Follow us
Publications Commentary Research People Events News Resources and Videos About IFS
Home Publications Most people care about inequalities – but there is little agreement about what, if anything, government should do about them

Most people care about inequalities – but there is little agreement about what, if anything, government should do about them

Press release

Disagreements about social and economic inequalities – how big they are, how much they matter, what causes them, and what to do about them – run very deep. Most people say, when prompted, that they are concerned about inequalities. But the degree of concern is highly variable, and the concern is not matched by a consensus about what, if anything, government should do.

Especially as this government embarks on its ‘levelling up’ agenda, these beliefs and attitudes matter for designing policy. So the first task for the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has been to commission two major surveys of current UK attitudes, to review what is known about attitudes and what causes them, to talk to dozens of people up and down the country, and to engage professional philosophers and the general public, to delve deep into the question of why we should be concerned about inequality at all.

Today, we publish a wealth of new material which is the product of that work. This begins the release of output from the evidence-gathering phase of the Review, of which much more will follow in the coming months. A team from King’s College London (Rebecca Benson, Bobby Duffy, Rachel Hesketh and Kirstie Hewlett) have written a detailed study of the survey evidence on the UK public’s attitudes towards inequality. Professor Stefanie Stantcheva (Harvard) has written about evidence from large-scale social economics surveys and experiments on how people perceive, and reason about, inequalities and redistribution. Ipsos MORI publish findings from in-depth focus group work and larger-scale survey work with the British public that they have undertaken with us. Meanwhile world-leading philosophers, such as Professors Debra Satz (Stanford) and Stuart White (Oxford), have discussed the ethical frameworks for thinking about inequalities used by those whose life’s work it has been to do so, providing both similarities and contrasts with how the public tend to reason.

Survey evidence on people’s attitudes presented by the King’s College London team shows that:

  • A large and stable majority of people, around 80%, say they are worried about inequalities. But concern about inequality does not translate into widespread support for redistributive policy, at least through the direct means of taxation and income transfers. When asked about specific and less direct means of redistribution, people are more likely to express support: in particular, for the NHS and for funding of children from poorer families to go to university.

  • The British population is fairly evenly split between those who broadly think that inequalities arise from people’s own efforts and abilities (who the authors call ‘individualists’), those who blame societal factors outside of individuals’ control (the ‘structuralists’) and a middle group who perceive strong elements of both. These modes of thinking are strongly related to policy views and outlooks about the future. Individualists are especially unlikely to support redistributive policies. Structuralists are twice as likely as individualists to think the pandemic will increase inequality (63% vs 31%).

  • A strong belief that meritocracy works in Britain – that effort is rewarded – is common. The British are more likely than other Europeans to agree that ‘large differences in people’s incomes are acceptable to properly reward differences in talents and efforts’.

Other key conclusions from the suite of work published today include:

  • There is only limited understanding of the actual extent of inequalities, and new information can influence people’s thinking. Both previous studies and the focus group work we have carried out indicate that many people are aware of inequalities between themselves and people they know, or who live close by or who work for the same firm, but have little sense of the scale of inequalities in income, health and wealth across the country. When they engage with that information, they often express more concern about inequality.

  • Professor Stantcheva highlights how people’s perceptions of facts about inequality are closely tied to their political inclinations. They do not accept Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that ‘You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts’. This phenomenon, of people with different views about the way the world should be also tending to have different perceptions about the way the world is, makes for a polarised discourse. It is a likely part of the explanation for why attitudes, although not totally insensitive to new information, are hard to shift, especially when it comes to questions about what policy should do (or not do) – a tendency which was also evident from Ipsos MORI’s focus group work with the British public.

  • Survey work by Ipsos MORI suggests that the young and people with a university degree express more concern about inequality than older generations and non-graduates. In-depth focus groups suggested that older generations are more inclined to see inequalities as simply a fact of life. The greater concern about inequality among graduates may reflect the fact that, according to the King’s College London research, they are much more likely to be ‘structuralists’ – 38% of those with a degree believe that inequalities largely reflect things outside of people’s control, compared with 23% of those with GCSEs or less.

  • As well as looking at public attitudes, we have, through work by philosophers, tried to understand from an ethical viewpoint what it is that should concern us about inequality. One important theme is that economic inequalities are of particular concern when they lead to a loss of equality of status and respect as citizens. This can be associated with undermining of democratic institutions and values, fair chances for political influence being eroded, rich and poor being treated differently by the courts, and lack of fair access to good education.

Paul Johnson, IFS director and a member of the IFS Deaton panel, said:

‘The public express concerns about inequality, recognising that it can be problematic, but also feeling that a considerable degree of inequality is inevitable and can be fair. Not surprisingly there is deep disagreement over what is fair and how much action should be taken to change outcomes. Any policy response needs to recognise these complexities, and the fact that outcomes are driven by both environmental factors and people’s own behaviour and motivations. Too often only one of those explanations for inequalities is appealed to – the societal or environmental factors by those on the left and the personal factors by those on the right. Good policy must recognise and take account of both.’

Sir Angus Deaton, chair of the Review, said:

‘It is easy to explain why we are all concerned about those in poverty. But it is sometimes harder to persuade people to be concerned about inequalities. Some people think that worrying about inequality is driven by envy, which is not something policy should address. But inequalities can do great harm, especially when they are large. Enormous differences in wealth are common, and frequently limit the freedom of those who have little, threaten their equal status as citizens, and can undermine democratic institutions.’

Tim Gardam, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Foundation said:

‘The nature of inequality is changing rapidly and many existing inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. These inequalities are often multidimensional and when they interact they drive unequal outcomes. Indeed, people experiencing economic inequality are at greater risk of barriers to accessing justice and education. This intersection lies at the heart of the Nuffield Foundation’s core interests. The IFS Deaton Review of Inequality is a landmark and timely project, advancing our understanding of inequality and public attitudes towards it. The review will help to generate viable policy options which could in turn create a more just and inclusive society. Any government ‘levelling up’ strategy will need to take careful account of its findings.’

Deaton inequality website

More on this topic

Observation
What do shifts in trade patterns – such as surges in import competition or new trade barriers due to Brexit – mean for different workers?
Report
What do shifts in trade patterns – such as surges in import competition or new trade barriers due to Brexit – mean for different workers?