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Wealth, funding and investment practice
Political mindsets

Changing the narrative on wealth inequality

New approaches to framing wealth inequality as a social problem could build political pressure for change. 

Executive summary

Escalating wealth inequality is causing social and environmental harm. Although it is high and rising, public concern isn't keeping pace. Changing how wealth inequality is talked about could help to raise public concern and build political pressure to act.

We reviewed the literature on the framing of economic inequality. Framing describes a process of giving some ‘aspects of a perceived reality’ more prominence in a way that promotes a particular problem definition, cause, moral evaluation, and treatment (Entman, 1993). The report blends insights from this review of literature with suggestions for how they might be used to change how we talk about wealth inequality to increase its salience.

The review found that there is no shared public understanding of wealth inequality as a social problem. While there is strong public support for some forms and levels of wealth, the public is also aware of its potential harms in certain contexts (Davis et al., 2020). This lack of settled understanding is an opportunity. There is plenty of space for defining what the problem actually is (extreme wealth) and for making it clear what isn’t the problem (‘ordinary’ wealth) (Hecht et al., 2022a).

Another striking finding was the potency of what are termed ‘system-justifying beliefs’ such as meritocracy. They tend to make people believe not only that the status quo is fair and legitimate, but that individual agency, rather than the force of political and economic structures, is the primary cause of individuals’ economic outcomes at both ends of the spectrum. Whether your work seeks to challenge and change these system-justifying beliefs, or to simply acknowledge them and work within the constraints they set, being aware of the degree to which they tend to legitimise even very high differences in wealth ownership is important.

Different kinds of frame, advantage/disadvantage, social failure/personal failure, were found to have a significant effect on shaping the understanding of, and response to, economic inequality. Can we use what we know about the effects of these frames on preference formation to de-legitimise the economic status quo and to increase the salience of wealth inequality? Our report found plenty of room for new work in this area, especially in harnessing the power of images more effectively.

Much of the experimental work in the literature used opinions about wealth tax as a barometer to gauge public appetite for redistribution. This raised an interesting issue. The role that the additional revenue from a wealth tax could play in stabilising public service provision and arresting the slide towards ever-deepening poverty is not in question. But wealth inequality is more than a revenue issue: it is a deep social and economic justice issue. If we define it in this more expansive way, then wealth tax becomes one of many other potential solutions. We create space for thinking how justice might be delivered diffusely: taxing wealth at the top is surely a priority, but justice might need to be built productively through, for example, supporting the development of new community or public assets, or through the re-commoning of previously privatised national assets.

This report, and the underpinning review of literature, are offered as a means of sparking new conversations about the economy, wealth, and wealth inequality with a view to engaging the public and building political pressure to act.

1. Introduction

While wealth inequality is high and rising and causing immense social and environmental harm, public concern and political action are not keeping pace. Can talking about the economy, wealth, and wealth inequality differently stimulate public concern and drive political action?

This report is about how wealth inequality is framed, and the effects of frames on public opinion and political commitment to act.

If you are working in narrative or social change, the ideas in this report will help you to build new, or test existing, ways of talking about this era-defining issue, and to link problem definitions with solutions.

2. Why does wealth inequality matter?

Currently, wealth inequality is not seen as a social problem in the way that poverty is.

Given what we know about the scale and political/social effects of extreme wealth hyper-concentration, why is there so little public opposition to it? Why so little political pressure for change? And why doesn’t concern or political pressure seem to increase as inequality increases?

The ways in which wealth inequality is visually and textually framed in political and media discourse fundamentally shapes public perceptions of levels of inequality and judgements about its legitimacy. The more so because we rarely see the extremes of economic inequality in our daily lives, so we come to know about it through being told. In the context of wealth inequality, then, frames are fundamental to the building or dissipating of political pressure for change.

Framing is a multi-part process through which ‘aspects of a perceived reality’ are selected and made ‘more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem, definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described’ (Entman, 1993). Framing works to ‘shape and alter… interpretations and preferences’ by ‘activating schemas that encourage target audiences to think, feel, and decide in a particular way’ (Entman, 2007).

This report mobilises findings from a literature review on the framing of wealth inequality in discussion points for organisations involved in narrative change.

Wealth inequality is an inequality iceberg (Savage et al., forthcoming). Mostly invisible, it sits beneath and sustains an already deeply unequal society, amplifying ‘categorical’ inequalities (race, sex, class) and regional inequalities, and it raises risk levels (health, environmental, financial) for those least able to bear the strain, and least able to ‘capture’ sufficient political power to shift the scales in their favour.

Wealth inequality fuses together many of the defining challenges of our present moment: climate, social cohesion, trust in government, institutions, and democracy. It is an entry point to the range of intersecting crises that we are currently living through. For example, wealth equalisation can be a pathway to deliver racial and gender justice, or to mitigate climate damage.

