This systematic review of more than one hundred pieces of academic research addresses the question of how public attitudes respond to income shocks, such as the one Britons are facing now. It is based on years – often decades – of analysis of the factors that matter in understanding public attitudes about redistributing resources.

According to economists, we are living through the most rapid reduction in living standards since the 1950s. You would think that such a major national economic shock would have a large and long-lasting impact on British society, and attitudes about what the state should do to support people experiencing financial hardship. Are people likely to become supportive of major government intervention, such as continued cost of living payments for the worst off? Will wealthier people become more sympathetic to the needs of the less well off? Do the poorest in society feel that government should do even more to help them?

All this would suggest that British society may become more geared towards redistributive politics, and this might decide future elections. Our review tells us that things are not as simple as this. 

We reveal five key considerations:

  1. What is my income now? People generally become more supportive of government spending when they see their own income drop, either directly e.g. becoming unemployed, or indirectly e.g. wages being worth less due to high inflation.

  2. How do I think I’ll do in future? The effects of short-term shocks can be mitigated if a person expects to accumulate significant income over the longer term.

  3. How much will I actually benefit from government spending? Supporting greater government spending only makes sense for those who think such spending will help them. Many of the poorest groups often fail to benefit from redistributive programmes, which can be disproportionately targeted to the middle class, whereas emphasizing targeted help for the lowest income groups may reduce wider support for government spending.

  4. What was my income in early life? People’s early life experiences can shape their responses to later shocks. Those who grow up in a low income household typically have greater baseline support for government spending, such that present-day shocks have minimal additional effect.

  5. How much do I, or anyone else, deserve to benefit? Support for spending can be an ideological, as well as pragmatic choice. For those who believe that society is meritocratic (that wealth is held by people who earned it), and that the poor don’t deserve to be helped by the state, support for spending will be low. Questions of deservingness can be linked to more general forms of discrimination toward social outgroups.

What does this all mean for what may happen to public attitudes now?

Something could always happen that is unexpected or unique. Nevertheless, insofar as we have research to teach us, the lessons for the current crisis shape up in the following ways:

  • The cost of living crisis does not necessarily provide an environment where people want the state to intervene to make incomes more equal, or more generous to those worse off.

  • What will matter is whether people start to believe that their incomes won’t rebound in the future (or worsen), and how the government frames its policies and the recipients of them. The fact that the furlough scheme, and now energy payments, have benefited people across the income distribution is likely to be important for broader support for government interventions, including for lower income groups.

  • A government wishing to support the poorest needs to invest in building confidence among the lowest income voters. And to strongly challenge any stereotype of recipient groups as being undeserving.

In some research, the importance of early experience means only large shocks can truly shift the dial on people’s beliefs. Perhaps Britain’s cost of living crisis – which has affected people across the income and upbringing distribution – represents such a case. If those from wealthier backgrounds see the quickest financial recovery, any immediate changes in attitudes will be more short-lived.

We propose lessons for policymakers based on the evidence in our systematic review.

  • Governments and others active in this area should be upfront about who benefits from the welfare state, and try to keep this group as large as feasibly possible in people’s minds if they want to maximise support for spending. It can also normalise perceptions of welfare recipients, reducing the power of outgroup prejudice and questions of deservingness. These perceptions, when aggregated, can drive large shifts in public support for spending that can deeply impact poorer members of society.

  • Focusing on a wide beneficiary group should not come at the expense of eroding trust in government support amongst the poorest.

  • Support should be implemented relatively quickly, when the widest proportion of people feel affected, or potentially affected, and therefore more supportive of government policies, and ideally, will appeal in such a way that resonates with a common benefit. Delaying too long might see public support erode as middle income voters begin to recover ahead of their poorer counterparts.

This assumes that governments have a strong incentive – beyond a moral one – to alleviate suffering in the midst of a crisis. If for no other reason, our review shows that substantial losses of income and experiences of poverty will be associated with long-term socialisation effects, attitudes and political preferences that will shape a country’s opinion to government spending long into the future

Despite seeing one of the deepest and most widespread shocks to household incomes in decades, it is not obvious how the many millions of affected Britons will respond. For some, there might be a straightforward demand for more government support. But for others, based on expectations of how their income will change over time, ideology, and/or upbringing, the picture is more complicated.

The needs, anxieties and political grievances of some groups will be more acute and long-lasting than others, so political leaders (if only for electoral reasons, if not moral ones) must be careful to seek out those groups in society and understand their difficulties, even as others begin to recover.