Changing the narrative on wealth inequality

Think tank: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Author(s): Dr Sarah Kerr; Dr Michael Vaughan

May 2, 2024

This report from UK think tank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is offered as a means of sparking new conversations about the economy, wealth, and wealth inequality.

Escalating wealth inequality is causing social and environmental harm. Although it is high and rising, public concern isn’t keeping pace. Changing how wealth inequality is talked about could help to raise public concern and build political pressure to act.

We reviewed the literature on the framing of economic inequality. Framing describes a process of giving some ‘aspects of a perceived reality’ more prominence in a way that promotes a particular problem definition, cause, moral evaluation, and treatment (Entman, 1993). The report blends insights from this review of literature with suggestions for how they might be used to change how we talk about wealth inequality to increase its salience.

The review found that there is no shared public understanding of wealth inequality as a social problem. While there is strong public support for some forms and levels of wealth, the public is also aware of its potential harms in certain contexts (Davis et al., 2020). This lack of settled understanding is an opportunity. There is plenty of space for defining what the problem actually is (extreme wealth) and for making it clear what isn’t the problem (‘ordinary’ wealth) (Hecht et al., 2022a).

Another striking finding was the potency of what are termed ‘system-justifying beliefs’ such as meritocracy. They tend to make people believe not only that the status quo is fair and legitimate, but that individual agency, rather than the force of political and economic structures, is the primary cause of individuals’ economic outcomes at both ends of the spectrum. Whether your work seeks to challenge and change these system-justifying beliefs, or to simply acknowledge them and work within the constraints they set, being aware of the degree to which they tend to legitimise even very high differences in wealth ownership is important. Different kinds of frame, advantage/disadvantage, social failure/personal failure, were found to have a significant effect on shaping the understanding of, and response to, economic inequality. Can we use what we know about the effects of these frames on preference formation to de-legitimise the economic status quo and to increase the salience of wealth inequality? Our report found plenty of room for new work in this area, especially in harnessing the power of images more effectively.

This report, and the underpinning review of literature, are offered as a means of sparking new conversations about the economy, wealth, and wealth inequality with a view to engaging the public and building political pressure to act.