Nearly half of people believe those who lost their job during the pandemic were likely to have been underperforming, a survey has found.
In findings that will raise fears over inequalities in Britain, a study of attitudes by researchers at Kings College London showed a significant minority thought a widening post-Covid income gap between white people and BAME groups would not be a problem.
“This analysis throws up the complexity of people’s view about inequalities,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which will use the research for its five-year review of inequalities. “The British public is clearly concerned about some inequalities, but also sets great store by individual responsibility.”
People care more about differences between geographical areas than races, genders and generations, found researchers in the study entitled Unequal Britain.
The findings may suggest widespread support for the “levelling up” agenda espoused by the government as the country attempts to rebound after Covid, the authors said. But it will also raise questions about the popularity of anti-inequality policies focusing on ethnic minorities and women.
Unemployment rose to 1.74 million people this week, its highest level in five years and business shutdowns are disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities.
In one of the starkest findings, one in eight Britons (13%) said they think black people are more likely to be unemployed and have lower incomes because they “lack motivation or willpower”.
This attitude was held by more than one in five of the Conservative voters polled, compared with less than one in 20 Labour supporters. Overall, 47% said those inequalities are because of discrimination but strikingly racist views remain, with 4% of respondents saying inequality was because most black people have “less in-born ability to learn”. The researchers discovered this by asking questions rarely posed in the UK, but often included in US social surveys.
The authors said the overall findings showed “meritocratic and individualistic tendencies” are likely to temper calls for action on inequality.
“There is a strong belief in meritocracy in Britain – that hard work and ambition remain key drivers of success, and this colours views, even during a pandemic,” the report said. “Despite the exceptional circumstances [of Covid], Britons are more likely to think that job losses caused by the crisis are the result of personal failure than chance.”
The view that individual performance was important in determining whether workers were made unemployed during the Covid crisis was held by 47% of people. Only 31% put it down to luck. Study author Bobby Duffy, professor of social policy at KCL, said this was surprising. By 57% to 39%, Conservative voters are much more likely than Labour voters to attribute these job losses to poor performance at work.
Of the more than 2,000 people polled, the largest number thought gulfs between geographical areas of more and less deprivation were the most serious form of inequality faced by the nation, followed by income and wealth. This view was held by Labour and Conservative supporters alike – one of the only issues in the study that united the political spectrum.
Duffy said this rare moment of unity in attitudes toward inequalities “points to [support for] policies that are not just about moving the odd government department [out of London] or listening more to the north – it is the sense of supporting local community initiatives. It is something that has been underemphasised since the late 2000s.”
Less than half of people polled put racial differences in their top three or four most serious types of inequalities and less than a third included gender inequality.
Amid evidence of adverse labour market consequences for women in Britain resulting from the crisis, the study found that a third of people would not consider it a problem if inequality between genders got worse because of the crisis.
“These findings underline all too clearly the increased importance of place in debates about politics in general and inequality in particular,” said Prof Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, which collaborated in the study. “The government should view this emergent consensus as providing a window of opportunity to act on the ambitious promises it has made to ‘level up’ the country.”