This report considers how wealth inequality can feature in a compelling articulation of social crisis. Its aim is to open up space for thinking about wealth and wealth inequality as a social problem. It might be used to kick start a conversation about how to mobilise resources, helping to answer questions like this: ‘What are the commission strategies that narrative change funders should be employing for further research and field experiments?' ‘What is the evidence base for narrative change in the area of wealth inequality?’ ‘What do we still need to find out?’ and ‘What might work to shift the dial?’.

There are two main reasons why in magnitude and intensity wealth is an inequality ‘iceberg’. First, wealth inequality drives poverty and precarity for the people at the bottom and exacerbates the differences between groups (for example men and women, or people from different ethnic and racial groups).

Second, it distorts democratic and political cultures: rich people can buy the means (directly or through forms of influence) to ensure that their wealth is protected/allowed to accumulate, which produces a vicious cycle, an inequality trap. We’ll look at these in turn here briefly.

Wealth inequality drives poverty and precarity for people at the bottom, and exacerbates disparity

Wealth inequality is high and rising and more marked than income inequality. In the UK, the bottom 50% of the population owned less than 5% of wealth in 2021, and the top 10% a staggering 57% (up from 52.5% in 1995). The top 1% alone held 23% (World Inequality Lab, 2022). The ratio of wealth to income has risen in the UK from 2.3 to 1 in 1948, to 5.7 to 1 in 2020 (in Savage et al., forthcoming). It has a significant impact on life chances and outcomes (Callaghan et al., 2021) and it generates high levels of poverty amongst those with no wealth assets to fall back on. There are no nations which have high levels of economic inequality and low levels of poverty.

Wealth inequality drives and patterns precarity. Although we are a very rich nation, we are a very unequal one. Most people have very little wealth, and around a quarter of the population have none, or are indeed juggling debt. Even modest amounts of wealth can act as a safety net to stop people being pulled into poverty. Not having access to wealth makes lives more insecure and makes it more likely that people might be pulled into poverty.

More than a quarter of adults at the start of 2020 said that they would not be able to manage on their savings for a month if their income stopped (Bell et al., 2023). The average family in the poorest 10% of families has negative net wealth (such as their debts exceed their assets) (Advani et al., 2021). The bottom 2% have just £2,500 (including household physical assets). At least half of the bottom 10% only held wealth in physical assets (with a mean value of £8,000)1.

Various forms of wealth have pushed in different directions. Pension wealth has contributed an equalising effect driven by automatic enrolment, whereas asset inflation in housing markets have pushed in the opposite direction towards greater inequality (Roberts, 2022). Asset inflation has increased absolute wealth levels so that even relatively stable ratios lead to increased ‘gaps’ and decreased social mobility, and asset inflation itself represents an increase in the role of ‘unearned’ vs earned wealth.

Wealth inequality is racialised and gendered. People in the black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and black African ethnic groups have more net debt (31%, 38% and 44% respectively) than individuals in the Indian ethnic group and the white British and Pakistani ethnic groups (11% and around 15% respectively) (Karagiannaki, 2023).

Men have on average £92,762 more in total wealth than women, a gap of 35%.  For men, the main source of wealth is private pension, which is an individual source of wealth. Men have an average private pension wealth of £83,879 more than women, a gap of 90% (Women’s Budget Group, 2023). For women the main source of wealth is property and physical wealth (comprising over 50% of their wealth), which is generally shared with other household members.

Wealth holdings are regionally patterned. The South is considerably more wealthy than the North and this difference is growing. The difference in median individual wealth between the South-East (£263,000) and North-East (£79,000) more than doubled between July 2010 to June 2012, and April 2018 to March 2020 (ONS, 2022b).

Consumption patterns of the wealthy elite increase environmental risk for the poorest. Although richer people are less exposed to environmental risks in the form of pollution, fluctuations in the cost of natural resources, and climate disasters than poorer people (Chancel, 2020), they are much more likely to be responsible for the carbon-producing behaviours that increase these risks. This matters in a domestic context, and in our global context.

Wealth inequality distorts democratic political cultures

Economic elites are able to exert political influence (so-called ‘elite capture’). The very wealthy can use their resources to influence politics in ways which ultimately protect their assets from redistribution (Bartels, 2016). Wealth generates power, which is used to protect wealth, creating an ‘inequality trap’.

Public concern about elite capture erodes trust in government. The overall increase in wealth stocks in the UK during the past forty years has led to worries that a small wealth elite is coming to have disproportionate power and influence. Hirneis (2023), for the APPG on Inclusive Growth, found that the public now feels ‘the very rich’ have more influence than the government (39% vs 24%). Low trust in government makes it less likely that people will demand redistribution of any sort.

