Income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Institute of Applied Social Sciences


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Karen Rowlingson (Author) (2010) Public attitudes to fair pay

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Park, Alison; Curtice, John; Clery, Elizabeth; Bryson, Caroline; Phillips, Miranda (2010) British Social Attitudes: The 27th Report

Description Income inequality in the UK rose dramatically after 1979 and now stands at historically high levels. But what does the British public think about inequality and redistribution? This ESRC-funded study analysed data from the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey and found that the majority of the public are concerned about income inequality with 78 per cent thinking that the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large, up from 73 per cent in 2004. People generally think that income inequality has negative impacts, with 63 per cent saying that it contributes to social problems like crime. The majority of the public believe the government should act to reduce income inequality but only 36 per cent say that government should redistribute income from the better off to the less well off. The research set out to explore why people generally do not support policies to directly reduce inequality.

Part of the issue seems to be with the term 'redistribution', as more people answer favourably about redistribution when the general principle is put forward without the explicit term. Another part of the explanation for lower levels of public support for redistribution is self-interest. Those on higher incomes, who might lose out from redistribution, are less likely to support redistribution than those on lower incomes. But self-interest cannot explain views about redistribution entirely, given that a quarter of those on higher incomes, who say when asked that they put themselves first over others, still support redistribution. Another part of the explanation is people's underlying beliefs about inequality. Those who see inequality as caused by factors outside people's control (eg social injustice or bad luck) are much more likely to support redistribution than those who see it as due to laziness on the part of 'the poor' and hard work on the part of 'the rich'. The third explanation is that people support other kinds of government intervention aimed at reducing income inequalities such as equal opportunities.

At a time when the recession and resulting cuts in public expenditure look set to impact most on those at the bottom, it seems that the British public will be concerned about consequential increases in income inequality.
Exploitation Route This research is of use to politicians, policymakers and the general public because it discusses public attitudes to a live policy issue. Findings have been presented at Chequers to Ministers within Gordon Brown's Labour government as well as at a TUC fringe event, a Fabian society meeting and a public event in Birmingham. Public attitudes to inequality are of use in an academic context within politics, sociology and social policy. They are also useful to politicians and policymakers as they can inform policy responses to this issue.
Sectors Other

Description The findings have been used to increase public debate about economic inequality. For example, I have presented the findings at a range of public events including: Is there an alternative to the spending cuts and would the public support it if there was? Presentation to Birmingham Fabian Society, 25th February 2011 Why doesn't the British public seem to care about inequality or the cuts in public spending? Discourses of Dissent: Social Theory and Political Resistance, Birmingham, 16th February 2011 What is fair pay and how do we achieve it? Presentation to TUC Congress Fringe event organised by Unions 21, 15th September 2010
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Other
Impact Types Societal

Description Archbishop's Task Group on Responsible Credit and Saving grants scheme
Amount £2,528 (GBP)
Organisation Church of England 
Department Archbishop's Task Group
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 12/2014
Description What's fair? : the public's view 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience
Results and Impact Paper given at seminar on October 10th 2009, at Chequers on new thinking around the equality agenda.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity