Monday, June 22, 2009

Understanding attitudes to tackling economic inequality

The Fabian Society and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have just published the findings of research about public attitudes to reducing poverty and inequality. Some of the key findings:

1. Nearly all the participants in the discussion groups placed themselves in the 'middle' of the income spectrum, despite the fact that they came from the full range of socio-economic groups. They interpreted the income gap in terms of the gap between the 'middle' and the 'super-rich'.

2. Most participants believed that 'deserved' inequalities are fair. They were therefore not opposed to high incomes in general because they tended to believe that these were deserved on the basis of ability, effort, performance or social contribution.

3. Despite a widespread belief in 'fair inequality', participants strongly supported a progressive tax and benefits system – although they complained that the system is not generous enough towards the 'middle' (that is, where participants placed themselves)

4. Participants' attitudes towards those on low incomes were often more negative and condemning than their attitudes towards 'the rich'. For example, they placed far greater blame and responsibility on the former for their situation than on the latter.

5. Most participants were strongly attracted to a social vision founded on improving quality of life for everyone (more so than one founded on explicitly egalitarian objectives, and far more so than one founded on economic growth).

Couple of initial thoughts:

- Columnists like Polly Toynbee and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown have been suggesting that the government should remove child benefit and free bus passes for older people from middle class people and make them only available to the poor. This research shows how this is a totally misguided approach - setting the 'poor' against the 'middle' is entirely the wrong way for people who care about poverty and inequality to go.

- Maybe we should put more of a focus on the policies which would get people on low incomes and those in the middle on the same side. From child care to transport, housing to care for the elderly, there are no shortage of areas where the government could act to help people out. Historically, some of the best anti-poverty policies are the ones which benefit middle class people, from the NHS to child benefit.


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