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Wealth and the wealthy
Exploring and tackling inequalities between rich and poor

Karen Rowlingson, Stephen D. McKay
Paperback, 269 pages, 234 x 156 mm
Other formats available
07 Dec 2011


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North America customers can order this book here from the University of Chicago Press.

"Now is the time for a serious social policy analysis of wealth and the wealthy. This illuminating book provides both the data and a clear-sighted discussion of the issues."
Jane Millar, University of Bath
"A calm and dispassionate introduction to the facts about wealth in Britain, providing essential context for many of the most important and urgent policy debates today."
John Hills, Professor of Social Policy, London School of Economics
"This thoughtful and far-reaching critical analysis of the 'problem of riches' is a timely contribution to the debate on inequality. It deserves to be widely read."
Professor the Baroness (Ruth) Lister of Burtersett, Loughborough University

About This Book

Wealth and the wealthy have received relatively little attention from social scientists despite a growing wealth gap. Aimed at a broad social science and public readership, this book draws on new data on wealth to answer the following key questions: What is wealth? Who has got it? Where might we draw a 'wealth line'? Who lies above it? And what might policy do about wealth and the wealthy? Using data sources from the HMRC to the Sunday Times Rich list, this book provides a comprehensive and critical discussion of these issues, and looks at potential policy responses, including 'asset-based' welfare and taxation.

Author Biography

Karen Rowlingson is Professor of Social Policy and Director of the Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM) at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests include personal finance and inequality. Stephen McKay is Professor of Social Research in the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham.  He has particular expertise in the secondary analysis of complex datasets in relation to, social security, inequality and wealth.


Why wealth matters
Why the wealthy matter
What is wealth and who are the wealthy?
The distribution of wealth
The rich, the richer and the richest
Towards a comprehensive policy on assets
Social policy and the wealthy


ReviewsOwn it? Review it!

Wealth and the wealthy
At a time when bankers' bonuses, tax avoidance and just rewards for a day's work are under increasing scrutiny, Karen Rowlingson and Stephen McKay's Wealth and the Wealthy shows that wealth is as important as poverty for understanding inequality in the UK today. Whilst much research has been devoted to measuring, conceptualising and governing an impoverished 'underclass', less time has been spent trying to get to grips with the other side of that same coin; the rich.

The authors make a strong case for foregrounding wealth as an object of study and urge readers to re-engage with first principle questions about who the wealthy are, what is wealth and why wealth matters. In doing so, they shed new light on numerous categories which are now commonplace in political rhetoric concerning work and welfare; in addition to 'the rich', just who are the 'squeezed middle' and 'hard working families'? Furthermore, they question the grounds on which various social policies are based, for instance examining in detail the increasing personal assets, such as Child Trust Funds and Savings Gateways.

In linking their empirical data with critical social debates on responsibilisation, 'activation', and conditionality, they question the rationale for such policies. As we have seen over the past few decades, a focus on an asset-holding democracy has come at the expense of any meaningful Government action on the redistribution of income - that other key component of wealth.

Scrutinising existing research on the distribution of wealth with a fine toothcomb, the book tests highly emotive assertions and theories with a composed rigour. For instance, the authors examine: the relationship between assets and income; the impact of relative poverty on various social and health outcomes; the role of anxiety in a capitalist-consumer society; the wisdom (or otherwise) of a policy focus on happiness and wellbeing; changes in social mobility; the effects of wealth inequality on the economy; and the impact of 'brute luck' in determining people's unequal opportunities to prosper economically. Some of the answers are very matter-of-fact. Do highly paid bankers emigrate when they are more highly taxed? No. Is extreme inequality detrimental to economic growth? Yes.

Other questions produce more complex answers: Is social mobility in decline? As the authors remark, a medic's son is not necessarily more likely now to become a medic but the pay of medics has increased relative to average pay. Meaning that there are still huge inequalities in inherited wealth (a topic to which they devote further attention). Or, do assets matter as much as income? That the answer to this question takes a substantial amount of the first chapter attests to the authors' commitment both to examining prior research and considering new aspects of the debate.

In this case, they also give consideration to what assets signify historically, as the outcome of generations of accumulation strategies which have again lead to vast structural inequalities. And refreshingly, they also consider issues often derided as 'soft' in evidential terms, such as how people's financial situation makes them feel, whether having assets increases feelings of security and wellbeing or proves a burden detrimental to economic prosperity. It could always be argued that additional qualitative research could delve deeper into the processes by which habits of saving are instigated, or how narratives and representations of the 'rich' and 'poor' contribute to public perceptions of (in)justice. But the book is no less significant or powerful for its lack of a discursive take on wealth and the wealthy. And the authors arrive at some politically radical conclusions backed up by a highly balanced view of issues around fairness, public acceptability and democratic legitimacy. The chapter devoted to policy goals (chapter 7), for instance, provides clear justification for a series of sensible policy interventions in the spheres of equal opportunities (largely education), progressive taxation and measures to more equally distribute original income.

In charting their way through numerous studies and data sets, Rowlingson and McKay also provide a useful commentary on the availability of data, the sometimes flawed assumptions of baseline studies and indeed the often gendered basis of much data relating to work and occupations. They are careful to highlight where gaps in empirical data limit the testing of specific theories, such as the relationships between capitalist-induced anxiety, wellbeing and inequality. For non-expert readers, a glossary of technical terms (no doubt everyday language to statisticians) would have been useful e.g. Gini co-efficients, logistic regression models and multivariate analysis, and more ambitious forms of data visualisation would have been welcome. Perhaps an idea for a companion website? That said, Wealth and the Wealthy is an accessible and well-organised book which will be a key text in undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a range of social science disciplines considering issues of income, inequality, work, welfare and social justice.

Policy makers and politicians from all sides of the political spectrum would do well to pick up this book. It provides no less than a progamme of action to tackle inequality and injustice through social policies which have the power to shape the distribution of income and wealth. In a world where the Westminster summer reading lists are apparently dominated by titles inspired by behavioural economics and positive psychology, this book, amongst a groundswell of complimentary research on the social harms of inequality, the weakness of contemporary visions of the state and the precarious nature of work and welfare, demonstrates the very social nature of personal finance, and the need to go beyond a softly-softly approach to ensuring real collective wealth. Rowlingson and McKay outline the concrete Government actions required to deal with the problem of uneven wealth, suggesting an agenda for replacing the flawed market economy with what one could call a 'public economy'.

Reviewed by Jessica Pykett

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