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The changing geography of inequality

Our goal is to understand the geography of inequality, how it has changed over time and what it’s impacts are. Changes to the geographical patterns of poverty, risks and opportunities, could have quite profound implications for policy. It could, for example, provide a window of opportunity to transform areas that have been entrenched centres of deprivation for many decades. It could also pose new challenges for how society supports the most vulnerable.

For example, we have found pronounced changes in the distribution of poverty in towns and cities across the UK with poorer households moving away from city centres towards the periphery. We have found that this shift has significantly disadvantaged low income households in terms of their access to employment and amenities which tend to be concentrated near the centre. On the other hand, this “suburbanisation” of poverty has reduced inequality in exposure to air pollution which also tends to be concentrated near city centres.

Another important aspect of inequality is housing wealth. For most households in the UK, the value of their home is by far their biggest asset. For those who have benefited from rapid house price appreciation, the financial gains can make a significant difference to quality of life in old age and the size of inheritance passed on to children and grandchildren. Our research has found a widening gulf in housing wealth accumulation between areas of the UK, with important implications for the reproduction of inequality across generations and the North-South divide.

One of the impacts of inequality in income and wealth is that it can exacerbate residential segregation as wealth households bid-up the prices of houses in the most desirable neighbourhoods. This process, sometimes called “market sorting”, tends to cluster households into neighbourhoods based on their income and wealth. The greater the inequality, the more aggressively the market sorts poor households into the neighbourhoods with the worst crime, pollution, amenities, housing quality, access to education and employment. This further increases inequalities down generations as children in deprived neighbourhoods have fewer opportunities to progress in life. We are investigating this relationship between income inequality and segregation to see how these forces have played out in the UK context. We have also been working on a new conceptual framework to help researchers and policymakers better understand the ways in which inequality and geography interact.

A particularly important form of residential segregation is emergence of “social frontiers”--sharp spatial divisions, rather than gradual blending, between neighbouring communities. We have been extending our pioneering research on the effects of social frontiers to look at the impact on crime in the Czech Republic, and household mobility in the Netherlands. We have recently secured further  funding to research the impacts of social frontiers on the social mobility and integration of migrants in the UK, Norway and Sweden.

So how should policymakers respond to these challenges, and what can we learn from past policy successes and failures? To help answer these questions we have explored the impact of a number of past policy changes including Glasgow’s £4bn housing stock transfer, urban regeneration in Liverpool, the geographically unequal impacts of austerity on deprivation, and changes to refugee housing policy in Scotland. We’ve also explored the potential impacts of Brexit on local employment rates, and the effects of fuel tax hikes on regional inequality.

Key Findings

  1. Urban poverty shifting out to the suburbs could further increase inequalities
     
  2. Inequality in housing wealth has risen spectacularly in England & Wales
     
  3. Fuel tax hikes to reduce emissions will significantly increase regional inequality in UK
     
  4. Multidimensional inequality has fallen in England but not in Scotland
     
  5. Urban regeneration is a potential cause of local housing wealth inequality
     

Policy implications

Changes to the geographical patterns of poverty could have quite profound implications for policy. It could, for example, provide a window of opportunity to transform areas that have been entrenched centres of deprivation for many decades. It could also pose new challenges for how society supports the most vulnerable. Are there now more likely to be hidden pockets of poverty in suburban areas further away from existing centres of social service provision and where there are poor households that have less well established social networks? We are keen to work with stakeholders to understand how best to focus our research and how best to interpret our results and their implications for policy.

Changes in neighbourhood composition may also help us address important questions about the extent to which poverty and inequality are best addressed through area-based initiatives or individual level support? If areas of concentrated poverty exert a dominant effect on life trajectories, then effective policy solutions will need to explicitly address the geographical nature of poverty not just the income of individual households.

Research Team

Dr Nema Dean
Co-Investigator
Professor David Manley
Co-Investigator
Dr Andrew Bell
Co-Investigator