Wealth is increasingly inherited, not earned. British people are not averse to some differences in levels of income and wealth, especially when these are endorsed by meritocratic beliefs. But these shared beliefs are undermined by the increasing effects of luck (via inheritance) and the transmission of wealth and other advantages within families and across generations. Inheritance – not hard work – is the principal route to wealth ownership, constituting 60% of all private wealth in the UK (Alvaredo, Garbinti and Piketty, 2017). The children of the wealthiest fifth of parents are 8 times more likely to be in the wealthiest fifth themselves than are the children of the poorest fifth (Davenport, Levell and Sturrock, 2021).

When economic inequalities are such that people lead different lives, social cohesion is threatened. While wealth inequality has only risen slightly since the 1980s, significant growth in the size of overall wealth means that absolute differences have grown between richer and poorer households, with correspondingly higher barriers to social mobility (Broome and Leslie, 2022).

This growth in absolute wealth has created gaps between groups which are no longer recuperable by earning a high income. This effect is further compounded by stagnating wages, which are decreasingly able to offer the promise of saving upwards across the wealth distribution. The effect is, people no longer feel they are playing the same game, or playing by the same rules.

Savage et al’s. forthcoming review of wealth inequality in the UK has a clear message: ‘If we want Britain to be an inclusive and open society, we need to tackle wealth inequality.’

This report starts from the premise that if we want to tackle wealth inequality, we need to better understand the factors that contribute to its low public and political salience. What can narrative change organisations do to increase the awareness of and engagement with this era-defining issue?

3. Narrative-change funders can help raise public and political awareness

This part is structured around 7 insights from the literature that have been used to create discussion points for narrative change funders and organisations. The lack of settled public understanding of wealth and wealth inequality is a chance to talk about it in new ways.

Because wealth is a stock and not a concrete monetary amount like income, it can be difficult to grasp. This is both a risk, in terms of different groups potentially talking at cross purposes (are we talking about the same thing when we talk about wealth?), but it is also a potential opportunity, since complexity and ambiguity opens up space to talk about wealth in different ways. From a framing perspective, this underscores the importance of clear and strategic problem definition: which forms, sources and amounts of wealth are problematic, and which are not?

Recent polling has shed new light on the complex views people have about the economy and about wealth and wealth inequality:

  • Public understanding of the economy and inequality is ‘thin’ (NEON, 2018) and is considered to be too low to sustain public debate (Rowlingson, 2023). The economy is thought of as a container (money in, money out) rather than a system of relationships.
  • Public understanding of the economy and inequality, however, is also complex (Hebden et al., 2020). People are ‘simultaneously aware of potential benefits to society as well as harms’ (Davis et al., 2020).
  • The public recognises that not all forms of wealth are financial. They associate having wealth with wellbeing, and they recognise it as a source of security and protection against risk. They aspire to have some (Hebden and Palmer, 2020). ‘Ordinary’ wealth (Hecht et al., 2022a) is often understood to be aspirational and associated with positive feelings of security, success and comfort. People ‘identify with the wealthy as their imagined (or aspirational) future selves’ (Davis et al., 2020).
  • Current ways of talking about the economy can make people feel fatalistic. The public feels that the system is rigged. When people feel powerless to change something, they can disengage (NEON, 2018).
  • The public has a shared understanding of the difference between being rich and being very rich. But there is no consensus about how much is too much. The public does not in fact judge being very or extremely rich negatively (Davis et al., 2020).
  • The public sees certain sources of wealth as more or less legitimate. Those more closely linked to perceived effort, like earnings from labour or entrepreneurship, are considered more legitimate than those linked to luck or chance (Fairness Foundation, 2023).
  • Perceived legitimacy is also influenced by behaviours. The public is generally supportive of even very high levels of wealth ownership (Davis et al., 2020 and Robeyns et al., 2021) and does not like messaging that vilifies the wealthy (Hebden et al., 2020). However, if wealth holders fail to demonstrate pro-social or ‘cooperative’ behaviours (for example, job creation, philanthropy, playing by the same rules as everyone else) then views become harsher (Hansen, 2023).

When we talk about ‘wealth’ in the abstract, these complex views get bundled together. How can framing help with clearly defining problems, attributing their causes, and promoting moral evaluations about them, which ultimately lay the foundations for specific solutions?

Discussion points

  • Develop frames which isolate specific asset types and specific attributes of those asset types, and frames that link the very wealthy with negative social and environmental impacts. Make explicit the role the very wealthy play in making the rules that protect their wealth.
  • Shift the frame to one of the economy having been designed. This can help people feel less fatalistic. It helps people understand that there is potential to redesign it (NEON, 2018).
  • Put wealth equity at the heart of social change agendas. Wealth equality as an aim may be problematic in the face of public support for some degree of wealth inequality, and in the face of support for ‘ordinary’ wealth (Hecht et al., 2022a) of the kind that people aspire to as insurance against risk. 
  • Make more room to talk about other forms of wealth (common or collective wealth, and public wealth) and other means of wealth creation (community asset generation).
  • Consider a wealth ‘fragments’ approach, what are the trade-offs? Are they the same as those identified in the ‘poverty fragments’ literature (Crossley et al., 2019)? Is it better to talk about pension inequality, housing inequality, and other asset-specific forms of inequality than wealth inequality? Or might that risk shifting the focus away from structural issues?
  • Find ways to talk about the economy as relationships and processes. The ways in which the economy has been framed in political discourse and media has contributed to a simplified understanding that it is a container (money in, money out) (NEON, 2018), a metaphor which comprehensively neglects the human and relational nature of the economy.
  • Focus on challenging prevailing system-justifying renderings of the economy in political and media discourse, and on building alternate narratives. The research suggests there might be public appetite for it (Rowlingson et al., 2020).

More public understanding of wealth inequality could change concern to action

The literature identifies distinct steps in preference formation around redistribution. These are: perceiving inequality to be high, recognising high inequality as unfair (or illegitimate), translating this concern about inequality into support for government intervention in general, and supporting specific proposals for government intervention. These steps don’t necessarily follow on mechanically from one another. For example, although 72% of people in the UK think economic inequality is too high (Hirneis, 2023), the complex set of beliefs summarised in the Why does wealth inequality matter? section above (and the system-justifying beliefs outlined in the next section, on existing beliefs) may mitigate against these high levels of concern translating straightforwardly into desire for action to remedy it.

Part of the difficulty in translating concern into action may be related to well-documented low levels of public economic and fiscal literacy referenced in 1 above. However, the evidence is ambiguous. Where Rowlingson (2023) advocates for better public education about the tax system and the levels of inequality it generates as a means of increasing concern about inequality and raising support for distribution, Trump (2018) provides empirical evidence for the ‘adjustment hypothesis’, the claim that as people become informed about higher levels of inequality, they shift towards justifying the new, higher levels (that is, they adjust their fairness evaluations to the new reality). This accounts for a key finding in the literature: that concern about inequality does not necessarily grow as inequality grows.

In this context, more information doesn’t always do the job we would like it to. The production of information about inequality which is taken to self-evidently build the case for action, has the potential in effect to do the reverse – it can seem to drain the urgency from the crisis or even help to acclimatise the public to higher levels of inequality in the way described by Trump (2018 and 2020). The effect of this information can be modified by the social and interactive ways in which opinion formation takes shape (Summers et al., 2022).

Second, a statistical appreciation of inequality (understanding how big the problem is) isn’t the same as a normative assessment of inequity (understanding why it matters and making a judgement about it). The polling data (Hebden and Palmer, 2020; Hebden et al., 2020; NEON, 2018; Fairness Foundation, 2023) and the deliberative focus group work (Summers et al., 2022) find these normative assessments of inequity to be more significant for the politics of wealth: preference formation (support for or opposition to redistribution) is found to be shaped more by the perceived behaviours of the rich than an understanding (accurate or not) of the amount of wealth they hold. This aligns with the research on income, which similarly shows that it is the amount of unfair inequality rather than inequality per se which shapes support for redistribution (Ahrens, 2022).

Finally, and importantly, a strong focus on literacy presents the issue as one of public cognitive deficit and underplays the responsibility of media and political discourse for what can be an elite, highly-financialised, partial and often partisan rendering of ‘the’ economy, which feels distanced from ‘the real economy’ as experienced by the general public (Davis, 2018). We’ll return to this in the section below, on the media.

Discussion points

  • Raising levels of concern can cause people to become less motivated to seek change. This means that the use of diagnostic framing (shaping what the problem is perceived to be) needs to be undertaken with care. A frame that helps improve the accuracy of people’s perceptions of levels of wealth inequality may actually reduce support for redistribution in certain contexts and amongst certain demographics.
  • Link prognostic framing (that is, solutions-oriented framing) to the public’s existing moral economic sensibility to ‘bad behaviours’ of the extremely rich (for instance, non-cooperation, unfairly acquired or unearned wealth).
  • Different tools appeal to different kinds of cognitive processes. Data and information can help to raise concern but narratives appeal to moral decision-making (Prabhakar, 2009). Given that a majority of respondents now think economic inequality is too high, there may be more room for progressing the moral case about why this matters: this is the terrain that comes across as the most fertile in our literature review. In this case, narratives rather than (or in addition to) numbers might be more effective in shifting public opinion.

Existing beliefs can be a barrier to progressive change

Our literature review overwhelmingly found that system-justifying beliefs amongst the public, such as meritocracy and equality of opportunity, are a significant barrier to building political pressure for change.

Such beliefs make it less likely that the public will even perceive the current distribution to be unfair. Some research found that when individuals have access to the same factual information, those who are inclined to defend the status quo perceive less inequality (Trump 2020). System-justifying beliefs also make it less likely that once inequality is perceived to be high, people will judge this to be unfair.

