Attitudes to inequalities have important real-world implications
Perceptions of the extent and causes of inequalities are vitally important to the functioning of societies, economies and politics. If the public thinks that inequalities are large – and, crucially, that they are unfair – this can undermine faith in political and economic systems as a whole.
Public perceptions of and attitudes towards these inequalities have important real-world implications. There is plenty of evidence that people’s concerns about inequalities in society can spill over into the political sphere – movements such as Occupy, the gilets jaunes in France and Black Lives Matter have all given voice to the concerns of those who feel disadvantaged or marginalised in society. The election of populist leaders in many advanced economies may also in part reflect frustrations about inequalities.
People are generally uncomfortable about inequalities but are split on what action should be taken to address them
While inequality is only infrequently flagged as an issue of public concern in unprompted questions, when people are asked explicitly how they feel about specific types of inequality, they typically express concern and discomfort with them, and wish for them to be reduced. Despite this apparent disapproval of inequalities (or the scale of them), people seem to be more reticent to support action by government to address them. In particular, there appears to be hostility towards more interventionist remedies, such as the redistribution of income or affirmative action, though lighter-touch measures or those with widely shared benefits garner more support.
Whether people think inequalities are fair is partly a result of how they are thought to arise
In general, inequalities that arise through merit or effort are more acceptable than those that arise through luck. Data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) indicate that a majority of people believe they live in societies where hard work is the most important determinant of getting ahead, a trend observed across countries and increasing since the 1980s. Conversely, people are less accepting of income inequality when it is seen to be undeserved. They are more concerned when they perceive income inequality to be driven by structural barriers (such as family background) than by effort.
The Individualists versus the Structuralists
Two competing explanations for the existence of inequalities dominate: that systematic features of social arrangements create and perpetuate inequalities (the structuralist view) on one hand and that outcomes are determined entirely by individual efforts (the individualist view) on the other.
We divided the sample into groups, based on responses to questions about structural and individual causes of inequalities, fairness, and perceptions of inequalities in the UK: what it takes to get ahead, the reasons for economic differences between black and white people, the equality of UK society prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and equality of opportunity in education, health and the application of law (full details of the model used are provided in the appendix).
Three distinct groups within the population emerged from this analysis:
- ‘The Structuralists’, 32% of the sample. When it comes to what it takes to get ahead, this group recognises characteristics outside the individual’s control, such as coming from a wealthy family, more than do other groups. Strong majorities in this group attribute economic differences between black and white people to discrimination and a lack of educational opportunities. This group is most likely to recognise inequalities and to describe UK society as unequal before the COVID-19 pandemic. Large majorities, around 75%, strongly agree that there is a different law for the rich and the poor and believe people with money are a lot better able to live healthy lives. This group also rates the fairness of educational opportunities in the UK lower than the rest of the sample.
- ‘In the Middle’, 39% of the sample. This group tends not to use the extreme options when responding to our questions: almost nothing is ‘essential’ or ‘not at all’ important for getting ahead; almost no one in this group described society as ‘very’ equal or ‘very’ unequal. This group seems to recognise inequalities and a range of external and individualistic causes. From these data, it is not possible to tell whether this group is genuinely some intermediate mixture of the other two groups on questions of inequalities, or whether these people are relatively disengaged from these issues and therefore less inclined to express any view.
- ‘The Individualists’, 29% of the sample. This group is eager to see the world as fair. It strongly rejects roles for coming from a wealthy family, race and religion in getting ahead, and generally does not consider factors beyond the individual’s control to be important. Views are spread on whether there is a different law for rich and poor, whether money facilitates a healthier lifestyle, and whether society was equal before COVID-19 – in all these domains, there is a slight tendency to recognise the inequality, but there is also quite a lot of endorsement for responses that deny these inequalities.
These attitudinal segments capture something distinct from political identities: while, for example, just over half of the Structuralist group are Labour supporters, a large proportion support other parties. There are significant proportions of both Leave and Remain supporters in each group. They are also not that different from each other in age, social grade, geography and gender. The segmentation therefore seems to be capturing additional aspects of perceptions of inequalities, beyond these characteristics. However, there are some notable differences in education, with more highly educated people tending to be Structuralists.
- Both Structuralists and Individualists prioritise inequalities in income and between places, but Individualists are generally less concerned about most types of inequality. Among Individualists, 55% identified area-based inequality as one of the most serious – more than any other type of inequality for this group – but this was still less than the 68% of Structuralists who responded similarly.
- Structuralists are most likely to believe the pandemic will deepen inequalities in Britain, and are most likely to consider this a problem. More than 60% of Structuralists expect the pandemic to increase inequalities in the UK, compared with 39% of people In the Middle and 31% of Individualists. Structuralists were more likely to say increasing inequalities in incomes or life expectancies between various groups would be a problem than were the group In the Middle or Individualists.
- Structuralists are more likely to think benefits for unemployed people are too low. In contrast, more Individualists believe they are too high (38%) than too low (28%).
- Structuralists are more positive about the furlough scheme than other groups. People In the Middle and Individualists are more likely to agree that the furlough scheme causes reliance on the state and/or discourages jobseeking than Structuralists.
- There is no one national set of attitudes towards inequalities. Instead, a few distinct world views are discernible. These cut across traditional political party affiliations, indicating that we cannot rely on voting patterns as a perfect proxy for attitudes to inequalities. It also suggests that action to address inequalities can garner cross-party support, if framed and targeted correctly.
- Some types of inequality worry us more than others. Area-based inequality (between more and less deprived areas) tops the list of the most serious inequalities among our respondents. Crucially, this concern is seen pretty equally across our three groups of Structuralists, Individualists and those In the Middle, and supporters of different political parties. These findings provide a strong endorsement for ‘levelling up’, and for this to be a central component of the coronavirus recovery strategy.
- Our views of fair inequalities are nuanced – merit matters, but so does need. While all groups (Individualists, Structuralists and those In the Middle) emphasise the importance of a fair society rewarding hard work, there is also a shared belief that those who are in need should be taken care of, irrespective of their reciprocal contribution to society.
- Though there is some wariness of the term ‘redistribution’, there is clearer support for government action to address inequalities. Framing is therefore an important aspect of winning over sceptical groups. Notably, Conservative support is markedly higher when intervention is framed as ‘taking measures’ to address inequalities, rather than redistribution specifically. Understanding what these ‘measures’ are should be a key area for further testing.
- Our attitudes are not necessarily fixed, and the coronavirus crisis may provide an opening for a more interventionist approach to tackling inequalities. Time-series data show oscillations in support for redistribution, and quite a pronounced softening in attitudes towards the generosity of benefit support, for example. Moreover, there are indications that the pandemic has in some ways provided a window for change: more than a third of each group believe the COVID-19 crisis increases the need for government to redistribute income from rich to poor, and almost half of us believe the experience of the pandemic has strengthened the case for a more active role for government in the future.
Cite this as:
Benson, R., Duffy, B., Hesketh, R. and Hewlett, K. (2021), ‘Attitudes to inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, https://ifs.org.uk/inequality/attitudes-to-inequalities/