The Politics of Wealth Inequality and Mobility in the Twenty-First Century

Principal Investigator: Ben Ansell

Income inequality has risen dramatically since the era of the postwar consensus, but in Britain, as in many other European countries, it stopped rising almost a decade ago. And yet, many people find the cost of living increasingly straining and the chances of upward mobility ever more distant.

What accounts for this paradox? Income inequality in the UK is dormant, indeed declining, but the ‘end of class politics’ has been replaced by a schism between ‘educated elites’ and the ‘left behind’. Are we missing something about the economy? The answer may lie under our feet, or at least under our beds, kitchen counters, and sofas. Housing has taken on the role previously played by wages as the cleavage between rich and poor. Wealth, of which home ownership is a crucial part, now accounts for the core line of division in the welfare of the British public, and indeed in many countries worldwide. Yet social scientists have largely lacked both the data and the theoretical framework to understand inequalities in wealth.

This project will collect new international and historical data on wealth inequality and social mobility, and will develop an original policy database on how governments have tried to manage wealth – how they tax it, regulate it, shape its growth and transfer it from generation to generation. Using a novel series of laboratory and survey experiments, the project will examine how citizens from across Europe think about the distribution of wealth in their countries and whether they cast it in a different light to inequality in income and employment.

House prices can be closely linked to changes in political preferences, and so are crucial to our understanding of political changes. This research will shed light on historical differences between wealth inequality between countries, and on the ways in which governments have tried to shape wealth through policy. A better understanding of the politics of wealth inequality may allow us to better comprehend the political challenges we face today.

Funded by: European Research Council