Middle-class advantage over public service provision

New research covering the UK, USA and Scandinavia has found that middle-class people are in an advantaged position compared with less affluent social groups when it comes to accessing public services – the so-called ‘sharp elbows’ effect. The evidence for this is clearest in the United Kingdom.

The paper summarises a wide range of academic research since 1980 looking at the nature, extent, and impacts of middle-class activism – defined as the strategic articulation of ‘non-poor’ interests on a collective or individual basis – in relation to public service provision.

Key points

  • Middle-class service users have the ‘cultural capital’ (education, networks, skills and resources) useful for negotiating with service providers, especially in the areas of schooling, health and neighbourhood planning. They also tend to share the same value set as bureaucrats – laying the basis for an alliance between middle-class service providers and users that works against the interests of less affluent groups.
  • Although the evidence ‘undoubtedly’ points to middle-class advantage, it is incomplete and dispersed across policy fields and disciplines. There is a real shortage of direct evidence linking specific mechanisms to particular outcomes. More research is needed into the inequities over who benefits from public services, and into what drives inequality.
  • There is a clear need for middle-class advantage to be afforded more prominence as a policy problem – especially as cuts in public services gather momentum.

The full report (Annette Hastings and Peter Matthews, Connectivity and Conflict in Periods of Austerity: What do we Know About Middle Class Political Activism and its Effects on Public Services?, Connected Communities Programme) is available from the Arts and Humanities Research Council website. A summary and a helpful note on methodology are available from Glasgow University. The authors have also discussed their findings in a recent LSE blog post.

The Connected Communities Programme is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. There is more information on the Programme on their website.