How wealth matters for social policy

04 January 2022

Portrait of Professor Brian Nolan

by Professor Brian Nolan
Professor of Social Policy

Brian Nolan is Director of INET’s Employment, Equity and Growth Programme and Professor of Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. He was previously Principal of the College of Human Sciences and Professor of Public Policy ...

Along with my colleague Professor Ive Marx of the University of Antwerp and Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, I am proud to introduce a new special issue from the Journal of European Social Policy on social policy and wealth that we have edited.

The Journal of European Social Policy special issue on social policy and wealth looks at how wealth matters for social policy scholarship. All the articles included in the special issue shed an innovative light on wealth in relation to a range of topics relevant for social policy researchers.

Much of the rapidly growing scholarship on wealth understandably focuses on the top, because that is where the bulk of wealth is held. This is true even in countries with comparatively equal income distributions and extensively redistributive welfare states. Yet even if assets are concentrated among the wealthy, they also matter a great deal for people who are less well off. Some people who are identified as poor or financially needy purely on the basis of income have meaningful assets, but many do not. Whether they have any such assets, or stand to inherit them in the future, can make a critical difference.

Throughout the special issue we see that focussing in on different demographics show very different levels of wealth among lower income groups. The elderly are generally less likely to be counted as poor once assets are taken into account. For some other groups the opposite is true.

Gender sees a significant divide because work experience and careers plays a big part in wealth accumulation. This means that increasing women’s labour market participation and improving their labour market outcomes, notably their earnings, is not only an immediate benefit, but also ultimately bolsters women’s capacity for wealth accumulation. Lone parents similarly see the multitude of disadvantages and challenges they face extend to wealth, not the least in combining work and care. This strengthens once again the case for more adequate support of lone parents.

But why do low income households have such little wealth?

Households on low incomes are also relatively disadvantaged in terms of the wealth transfers they received from the previous generation. As a result, the accumulation of housing assets for a growing proportion of young adults has become slow at best and impossible at worst in much of Europe. There remains an important role for social policy research in gaining a better understanding of how income and wealth intersect and how policy could help reduce inequality throughout societies.

The articles throughout present innovative contributions to a research field that is still in its infancy.

Articles by Morelli et al. and Dewilde and Flynn propose and analyse (social) policy interventions. However, most articles focus on describing and explaining wealth-related outcomes. There is a clear need to deepen our understanding of the role played by wealth. The question of how extreme, undertaxed wealth can co-exist with persistent poverty and inequality of opportunity is obviously a fundamental one, especially for social policy scholars.

Wealth taxation, having been in retreat for decades, is now firmly back on the agenda, not least in debating how the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic are to be met and shared. The special issue does not consider the issue of wealth taxation in relation to poverty alleviation and other social policy goals, but clearly this is central to the policy challenges relating to wealth. Much work remains to be done!

The Journal of European Social Policy special issue on social policy and wealth includes the following articles:

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.