Loughborough University
Living_on_Different_Incomes_in_London_Feb_2020.pdf (2.67 MB)

Living on different incomes in London: can public consensus identify a 'riches line'?

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posted on 2020-03-31, 09:53 authored by Abigail DavisAbigail Davis, Katharina Hecht, Tania Burchardt, Ian Gough, Donald Hirsch, Karen Rowlingson, Kate Summers
While many academics have focused on describing and defining poverty, there is relatively little corresponding research about people’s perceptions of what it means to be rich. This is despite the fact that current discourse about inequality often centres around high income or wealth. This innovative study aimed to explore what members of the public living in London think defines progressively higher living standards and whether they could identify a point at which financial resources (either income, wealth or both) could be considered excessive. London was chosen as the location for the study because economic inequality is particularly pronounced and also plainly visible.
Bringing together three leading institutions with expertise on inequalities and living standards, the research adopted the ‘consensual budget standards’ methodology which has been developed to identify a Minimum Income Standard (MIS). This involves recruiting groups of members of the public to discuss and negotiate consensus on specific questions. In this case, the groups discussed what difference having higher incomes and greater wealth made to people’s living standards, everyday lives, behaviours and expectations, and how that in turn affected society and the world around us. Findings were fed forward from group to group in a process designed to check, confirm and broaden consensus.
The project identified a shared idea of different living standards that ranged from a minimum socially acceptable level as defined by MIS (with the acknowledgement that many in London are below this) up to a category unanimously labelled by groups as the ‘super rich’. Between these levels, participants drew distinctions between a living standard described as ‘securely comfortable’ and one described with various labels including ‘wealthy’ - a level at which people were able to afford various things that most people cannot, such as a second home, private education and expensive pastimes and holidays. While groups agreed on a description of what a wealthy living standard included and enabled people to have and do, they did not agree that it was excessive or unreasonable for people to live at this level. Rather, participants largely endorsed affluence as a reasonable aspiration, and important for avoiding the precarity and unpredictability of current times, with fears expressed around job, housing and healthcare security. To the extent that group participants had reservations about higher living standards (particularly the super-rich), this was influenced by views about how people had come by their money, how they spent it and whether they contributed to society, for example by helping to create jobs.
The findings suggest that while many members of the public are concerned about economic inequality, this does not translate into generalised opposition to individuals becoming rich, or to a societal consensus on a threshold beyond which an individual’s financial resources are considered excessive. Therefore, if policy makers wish to address inequality, they may do better to think in terms of narratives of how riches are acquired and spent, and how people with greater resources are encouraged to behave and contribute to society, rather than starting from the premise that there is a consensus among the general public about how much is too much.


Trust for London


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  • Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP)


Trust for London


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Abigail Davis. Deposit date: 30 March 2020

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