System-justification is more prevalent amongst privileged groups, and amongst those on the political right. Hoyt et al., (2018) found that while liberals need distributional data on injustice alone in order to be motivated to act on wealth, conservatives needed that data plus confirmation that the system of allocation was unfair before being motivated to act. Messaging that for some groups might be met with system-justification (distributional data to conservatives in the example above), in others will stimulate action against inequality.

Alongside system-justifying beliefs like meritocracy and equality of opportunity, other factors modify both the perceptions of, and the perceived legitimacy of, economic inequality, including political party affiliation and membership (Hoyt et al., 2018), locality (Hecht et al., 2022a; Minkoff and Lyons, 2019), trust in government (Kuziemko et al., 2015), and the ways in which we talk about and develop opinions through social interaction (Summers et al., 2022). This means that the effects of framing are highly context specific, and in the presence of particular configurations of these affiliations and beliefs, are likely to produce divergent responses. Fatemi et al. (2008), for example, found that if people started off with negative views about estate tax, putting a positive frame around it made them feel more negative.

Discussion points

  • Narrative change funders and organisations will need to consider the trade-offs between recognising and acknowledging strongly-held system-justifying beliefs and working within the constraints they set (Hecht et al., 2022a); and recognising and acknowledging these beliefs and making trying to change them the focus of activity (García-Sánchez et al., 2019).
  • Perceptions of systemic unfairness might help to blunt the power of system justification (Hoyt et al., 2018). If people perceive the system to be unfair (rigged), they are less likely to have faith in meritocracy, and more likely to support redistribution. This is particularly important for conservatives (Table 1). However, viewing the system as rigged may simultaneously increase evaluations of inequality as unfair, while also decreasing political efficacy and support for specific forms of redistribution (‘they’re all crooks, so nothing’s going to change’). Further research is needed to unpick these complex interactions.
Table 1: Conservative and liberal perceptions of fairness, attitudes towards systems and motivations to act, based on content in Hoyt et al. (2018).
 Meritocracy beliefsPerception of systemAttitude towards systemsActivism motivated by
ConservativesStrongerFairJustifyingDistribution data + understanding the system that led to distribution is unfair
LiberalsWeakerUnfairQuestioningDistribution data alone
  • If people make sense of the world using local references (Kuziemko et al., 2015), can local references be used more often and more effectively to help draw attention to wealth inequality (at the city level, for example)? Some of the research suggested that people may be more likely to make political decisions to tackle inequality if they ‘build connections between their immediate situation and the broader, social, political and economic factors’ (García-Sánchez et al., 2018) and if their attention can be focused on the ‘consequences of economic inequality in their daily lives’ (García-Castro et al., 2020).

Subsuming wealth inequality into a tax justice agenda might hamper the wider cause

The literature demonstrated that a potentially rich debate on the moral economy of wealth which could well act to counter the potency of system-justifying beliefs is too readily subsumed into conversations about the viability or legitimacy of wealth tax or inheritance tax.

Frames establish not only that something is a problem but also help to establish ‘what kind of problem it is’ (García-Sánchez et al., 2020), who is to blame, and who is responsible for addressing it. Frames are a way of linking specific problem definitions to specific solutions, yet our observation is that UK organisations have at times avoided clear problem definition in a potentially limiting ‘catch-all’ strategy to muster support for a desired (fiscal) solution. This premature narrowing down means that a range of moral economic questions around accumulation, wealth-making processes and pre-distributive questions of equity are circumvented. Put more bluntly, are wealth taxes a solution to inequality or budget deficits?

Because of the complex relationship that the UK public has towards wealth, it is ‘reductionist to consider wealth and its taxation as representing only an economic matter for most people’ (Hecht et al., 2022b). Taxation as a tool for equalising or concentrating wealth could be better integrated into wider conversations about our moral economy.

Discussion points

  • Tax justice work is crucial and has added much to the understandings of public views and sensibilities towards wealth and the wealthy (Hebden and Palmer, 2020 and Hebden et al., 2020). However, tax-focused work needs to be complemented by a fuller diagnostic of what the problem is. Such a diagnostic could enrich the tax justice agenda to ensure it is not a thin descriptive set of technical reforms. A fuller diagnostic of the problem could also stimulate a richer range of solutions. For example, if the problem of wealth inequality includes, as Robeyns’ work on limitarianism suggests that it does (2019; 2024), a bleed between financial and political power, this is unlikely to be stopped by a wealth tax alone.
  • Robeyns et al. (2021) hypothesised that ‘citizens may be unwilling to support policies that limit a person’s wealth if it is unclear what society would gain’. They found that 69% of respondents agreed that if the government had to choose between cutting services on the most vulnerable people in society and increasing taxes on the income of the rich and super-rich, they should choose a tax increase. Taxes might usefully be presented as a choice (for example, failing to tax extreme wealth as a choice to leave poverty unaddressed), drawing on earlier insights from fiscal sociology which position taxes as defining the ‘inequalities we accept and those that we collectively seek to redress’ (Martin et al., 2009).

The media tends to legitimise wealth inequality and offer reformist, not radical, solutions

The way that wealth inequality is framed in the media shapes public understanding and preference formation. The media tends to have an unquestioning attitude towards orthodox economics (Schifferes and Knowles, 2022) and tends towards reformism over radicalism (Vaughan et al., forthcoming).

The failure of the media to communicate the economy and taxation fulsomely and critically is the other side of the coin of low levels of public economic literacy and relatedly, of low levels of public support for redistribution.

There are several concerns identified in our literature review relating to the media’s role in the framing of the economy and taxation:

  • Concentration of media ownership leads to a small number of narratives circulating, and these narratives tend to privilege a narrow range of orthodox economic perspectives (Limbert and Bullock, 2009; Epp and Jennings, 2021; Schifferes and Knowles, 2022). Personal failure frames predominate over social failure frames. The public response to personal failure frames tends to be low levels of support for redistribution.
  • There is a tendency across all media (right and left) to leave the terms of the debate unchallenged – business and financial news coverage tends to be framed around pro-market explanations with little questioning of the ‘overarching economic philosophy of free-market capitalism’ (Robertson, 2020; Grisold and Thiene, 2017).
  • Special interest groups with media influence can shape frames to deliver specific beneficial outcomes (Emmenegger and Marx, 2019; Harrington, 2016).
  • The media tends to legitimise wealth and the rich and fails to focus on their role in determining the rules that protect their wealth. This points to an endemic failure to connect economic and political spheres in public narratives about wealth and inequality (Grabner et al., 2020).

Discussion points

  • Legacy media organisations continue to matter, especially for political elites, but it is possible that the most effective narrative shift will initially work around not through mainstream news organisations, which are increasingly characterised by fragmenting agendas and audiences.
  • Make space for heterodox economic thinking in the media. There is more than one legitimate way of understanding the economy.
  • Media framing is a key part of the mix of influences on public attitudes but needs to be used in a targeted way because prior beliefs can modify the effects of frame (Fatemi et al., 2008) and political party membership can modify the effects and intensity of effects. This means that content of the frame and the political sponsor matter differently for different constituencies. The increasing influence of party ‘sponsors’ means that getting political buy-in will be key to shifting public opinion.

Different frames shape understanding of, and response to, economic inequality

Advantage and disadvantage frames

Although the findings in the literature on the effects of advantage and disadvantage frames (respectively, versions of ‘the rich have more than the poor’ or ‘the poor have less than the rich’) are highly context-dependent, there are key consistencies (see Appendix 1): namely, that disadvantage frames tend to drive support for solutions that help the disadvantaged group; and that advantage frames tend to drive support for solutions that harm the privileged group. What the results have in common is the finding that framing is fundamental to perceptions of the legitimacy of economic inequality (Bruckmüller et al., 2017).

Discussion points
  • Explore the idea of advantaging and disadvantaging processes (Jun et al., 2022). Recognise and describe these as active (legislative, political, economic) interventions made in support of inequality.
  • There is a challenge: people might be less responsive to advantage-reducing frames than disadvantage reducing frames (Dietze and Craig, 2021); but when advantage frames are used, people propose remedies that harm the privileged group (advantage reducing) (Dover, 2022).  More work might need to be done to test the limits of what people will tolerate in terms of advantage frames before they respond defensively. This is likely to differ for more or less privileged groups.

Social failure frames or personal failure frames

Acceptance of inequality is related to how people explain positive and negative economic outcomes. Explanations that focus on individual agency lead to higher tolerance for inequality - if you can improve your economic fortunes through hard work, then if you haven’t done so it must be your fault. In more unequal societies, people tend to think that their (high or low) economic position is their doing, and this lowers demand for redistribution (Mijs, 2021). 

Explanations that focus on structural and social factors, conversely, make it more likely that people will express concern about poverty and demonstrate willingness to address it – the ‘system’ is unfair and making it impossible for people to advance. Belief in meritocracy or other forms of system justification (the focus of the point on existing beliefs, above) reduces the likelihood that people will attribute economic outcomes to structural factors. 

The literature observes a trend in attitudes of richer and poorer people in the 1990s-2000s away from a social failure frame to a personal failure one (Epp and Jennings, 2020), making people at the bottom less supportive of welfare in line with people at the top. There is a risk, then, that as inequality continues to rise, concern about it might not only fail to keep pace, it might even recede. 

The corollary of personal failure frames used to explain poverty are personal success frames used to legitimate wealth, in which very wealthy individuals are presented as ‘self-made’, their success an effect of their hard work or ingenuity with ‘the structural processes that reproduce advantage…obscured’ through a process of ‘discursive misdirection’ (Serafini and Maguire, 2019; Waitkus and Wallaschek, 2022). The effect of this can be to ‘individualise and naturalise inequality’.

