Attitudes to redistribution: does it matter where you live?

This is a guest post by Nick Bailey on some of the first work on the geography of attitudes to redistribution, based on his just-published paper (with four colleagues). More on this from me (Ben) over the summer too, it’s a really interesting area to investigate! 

As several previous posts on this list have noted (including this recent one by Brendan Saloner), concern about inequality and support for redistribution has declined as inequality has risen over the past 30 years (Figure 1). In a recent study (full paper available free), we explored one possible explanation for this: geography – or the increasing tendency for rich and poor to live apart.

Figure 1: Trends in inequality and in attitudes

Figure 1 - see description in text

Sources: Attitudes data from British Social Attitudes Surveys (various sources); Gini coefficient based on incomes BHC from FES/FRS (via IFS website).

In simple terms, rising income inequality tends to lead to greater spatial segregation because richer households are increasingly able to outbid those on lower income when competing for housing in more desirable neighbourhoods. We are still waiting for data from the 2011 Census but analysis of the trends from 1971 to 2001 gave strong evidence of rising segregation up to point. Our question is essentially whether this rise in segregation may act as a ‘positive feedback’ effect: does rising segregation undermine support for redistribution, further fuelling the rise in inequality? We explore this by looking at the relationship between attitudes and the neighbourhoods in which people live.

Why might neighbourhood influence support for redistribution?

We can suggest two plausible mechanisms. First, the neighbourhood can be a source of attitude transmission because it influences who we meet. We know from much previous work that people on lower incomes are more likely to support redistribution. If we live in a lower income neighbourhood, we are therefore more likely to meet people who support redistribution. The opposite might occur if we live in a more affluent neighbourhood.

Second, even without close interaction with our neighbours, the neighbourhood can be a source of knowledge through daily observations and encounters. For most of us most of the time, our social interactions are limited to people like ourselves giving us a restricted understanding of how rich or poor we are – and a complacency about inequality in consequence. If richer people live in a poorer neighbourhood, this might give them greater awareness of their affluence and hence greater concern about inequality. The same would occur where poorer individuals live in a richer neighbourhood.

These two mechanisms therefore lead to different expected effects. Attitude transmission suggests a uniform effect: everyone should be more likely to support redistribution if they live in a poorer neighbourhood. Knowledge accumulation suggests different effects for rich and poor (an interaction between individual and neighbourhood income).

Does neighbourhood influence support for redistribution?

In our study, we used data from the 2007 British Social Attitudes Survey to which we attached various neighbourhood measures, including neighbourhood deprivation (low income) and density. We construct two main measures of attitudes but, for now, we will focus on one – ‘support for redistribution’. What we observed fits with the expectations noted above – but also goes beyond them.

First, in line with our theory, people who lived in more deprived neighbourhoods were more likely to support redistribution and the effect was much greater for higher income groups (Figure 2). Indeed, for the lowest income groups, support for redistribution did not vary with neighbourhood. This suggests that knowledge accumulation is at least part of the picture.

Figure 2: Support for redistribution – neighbourhood deprivation and income

Figure 2 - see description in text

Second, we also find an unexpected relationship with neighbourhood density, at least for less altruistic people. They tend to express lower support for redistribution on average but this rises when they live in a denser neighbourhood. Because denser neighbourhoods tend to be found in larger towns and cities, we think what we are seeing here is the effect of spending more time in places with a greater range or diversity of people – an urban effect. 

Conclusions and policy implications

We discuss various limitations with the analysis in the paper, most obviously that it is based on cross-sectional rather than longitudinal data. Leaving those aside, what we have observed is consistent with the idea that where we live has some impact on our attitudes to redistribution – and with the idea of a ‘positive feedback’ effect with inequality fuelling segregation (and suburbanisation), in turn undermining support for redistribution, fuelling further rises in inequality. Longitudinal research would help to confirm that this is a causal relationship.

In recent years, many governments have taken steps to limit or reverse both spatial segregation and urban sprawl: segregation on grounds of social justice as it is seen as reinforcing disadvantage for lower income groups; and sprawl on environmental grounds as low density living is associated with higher carbon emissions. What this study suggests is that these efforts to promote ‘mixed communities’ and more ‘compact cities’ may also have important impacts on social solidarity or cohesion, at least in terms of support for redistribution.


More information

This is a very brief look at a couple of our key findings. In the paper discussed here, we also looked at attitudes to welfare recipients and found rather different relationships with neighbourhood. And in a separate paper (under review), we will explore the effects of individual and neighbourhood ethnicity.

More details on this study and its outputs are available from this website. The study was funded by a grant from the ESRC (RES-000-22-4192). The team involved Nick Bailey, Maria Gannon, Ade Kearns, Mark Livingston and Alastair Leyland all from the University of Glasgow.

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6 Responses to Attitudes to redistribution: does it matter where you live?

  1. Stephen McKay says:

    Could not causation be the reverse — attitudes to wealth, income & redistribution driving people’s housing and location choices? [apologies if this is covered in the fuller paper].

    Someone should fix that x-axis in Figure 1, BTW, as its hard to discern the true time trends at present with variable spacing of years.

    Anyway, always good to read further on this topic.

    • Nick Bailey says:


      You’re right that selection is a possible concern (and it is discussed in the paper!). That’s why I’ve tried to be cautious in the language e.g. results are ‘consistent with’ the idea that neighbourhood has some impact on attitudes. It’s also why we spend some time on the possible causal mechanisms at work – to undertand how the same context may have a different impact on different people.

      In the end, we’d need some longitudinal research to be able to make stronger claims – or qualitative work to understand the processes or mechanisms at work.



  2. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    I have the same concern. if high income are the only one who can “chose” to move then one would predict exactly what you get: a high slope > 0 for “mobile” high income households and a slope = 0 for the “immobile” low income.

  3. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    Great paper btw!

  4. Pingback: Shame on us: why stigmatising welfare claimants won’t work | Making Change Happen

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