What Do People Think?
How have attitudes to economic inequality changed over time?
Attitudes to Overall Income Inequality
Income inequality is now a concern for most people, as revealed by the newest BSA:
- 84% of people said that the income gap in the UK is too large.
- Only 16% think the gap is 'about right'.
- There has been a slight increase in the number of people who think living standards for the unemployed are 'bad' (29% in 2016 and 26% in 2006) but a significant decrease in the amount of people who think that same for pensioners' living standards (24% in 2016 and 26% in 2006). Around half believe both groups have neither good nor bad living standards.
The last few decades show farily consistent views on income inequality.
- A YouGov poll in 2017 confirms that people's view of income inequality is very different to their belief in what this difference should be. When asked 'What would you say the gap is, if anything, between the highest-earning income and the lowest-earning full-time income in the UK?' people's responses are those mapped out in red below, with 37% believing that difference is more than 1,000 times. However, when asked what the acceptable gap is, only 4% gave the same answer. YouGov reveal that the actual difference is 2,209 times, meaning most survey respondents thought right but that they disagree with this.
Source: YouGov, 2017
Attitudes to Pay Inequality
- Generally, people believe that pay differences across the income scale are excessivec2]. Those at the bottom of the pay scale are thought to be paid too little, while those at the top are seen to be paid too much.
- People generally think that pay ratios within companies are too large. In 2010, people thought that a chairman of a large company should be paid only six times more than an average unskilled factory worker, compared to the reality of over 15 times more.
- Focus group research suggests that there is a perception among the public that high pay is unproblematic as long as it is deserved, and there is a strong belief that it should be a fair recognition of the demands of the job. While this view is held across all pay grades, a higher number of people in the private (54%) than the public (36%) sector believe that their salary should reflect their performance.
What do People Think About Their Own Position?
- Focus groups research finds that most people estimate themselves to be in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of their actual income.
- People paid over £100,000 per annum recognise that they work in industries which are paid well but are reluctant to describe themselves as ‘highly paid’. Research with highly paid people found that they tended not to broach the subject of salaries with those in lower paid industries, viewing their industry, and its pay thresholds, in a vacuum.
Public Attitudes to the Impacts of Inequality
A majority of people say income inequality has negative impacts:
- In 2010, 63%, believed large differences in incomes contributed to social problems like crime.
- In the same year just 27% considered large income differences as necessary to Britain’s prosperity.
Attitudes to the income gap vary between different social groups. A majority in all groups think that the income gap is too large, but some groups are much more likely to believe this than others.
- The view that the income gap is “too large” is highest among people aged 65 and above. 85% of people in this age group believe this, a rise of 13% since 1987.
- Among the youngest age group (18-34), 76% believed in 2012 that the income gap is too large. This figure has declined by 5% since 1987. While in 1987 young people were most likely of all age groups to say the income gap is “too large”, today they are the least likely.
- When asked what the acceptable difference between the highest and lowest full-time earners should be, survey respondents' answers varied by age as shown in the graph below. The most common answer given by people aged 25+ is 10 times. The most frequent answer by 18-24 year olds, however, is that a difference of 500 times is acceptable.
Source: YouGov, 2017
- Agreement with the view that the income gap is too large varies by 9% between Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters, with 85% of Lib Dem supporters agreeing compared to 76% of Conservatives. At 88%, agreement is highest among Labour Party affiliates.
- Agreement with this view has increased most among Conservative Party supporters (+9%) since 1987, while remaining stable for supporters of the two other main parties.
- Working class workers are most likely to agree that income differences are too large (84%). However, since 2007 support for this view has increased more among professional and managerial workers than among any other group. While it has increased by only 4% among working class workers, it has increased by 7% among professional and managerial workers.
- Concern about economic inequality is similarly distributed among people of different incomes, with those on low incomes or struggling financially most likely to feel that the income gap is too great. For example, those who are ‘having difﬁculty in coping on their current household income’ are 13% more likely than those ‘living comfortably’ to consider the gap to be too large.
- Those with a household income of £9,999 or less are 10% more likely than those with a household income of £38,000 or more to believe so.
- Focus group research found that there is a strong belief among high income workers (incomes over £100,000) that high pay is positive for society and the negative effects of income inequality are largely feelings of jealousy and hostility from those on different incomes. Research suggests that a minority of high income workers do, however, question whether the highest salaries can be justified.
The Income Gap is Too Large by Demographic Group, 1987-2012
|% saying income gap is too large||1987||1995||2003||2007||2012||Change 1987-2012|
Public Perception of Wealth Inequality
On average, people think that some degree of wealth inequality is desirable, preferring a distribution in which the top 20% of the population have 32% of the wealth and the bottom 20% about 13%.
Public Understanding of the Wealth Gap
The most commonly chosen reason to explain why some people have greater wealth than others is inheritance. In a 2013 survey:
- 24% of the population believed that the main reason why some people had greater wealth than others was that they had inherited it.
- 19% thought that injustice explained why some people were wealthier than others.
- 14% of the public felt that wealthy people had worked hard.
- 14% thought inequality was just inevitable or the result of luck (6%).
- One in five (19 %) thought there was no one particular reason to explain it.
Public Attitudes to the Impact of Wealth Inequality
In general, attitudes suggest high concern about the impact of wealth inequality. In 2013:
- 41% of respondents strongly agreed that large differences in people’s wealth gave some people too much political power, with a further 35% tending to agree (76% agreement in total).
- There was widespread concern that wealth inequality made Britain a divided society (72% agreement).
- A small majority (51%) thought that the wealth gap was unfair.
- A significant minority of the public thought that large differences in wealth were necessary for Britain’s prosperity (27%) and gave people incentives to work hard (33 %).
Public Perceptions of Poverty
The majority (65%) of people think that there is 'quite a lot' of poverty in the UK. Similarly, 62% think this has increased in the past 10 years and 61% think this will continue to increase in the next ten years. Definitions of poverty, however, vary. More than half (55%) think that having 'enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy other things they needed' means someone is in poverty and 88% think the same for someone who does 'not [have] enough to eat and live without getting into debt'. These proportions have been similar between 2006 and 2018.
Such views vary by political party affiliation, as the graph below shows, with Labour displaying a larger threshold for what living in poverty means.
Source: BSA, 2019