at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, and Karen Rowlingson, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham.
The study was based on an extensive literature search and consultations with over 20 experts in this field.