Discussion points
  • Frames which foreground personal agency in economic outcomes deflect attention from the disadvantaging and advantaging interventions of the state (such as, for example, enabling a low-wage culture at one end, and failing to cap large bonuses at the other). Personal agency frames are a barrier to tackling wealth inequality because they contribute to justifying the status quo. How can more compelling ‘social failure’ narratives be created with regards to wealth inequality? Given what we know about the public dislike for frames that vilify individuals, is it possible that frames that vilify systems might have more success?
  • We know that support for redistribution increases when rich people are felt to be acting in a non-cooperative or anti-social way, that is, when their individual behaviours are creating problematic social effects. We also know that personal failure frames when used in the context of poverty tend to increase the condemnation of the poor and make them appear responsible for their condition (Harkins and Lugo-Ocando, 2017).  What might the effect be on support for redistribution of personal failure frames applied to the non-cooperative extremely rich population? Is it possible to circumvent the hostility towards ‘vilifying’ frames if bad behaviours are in play?
  • Findings on the effects of ‘episodic’ framing (which highlight individuals and their behaviours) over ‘thematic’ framing (which highlight social trends) (Max and Baumgartner, 2013) are highly context-dependent. It is not always the case that episodic frames lower support for redistribution. So, for example, while some research finds that presenting a few rich individuals as extraordinary can tend to obscure the ‘very many other less publicly visible highly-affluent people’ (Serafini and Maguire, 2019), other work suggests that presenting a few rich individuals as non-cooperative can draw attention towards the social effects of non-cooperation by the very wealthy as a group. 
  • In some contexts, episodic frames help to draw attention to system-level problems, and an individual comes to stand in for system-level problems. For example, Robeyns et al. (2021) compared the effect of a statement presented in the abstract about extreme wealth with a concrete example (in their context, Jeff Bezos). They found the latter increased support for limiting extreme riches.

Visual frames

The repertoire of images used to support text-based media and civil society engagement around wealth inequality is restricted and lacks criticality (Vaughan and Kerr, forthcoming).

Images typically used to communicate about wealth inequality or to illustrate articles and advocacy content on wealth inequality can tend to rely on stock photographs which function as ‘single-item lists of what it takes to be super-rich’. This is problematic because it can seem to erase ‘both the super-rich themselves and the causes and effects of the extreme wealth gap’ (Jaworski and Thurlow 2017, and Image 9).

This kind of luxury-goods image selection is also problematic because these are the exact same images used to illustrate luxury lifestyle brochures. In the presence of these images, can accompanying text ‘successfully anchor associations away from their consumerist origins’, which have been shown to reduce support for redistributive politics (Vaughan and Kerr, forthcoming)?

There is a lack of imagery emphasising the interdependencies of lives lived in poverty and lives lived in extreme wealth (Vaughan and Kerr, forthcoming): media and campaigning images tend to represent either poverty or wealth, or they are contrastive, seeking to shock viewers by juxtaposing extremes (Image 1).


The findings in Vaughan and Kerr (forthcoming) suggest that media and campaigning images are implicated in the failure to connect economic and political spheres identified in the wider framing work by Grabner et al., (2020). How can images avoid defaulting to narrowing the focus to specific parts of the picture (wealth OR poverty rather than the relationship between the two)? How can news media use imagery to more directly visualise the interdependencies between great wealth and deep poverty?

The current ways that wealth is visually represented constitutes ‘discursive misdirection’. Images tend to actively keep the eye on the surface (of buildings, cars, people, consumer goods), which several of our authors suggested frees the rich and their wealth from responsibility for social harm. Images need to engage with process, through thematic framing or social failure frames, to shine light on the advantaging processes (for example, media influence to maintain the predominance of personal failure framing) that are only available to the extremely rich, and which only benefit them (Beckert, 2023).

There is a general lack of iconic symbolic resources which act as shortcuts for the problems of wealth inequality (for example, it is notable that few campaigners, academics or journalists use ‘the same’ symbols). Is it possible to start cohering around key symbols, which avoid the trap of depicting luxury commodities, to reinforce shared narratives?

What else might it be useful to know? A future research agenda

The literature review overall drew attention to gaps in the evidence base that would benefit from new research.

A new research agenda should include the following:

  • Exploring the relative effect of advantage and disadvantage frames on support for wealth redistribution in the UK, along with work isolating the effect of some of the wide range of variables referenced earlier (prior beliefs, ideology, party affiliation, locality, social interaction).
  • Testing the effect of advantage frames on increasing opposition to high levels of wealth inequality by targeting the specific forms of wealth/wealth ownership that the public feels are illegitimate. These might include unearned wealth, wealth acquired through luck and inheritance, for example.
  • Work on the role of images in the framing of wealth inequality. What images work to generate concern? What images work to translate concern into preference formation? What images work with existing system-justifying beliefs? What images challenge these beliefs? Is it possible to use image series to enable a more expansive engagement with inequality-producing processes? Do we need to more consistently anchor images to meanings using text descriptions?

