Harshness or stability in attitudes to redistribution?

In the previous post from Charlotte Cavaille based on the Attitudes to Wealth and Economic Inequality in the UK event run by Cumberland Lodge, she examined how the “middle” had faired during a time of continuous increase in the income gap between the bottom and the top. In this post, she shows how common understandings that ‘attitudes to redistribution have become harsher’ are wrong, as they fail to divide between two different types of attitudes to redistribution.  She goes on to look for signs that changes in the distribution of income and long-term income growth prospects could have impacted people’s attitudes towards the welfare state.

Trends in attitudes to redistribution in Britain

Two of the Cumberland Lodge talks offered evidence that attitudes towards redistributive policies are changing but in ways that buttress inequalities. Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby pointed to the sharp increase in negative attitudes towards welfare recipients, namely the poor and the unemployed. Even with the current crisis, the latter are given no slack. In the early 1980’s a good third of respondents agreed with statements such as “unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted to”, “most people on the dole are fiddling”. With the decrease in unemployment the agreement increased to close to two thirds of respondents. Interestingly, in 2003, as unemployed started increasing again, attitudes did not change back to being more positive to welfare recipients – to the contrary.

With my co-author, Kris-Stella Trump, we looked at an aggregate index of questions about the unemployed, the poor and the de-incentive effects of the welfare state (e.g. “if welfare weren’t so generous, people would stand on own two feet”) and find the same attitudinal shift.

Yet we did not find such dramatic change when looking at attitudes towards left-right redistributive issues, divorced from a focus on targeted transfers to the poor and the unemployed.

This is shown in the graphs below. We called these two index “redistribution TO” (the poor, the unemployed) and “redistribution FROM” (business, the rich, management…etc.).

And these two graphs vividly show the difference in the trends.

Figures shows average scores for respondents in the highest economic hardship quintile (bold solid line) and the lowest economic hardship quintile (bold dotted line). Standard errors are given for each quintile. Scores for both scales range from 6 (most liberal) to 18 (most conservative)

When we looked at trend by income/class groups we found important differences in the predicted way (also shown in the graphs above). For the Redistribution-From index, poor people – high economic hardship individuals in our study – are more pro-redistribution than rich people. For the Redistribution-To index, all income groups showed a sharp increase in negative attitudes, income/class did not explain much.


What is going on here? How much does it have to do with the growth in income differences? I personally think about it in the following way:

a) Material conditions:

Measures of income inequality act as proxies for many other important changes such as the concentration of social ills on a specific population (a sub-set of ethnic minorities and low-income whites), and the growing fiscal pressure on the welfare state. Depending on one’s position in the income distribution, one might develop some propensities to take on hostile attitudes.

Thus, individuals whose social position expose them to the negative social consequences of poverty and unemployment (while not always being unemployed themselves) might be highly receptive to claims that one should distinguish between the deserving poor (themselves) and the not so deserving ones.  Some of it might have to do with the politics of slow and unequal growth that feed into the myth of welfare state free-riders and have individuals focus on cutting the costs of programs they do not expect to participate in.

The former logic would apply to low income voters while the former would apply to middle and high income groups explaining the general hostility to recipients.

b) Political framing:

These propensities get “actualized” (apologies for all these ugly expressions) conditional on contextual incentives such a party rhetoric or media framing. New Labour has done very well, if not better than the Tories, in presenting the poor and unemployed as free-riding cheats.

Dan Hopkins looking at a very different topic found that anti-immigrant attitudes have local political implications (the passing of local anti-immigration ordinances) when local conditions (a sharp, visible short-term increase in the share of immigrants) interact with national politics (immigration as politically contested issue). Any one condition on its own has little political impact. [BB note: more on this in the context of benefits recipients later in the year].

Similarly, I think, explanation (a) cannot do much without (b) and vice versa. When the two meet, the result can be explosive in terms of support for targeted policies.

Peter Taylor-Gooby added a dimension to this simple interaction between individual material conditions and available political discourse. Current policy reforms, he argued, might be going beyond framing and actually entrench low support for transfer policies – this emphasizing the role of institutional incentives, which is the explanation (c).

c) Institutional incentives:

Policy design has been shown to play an important role in creating mass coalition that defend existing policy structures against reform (see the work by Andrea Campbell at MIT and Suzanne Mettler at Cornell). Policy reforms have thus been hypothesized to undermine existing support for these policies. I will quote Tim Horton here:

“The erosion since the 1980s of the contributory basis of unemployment benefits has created a gradual shift from a system based on reciprocity to one based on need. Few now see entitlement as something built up through National Insurance payments; rather, unemployment benefits are increasingly viewed as transfers to ‘the unemployed’. Understandably, as this has occurred, questions about how deserving recipients are have become more and more salient in public consciousness.”

I know Ben is looking at this into more details and I am during some comparative research on the two-dimensional nature of redistributive attitudes. We’ll make sure to keep you posted!

What about the current crisis?

I personally believe that we might be reaching a turning point, especially if government transfers no longer cushion income volatility in the lower bottom part of the income distribution. The situation in the US is scary: unemployment, under-employment, lost homes, lost wealth, student loans, historically low saving rates. The UK does not look much better.

Will this de-multiply the effects described in section (a)? Or, will this provide the absolute loss in material well-being needed to make individuals pay attention to inequalities, the poor and redistribution? Many good dissertations on the politics of solidarity in times of fiscal and economic crisis are, I am sure, currently in the making.

4 responses to “Harshness or stability in attitudes to redistribution?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: