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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

The burden of debt

Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.

So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?

For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:

Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.

And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).

As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.

Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.

With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:

The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.

Articles
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)

Report
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)

Data
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)

Questions

  1. What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
  2. Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
  3. What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
  4. Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
  5. Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
  6. What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
  7. Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
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The end of the American dream?

Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.

The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’

No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:

The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.

Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.

Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.

The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.

Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)

Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)

Questions

  1. How may income inequality be measured?
  2. Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
  3. Why has inequality grown in the USA?
  4. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
  5. What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
  6. What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
  7. Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
  8. Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
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Should people be paid a ‘living wage’?

Pressure has been growing in the UK for people to be paid no less than a living wage. The Living Wage Foundation claims that this should be £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 in the rest of the UK. The current minimum wage is £6.19.

There has been considerable support for a living wage across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has stated that a Labour government would ensure that government employees were paid at least the living wage and that government contracts would go only to firms paying living wages. Other firms that paid less could be ‘named and shamed’. The living wage has also been supported by Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London. The Prime Minister said that a living wage is ‘an idea whose time has come’, although many Conservatives oppose the idea.

The hourly living wage rate is calculated annually by the Centre for Research in Social Policy and is based on the basic cost of living. The London rate is calculated by the Greater London Authority.

Advocates of people being paid at least the living wage argue that not only would this help to reduce poverty, it would also help to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity by improving motivation and the quality of people’s work.

It would also bring in additional revenue to the government. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Resolution Foundation, if everyone were paid at least a living wage, this would increase the earnings of the low paid by some £6.5bn per year. Of this, some £3.6bn would go to the government in the form of higher income tax and national insurance payments and reduced spending on benefits and tax credits. Of this £6.5bn, an extra £1.3 billion would be paid to public-sector workers, leaving the Treasury with a net gain of £2.3bn.

But what would be the effect on employment? Would some firms be forced to reduce their workforce and by how much? Or would the boost to aggregate demand from extra consumer spending more than offset this and lead to a rise in employment?. The following articles look at the possible effects.

Articles
Living wage for all workers would boost taxes and GDP Independent, Nigel Morris (28/12/12)
Living wage could save £2bn – think tank research BBC News (28/12/12)
‘Living wage’ would save money, says study Financial Times, Helen Warrell (28/12/12)
Why the Resolution Foundation and IPPR can go boil their heads Adam Smith Institute, Tim Worstall (30/12/12)
Living wage for public servants moves a step closer The Observer,
Yvonne Roberts and Toby Helm (15/12/12/)
Living wage: Ed Miliband pledge over government contracts BBC News (5/11/12)
‘London Living Wage’ increased to £8.55 by mayor BBC News (5/11/12)
Q&A: The living wage BBC News (5/11/12)
Scrooges in UK firms must pay a Living Wage This is Money, John Sentamu (23/12/12)

Report
What price a living wage? IPPR and The Resolution Foundation, Matthew Pennycook (May 2012)

Questions

  1. How would you set about determining what the living wage rate should be?
  2. Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Would people being paid below a living wage be best described as absolute or relative poverty (or both or neither)?
  3. What do you understand by the term ‘efficiency wage’? How is this concept relevant to the debate about the effects of firms paying a living wage?
  4. Under what circumstances would raising the statutory minimum wage rate to the living wage rate result in increased unemployment? How is the wage elasticity of demand for labour relevant to your answer and how would this elasticity be affected by all firms having to pay at least the living wage rate?
  5. What would be the macroeconomic effects of all workers being paid at least the living wage rate? What would determine the magnitude of these effects?
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Banks for those without money

More and more food banks are opening every week across the developed world. In the UK alone, there are over 250 food banks. These are run by volunteers and provide food and other basic provisions to those who struggle to feed themselves and their children. The food is donated by people or sometimes supermarkets. Some food banks receive financial help from local authorities.

According to the Trussell Trust, which runs many food banks in the UK, “In 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide, 100% more than the previous year.” But why, in mixed economies, where the State is expected to provide benefits to the poor, do so many people have to resort to food handouts?

