Personal characteristics and self-interest may not be the only factors which influence attitudes to inequality, taxation and welfare, according to research by Ade Kearns and colleagues – residential patterns and circumstances also matter. The significant implication of the research is that the cohesion of society itself may be eroded if policy actions, and inactions, permit residential sorting by income and social groups to persist and grow.
There has been much discussion recently, prompted by the publication and promotion of French economist Thomas Piketty’s work, about how public policy should respond to evidence that income and wealth inequalities are growing. There have been suggestions that inherited wealth should be more easily taxed and that income taxes should be more progressive. But how likely is it that policymakers and the public will support any of these suggestions, predicated as they are upon notions of social solidarity, if income inequalities result in ever greater residential separation of the rich from the poor? What happens to the principle of solidarity when society is increasingly segregated? This is the question addressed by new research on attitudes to income inequality and redistribution in England carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Glasgow, and published recently in the Journal of Social Policy under the title: ‘“All in it Together”?’
The research sought to explore whether individuals’ attitudes to the welfare state, in particular concern about inequality and support for income redistribution through taxation and benefits, are mainly or solely determined by personal characteristics such as altruism and material interests such as income levels, or whether there are also contextual factors at work: to put it another way, could where you live affect how you think? The study used data on a representative sample of adults from the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009, but then through data linkage ‘placed’ respondents in their neighbourhoods of residence. By controlling for individual characteristics and measuring aspects of the neighbourhood the research could look at the interaction between the two.
As expected, the results show that as individual income increases, fewer people think inequalities are too great or unfair, and fewer people agree that there should be government action on the issue, i.e. the richer you are, the more your attitudes are governed by self-interest. Similarly, people who are more altruistic in their general values tend to be more concerned about inequality specifically, and more supportive of government intervention to correct it. However, the story is rather more unusual and interesting when individual factors are controlled for, and neighbourhood characteristics are taken into account. Here the results show that two important interactions are in play. First, as we would anticipate, support for income redistribution increases as neighbourhood deprivation rises (i.e. in poorer areas), but this increase in support for redistribution is much greater in the case of higher income groups than others. Second, those people who have lower levels of altruism in general, exhibit increasing support for income redistribution when they live in denser, more urban neighbourhoods.
These findings are important because they indicate that personal characteristics and self-interest may not be the only factors which influence attitudes to inequality, taxation and welfare – residential patterns and circumstances also matter. In both more deprived and denser neighbourhoods, social groups which typically have lower concerns about inequality and lower support for redistribution can exhibit more solidaristic attitudes. Processes such as knowledge accumulation about the needs and lives of others, and attitude transmission whereby the views of others are shared through social interactions, may be important social mechanisms in such circumstances.
The significant implication of the research is that the cohesion of society itself may be eroded if policy actions, and inactions, permit residential sorting by income and social groups to persist and grow. Solidarity depends upon familiarity, sympathy and empathy, and these things are more likely to be felt in relation to those we interact with and share public space and common institutions with. These forces of solidarity are weakened when divisions in society are reflected and reinforced by residential separation.
For more, read the journal article presenting this research: “All in it together?” Social cohesion in a divided society: attitudes to income inequality and redistribution in a residential context’ in the Journal of Social Policy.
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Ade Kearns is Professor of Urban Studies in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow.