The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Bye bye, Mr Average

If the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, how will researchers provide clients with the respondents they need in the future, asks Liz Sykes?

Last year’s summer doldrums were relieved by a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, prompting a fresh look at British society.

The report, Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, used a new way of comparing poverty and wealth trends through out the UK. Researchers developed four consistent measures of poor and wealthy households and, along with households that are ‘average’, i.e. neither poor nor wealthy, they have recorded the numbers of each group at points in time across the last 40 years. It came up with startling evidence to show that the gap between rich and poor had reached its biggest divide for 40 years.

This is most marked in the South East of England where whole layers of society have become ghettoised within their own little area. Wealthier people have moved increasingly to the suburbs leaving only the poor and the super rich in the centre of London.

Segregation of the rich

Increasingly the rich are segregating themselves from the rest of society and moving to private roads and gated communities. There has been much in the press about white flight from cities to smaller towns or more rural areas, but this is likely to be misinterpreted.

This is the view of Danny Dorling, who led the research. “Most interesting, and certainly unexpected when this work began, is the geography of those households who are neither rich nor poor,” he said. “Over time it has become clear that there is less and less room in the south for them; they have either moved elsewhere or become poor.”

In the 1970s there was a greater likelihood of the rich, the poor and the average living cheek by jowl. Think residents of Brookside Close, Phil Redmond’s soap, which included everyone from trade unionists to designers, business people and mini cab drivers.

Even Knots Landing, from across the pond, showed a good mix of white and blue collar workers all living in close proximity to one another. Although these soaps may have been an extreme example at the time, they still seemed feasible. Now, however, it would be inconceivable that such a mix of rich and poor, white and blue collar workers would all live in the same tiny postcode cell.

Average household decline

The report suggests that the average household, on an average income, has been in decline over the past 40 years. If this trend is not reversed or stopped, it is very worrying how Britain will look in the next ten years. In real terms the rich have been getting richer, the poor have been getting poorer, while the numbers of Mr and Mrs Average in the middle will dwindle.

Looking at wealth patterns over the last 40 years, the Foundation discovered that the gap between rich and poor actually narrowed in the 1970s. But during the 1980s and 1990s inequality increased, as a ‘polarisation’ in British society occurred. As for the new millennium, the report said that the picture was “less clear” with some initiatives such as tax and pension credit helping the poorer while the rich were gaining from the housing market boom.

Another, less surprising, report — Public Attitudes to Economic Equality — was published simultaneously by the Foundation. Its authors, Michael Orton and Karen Rowlingson, studied people’s attitudes to inequality. They discovered that, for the last 20 years, a large majority have considered the gap between high and low incomes too great.

Criticism of fat cats

What is interesting is that people do not think those on low incomes are underpaid but that those on higher incomes are overpaid. There is always press coverage about the obscene amount of money that premiership footballers earn but very little in support of lowly-paid workers.

Orton commented that: “There is evidence that a high level of inequality may cause real socio-economic problems. There is widespread acceptance that some occupations should be paid more than others: but the gap between high and low paid occupations is far greater than people think it should be.”

Government figures show that the income of two thirds of individuals is below the national average. Three quarters of the total increase in incomes over the last decade, meanwhile, has gone to those with above average incomes while a third has gone to those in the richest tenth of the population.

Politicians with mixed views

The reaction to these reports from politicians has been mixed, depending on which side of the House of Commons they reside. The Government stated that 600,000 children and one million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty since 1997.

The Liberal Democrats said that the reports highlighted the falling social mobility and the fact that a quarter of the population is being left behind. This could risk their feeling marginalised from mainstream society, which in turn could breed high levels of disillusionment, crime and exclusion.

This has caused concern among politicians. “Not only is this a loss of opportunity for young people and a tragedy for families and individuals trapped at the bottom of the pile,” said David Davis, the Conservative shadow home secretary. “It is also a massive loss of talent and creativity for our nation.”

Another disappointment has been the decline in social mobility due to changes in the education system. This has been fuelled by the loss of many of the Grammar Schools throughout the country and a huge growth in people privately educating their children.

Endangered species

How interesting or how shocking you may be thinking, but what is the relevance to qualitative research? If the rich and the poor are growing in numbers, while the average person in the street risks becoming an endangered species, the issue becomes serious for market researchers.

Who are we going to interview in years to come, given that most mainstream brands want average C1C2 consumers? The rich have little appetite for research, being cash rich and time poor. The poor are of limited interest to clients, bar the government and social research.

So the pool of potential respondents is decreasing while the demands of research are increasing. In addition, the concentration of rich, poor or average people within their own areas and groups will make it more difficult to get mixed samples of respondents. The next 10 years will be of great interest, if somewhat challenging, for qualitative research.

Bibliography

Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005
Daniel Dorling, Jan Rigby, Ben Wheeler, Dimitris Ballas, Bethan Thomas, Eldin Fahmy, David Gordon and Ruth Lupton, The Policy Press, July 2007

Public attitudes to economic inequality
Michael Orton and Karen Rowlingson, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2007

 

Liz Sykes
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008