4. Appendix

Summary findings from literature on the effects of frames on preference formation around economic inequality.

 Disadvantage frames (the poor have less than the rich)Advantage frames (the rich have more than the poor)
Lowery et al., 2009If a disadvantage frame is used, people see the rich as getting fair treatment and the poor as getting unfair poor treatment.If an advantage frame is used, people see the poor being given fair treatment and the rich as being given unfair favourable treatment.
Chow and Galak, 2012

Disadvantage frames reduce support for redistribution. 

Conservatives’ opposition to raising taxes on the rich increases when the difference is framed as the poor making less.

Advantage frames increase support for redistribution. Conservatives’ opposition to raising taxes on the rich reduces when there is a positive frame. 

When income inequality is framed as the rich making more than the poor (as opposed to the poor making less than the rich), conservatives are more willing to support redistributive policies, in part because framing inequality in this way makes conservatives more likely to question whether the wealthy are responsible for their own success. 

Bruckmüller et al., 2017

Exploring the combined influence of the perceived extent of economic inequality and the way the respective differences in outcomes are described.

The legitimacy of higher subjective income depends on how differences in outcomes are framed.  

When a difference in outcomes between two groups was framed as a disadvantaged group having less, participants evaluated this difference as less legitimate the bigger they perceived it to be. 

When (the same) difference in outcomes between two groups was framed as the advantaged group having more, how much better off the advantaged group appeared to be did not influence legitimacy ratings.

A focus on the rich having more than the poor [makes] positive aspects of inequality salient (such as how well the rich are doing), which might justify perceiving a higher difference in outcomes as more positive and hence as (somewhat) more legitimate. 

Dietze and Craig, 2021People are more responsive to disadvantage-reducing frames than to advantage-reducing ones.People are less responsive to advantage-reducing frames than disadvantage-reducing ones.
Dover, 2022If a disadvantage frame is used, people propose remedies that help the disadvantaged group (disadvantage reducing). Privileged groups tend to use disadvantage frames because advantage frames make the inequality more self-relevant for the privileged group.If an advantage frame is used, people propose remedies that harm the privileged group (advantage reducing). Privileged groups tend not to use advantage frames because they make inequality self-relevant and this draws attention to the fact that the privileged group is benefitting from an unfair system.
Jun et al., 2022

Disadvantage frames are more prevalent with sex and race than with wealth. This is because sex and race are seen as illegitimate inequalities. Disadvantage frames make inequality look like it is driven by unfair unfavourable treatment. 

Disadvantage frames make it seem like the inequality is driven by processes of animus towards racial minority individuals and women (rather than by processes that boost men and white people). 

Both are faulty and intergroup inequality is an outcome of those advantaging and disadvantaging processes. 

Advantage frames are more prevalent for wealth inequality than for sex and race. This is because wealth is seen as a legitimate inequality.

Advantage frames create the impression that wealth inequality is driven by unfair favourable treatment (processes that boost the wealthy individuals rather than processes that block the advancement of the poor). 

Both are faulty and intergroup inequality is an outcome of those advantaging and disadvantaging processes.   




5. Note

  1. ONS (2022a) Household total wealth in Great Britain April 2019 to March 2020. While there is a significant literature on the missing top tail (that is, the absence of data on the holdings of the super-rich), the missing lower tail is not as commonly acknowledged despite certain groups being systematically excluded from the data, for example, those living in institutions – prisons, student halls, care homes, schools) (Edmiston, 2022). Thanks to Liz Man and Mina Mahmoudzadeh from LSE’s International Inequalities Institute team for these insights.

Our approach to illustrating this report is intended to encourage reflection on the role of images in framing wealth inequality and the lack of criticality in prevailing visual frames, which we explored in more detail in the section on different frames.

This approach is informed by the findings in Vaughan and Kerr (forthcoming) on the dominance of a particularly restricted set of images that illustrate wealth and inequality in media reporting and campaigning work. It also builds on the approach taken in Kerr (forthcoming, Policy Press). Kerr makes the case for the visual field of wealth inequality as needing to present ‘both sides’ of the inequality coin.

Each of the pairs of illustrations in this report is of, or about, wealth inequality and is accompanied by a short critical description. The images speak to the interdependencies between wealth inequality with a range of other inequalities that we explore in the introduction to this report. They contrast a focus on surfaces/individuals with a focus on the processes of wealth inequality-making.

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About the authors

Dr Michael Vaughan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics (LSE). His research interests include digital political participation, far-right politics and the communicative dimension of mobilisation around economic inequality.

Dr Sarah Kerr is a Research Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at LSE. Her research interests include the historical sociology of wealth and poverty, the framing of economic inequality, and forms of justice-making.

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