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April 4, 2012

Middle class have sharp elbows

When the chips are down, who gets what from the available public services will be an increasingly contentious issue.  New research from Glasgow and Heriot Watt Universities has highlighted that middle class communities hold distinct advantages when it comes to using public services and the evidence points to how these more affluent communities have been able to skew the focus of local services to serve their own interests to the detriment of others.


To see a copy of the report click here

“Sharp elbows”: Do the middle-classes have advantages in public service provision and if so how?

Who gets what from local public services has never been such an important and contested issue. Fiscal austerity and the large scale budget cuts across the public sector mean that services are being remodelled, pared back and even deleted. The encouragement of ‘localism’ by the Coalition Government may lead to new forms of service delivery, but it may also lead to some groups securing a bigger share of the remaining cake than they might otherwise have been able to. This report provides a short synthesis of the academic research on how the middle classes fare in relation to local public services – research which was conducted prior to the spending cuts and localism. It addresses concerns in both academic research and in the policy and practice community that a demanding middle class can skew the benefits of local services to their own needs. The report should be of interest to anyone concerned with how to deliver public services according to need in the current financial and political climate.

Research Findings

• There is evidence that middle class, affluent individuals and groups are often advantaged in their use of local public services. However, there is only limited evidence on the scale of this advantage and the extent to which it ‘matters’ in a fundamental sense both for the winners and losers.

• Middle class advantage is secured via a variety of means. It can be gained as a result of the deliberate actions and strategies of affluent individuals and groups. However, it can also be an unintentional consequence of the actions and attitudes of service providers, as well as a product of broader policy and practice.

• High profile service areas such as schooling, health and neighbourhood planning can provide advantage to middle class service users. There are some commonalities as well as differences between the services in the means by which this is achieved.

• Middle class service users tend to have the kinds of ‘cultural capital’ (education, networks, skills and resources) which are useful in practical sense for negotiating with service providers. Importantly, this cultural capital also corresponds with the value set of bureaucrats with power and influence. There is the potential for an alliance to develop between middle class service providers and users which is detrimental to the interests of less affluent service users.

• There is a clear need for middle class advantage to be afforded more prominence as a policy problem – we are perhaps too used to seeing disadvantage as the problem and not considering its flip side. It may become more urgent to do this as public service contraction gathers momentum.

To see a copy of the report click here