Living on Different Incomes in London: a pilot study

This project, being carried out jointly by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University and the LSE’s Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion investigates whether the public can reach consensus on a point above which people could be deemed to be ‘rich’, just as the poverty line signifies a threshold below which people are described as ‘poor’.

Specifically, it aims to test whether it is possible to negotiate a consensus among groups of members of the public with high, low and mixed incomes about whether there is a level of income and/or wealth that people consider to be excessive.  One possible finding would be that no such consensus is possible, because people from different backgrounds think too differently about what constitutes excess.  If on the other hand the project demonstrates that consensus can be reached, a follow-up study tasked with setting a line could make a path-breaking contribution to public debate about widening inequality and the growing concentration of wealth and income among a small proportion of the population. 

The project’s approach, and that of any follow-up study, will draw on the influential Minimum Income Standard methodology for putting judgements about income standards in the hands of members of the public.  This method involves people from a range of backgrounds working together as groups to develop an agreed view. 

The project will be designed as follows.  A series of groups of Londoners will each be asked to think about standards of living in three stages.  First, they will be introduced to the Minimum Income Standard as an already-agreed social minimum.  Next, they will be asked to describe what higher level of consumption would allow people to be comfortable and secure – what kind of living standard people might be expected to aspire to.  The third, crucial stage will then consider the implications of living significantly above this level.  Is there a point at which high income (combined with wealth) could be seen either as unnecessary or in some way socially harmful?  This part of the discussion will explore the meaning and language of being rich (e.g. wealthy, affluent, living in luxury) and whether society sees it as a problem. 

Groups will be invited to consider various perspectives about why it could be socially harmful for some people to have or consume a very large amount.  These include the potential damage that excessive or unnecessary consumption could do to the environment, the social divisions that very large inequalities can create and the possible consequences of the imbalances in power and opportunity that can arise.  The groups will test whether concepts such as being rich can be used to distinguish a tangible threshold, associated with particular levels income, wealth or consumption. 

In a first round of the research, six groups of Londoners will have these discussions with reference to the experience of living in London today.  In order to capture various perspectives, two of these will comprise people on higher incomes, two will involve people on lower incomes and two will combine people from across income groups.  

In a second round, one of each of these three types of group will review findings from the first round.  They will consider whether any differences between the perspectives of groups from different backgrounds can be resolved through deliberation and discussion.  

The results will be analysed to recommend whether or not reaching a social consensus is feasible, and if so what tools are useful in creating it and how the process can best be designed.