Basic rights and Equality

Public support for policies to reduce inequality: the impact of uncertainty

4 min


Annalena Oppel

Many governments responded to the economic shock of the pandemic with an unprecedented expansion of welfare policies. What’s more, with inequalities on the rise, the need for redistributive measures is set to increase. Yet high inequality and growing beliefs that inequality is a product of differences in talent and effort seem to be resulting in lower rather than higher public demand for redistribution. A timely understanding of what underpins popular support for inequality-reducing policies is crucial for building shock-responsive welfare states.

The crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has raised global income inequality both within and between countries. At the same time, research shows that in countries where inequality is high, individuals tend to consent to inequality rather than critique it. This trend has been explained by a growing conviction that inequality is solely reflective of an individual’s talent and effort. Such meritocratic beliefs also result in lower demand for inequality-reducing policies by the public.

Will this paradox of rising inequality paired with increasingly lower public concern culminate in support for fewer or more selective welfare policies? How can this trend be reconciled with the recent appeal to expand and strengthen welfare systems to respond to future crises?

One way to explore this is to acknowledge that belief systems are not set in stone. On the contrary, beliefs are influenced by experiences, situations, and encounters. The economic uncertainty generated by the pandemic challenged the established ‘normal’. It resulted in less stability as a consequence of unforeseen changes in people’s lives.

Our recent survey of young South Africans confirms this: 71% of respondents evaluated their income-generating activities as less stable. The same applies to their monthly savings, investments, and mental health.

In addition, who experiences which kinds of shocks is often explained by existing inequalities. In the case of South Africa, those living in poverty experienced a lower capacity to transform their daily lives in beneficial ways.

At the same time, governments responded to economic shocks experienced by households and businesses with an unprecedented expansion of welfare policies. For example, 955 social assistance policies were initiated in 2020 on a global level.

Databases and research projects such as the Covid-19 Government Response Tracker or CoronaNet continuously update, consolidate, and evaluate crisis responses to understand their effectiveness, for example, in improving health outcomes. A rupture of the status quo paired with policy innovations has also been translated into a narrative of ‘building back better’ or returning to a ‘new normal’.

Has the uncertainty produced by recent events changed how individuals explain inequalities? How do they perceive and support current policy expansions?

These considerations matter for future elections where welfare states and their design are an essential part of political agendas. They also matter since the pandemic does not constitute an isolated event. With climate change and political conflicts, future economic crises of similar impact are likely to occur.

There is reason to believe that experiencing uncertainty reminds us of developments beyond our control. This may counteract meritocratic beliefs that are linked to a heightened sense of individual agency, and which therefore emphasize our actions and talents as a primary explanation of where we end up on the economic ladder.

Indeed, our survey shows that South Africans who experienced greater uncertainty – expressed as general worry, anxiety about making plans, and less optimism about the future due to the pandemic – also attributed less of their success to meritocratic attributes.

Uncertainty may have also brought about awareness about inequalities and greater concerns for others, for example, demanding better wages for essential workers. Earlier research highlights that ‘pro-social’ behavior increases when our evaluations of uncertainty do not just include future outcomes per se, but also whether such outcomes have negative consequences for others.

Again, our results suggest that South Africans who experienced more uncertainty showed greater support for more expansive, universal, welfare policies.

But uncertainty may play a two-fold role. It might highlight some economic challenges – those experienced by many people or within daily encounters – while reducing awareness of others that are experienced by fewer people or those at the margins of society.

While there may be momentum for greater popular support for inequality-reducing policies and welfare benefits, a thorough examination of who is considered ‘worthy beneficiaries’ in policy design is vital to avoid political bias, exclusion, and the exacerbation of existing inequalities. This is especially important for shock-responsive welfare policies, where a variety of needs must be recognized quickly and adequately.


Annalena Oppel
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, LSE