Partly the problem is a cut in benefits – a response of many countries to rising public-sector deficits; partly it’s delays in receiving benefits or the complexities in claiming; partly it’s because some people have had their benefits suspended because of a change in their circumstances or changes in the conditions for claiming benefits; partly it’s the inability of people to afford to feed their families properly in times of rising food and energy prices and rising rents, where incomes are not rising in line with the personal rates of inflation that poor households experience; partly it’s the sky-high interest rates that many poor people, often deep in debt, have to pay to continue obtaining credit – often from ‘payday loan companies’ or ‘doorstep lenders’; partly it’s the inability of many poor people to find work which pays enough to feed their families and pay all their other bills.

Food poverty is a real and growing problem. But are food banks the answer? The following videos and articles look at the issues.

Webcasts
UK
Growing demand for food banks in Britain BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (5/9/12)
Children will go hungry warn Bristol food banks This is Bristol, (2/7/12)
Children going hungry ITV News (16/10/12)
Food bank: We need more food to feed UK’s hungry The Telegraph, Gregg Morgan (27/9/12)
Food banks help struggling London families BBC News (21/6/12)
Europe
EU food aid to dry up by 2014? France 24 (16/10/12)
Spain
Food banks squeezed in Spain Euronews (3/11/12)
USA
As donations dwindle, food banks are feeling the pinch Komo News, Elisa Jaffe (28/9/12)

Articles
UK
Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state The Guardian, Patrick Butler (21/8/12)
Councils to invest in food banks LocalGov, Dominic Browne (22/8/12)
The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain BBC News, Paul Mason (4/9/12)
Food banks: ‘I had no-one else to turn to’ BBC News (4/9/12)
Poorest starved of dignity as charity food parcels double in just two years Daily Record (4/9/12)
More and more banking on generosity to others for food South Wales Evening Post (13/11/12)
USA
Northern Illinois Food Bank Kicks Off Hunger Action Month St. Charles Patch, Rick Nagel (1/9/12)
Australia
More families get help as food becomes discretionary spend Sydney Morning Herald (21/8/12)

Information
How a foodbank works The Trussell Trust

Questions

  1. Why do so many people find themselves trapped in food poverty?
  2. What factors are likely to lead to an increase in food poverty in the coming months?
  3. Should the government subsidise food banks?
  4. Discuss ways of tackling the problem of poor families being trapped in debt and having to pay very high interest rates.
  5. Is rent control a good means of tackling poverty?
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Fuelling the debate on poverty

Since Labour’s historic pledge to eliminate child poverty in a generation, poverty data has been at the forefront of political debates. The recession has created unemployment and has moved more people below the poverty line, at the same time as causing rising inequality

The causes of poverty are diverse and a recent government commissioned report has drawn attention to just one of the key factors that is pushing more families into poverty – energy bills.

Fuel poverty has become more of a concern with the cost of household bills rising and this has led to calls for more money to be invested in cutting energy bills. Fuel poverty has been redefined by Professor John Hills, the author of the report, to focus on those households with a low income and also with relatively high energy bills.

Fuel poverty is undoubtedly concerning from a moral point of view – indeed, knowing that some families are unable to afford to heat their homes causes disutility for others. However, there are also wider economic implications. If families are unable to provide heating, this may adversely affect their children’s ability to learn and complete their homework, thus negatively affecting their productivity today and arguable causing further problems in their future. While this may have little effect today, the cumulative effect on economic productivity could be substantial in the long run. Inefficiency for the macroeconomy is therefore a problem, as a child’s productive potential will not be fully realized. Furthermore, there are also health concerns, as the government notes – fuel poverty is linked to 2,700 deaths per year. Again, this creates a blight on society, but it also poses economic problems, not least due to the strain on the NHS.

Fuel poverty has long been identified as a problem that needs addressing and as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:

‘Fuel poverty is a serious national problem and this government remains committed to doing all it can to tackle it and make sure that the help available reaches those who need it most.’

Action is already taking place to insulate the poorest homes, as a means of cutting their energy bills and the government’s ‘Warm Homes Discount’ aims to provide help to the lowest income households in paying their bills. However, there are concerns that more households will move into fuel poverty, as this new definition doesn’t include those slightly wealthier households who still have high bills or the poorer households with relatively low bills. With the economy still in a vulnerable state, the latest data showing further rises in unemployment and household bills becoming increasingly expensive, the issue of fuel poverty is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The following articles consider this issue.

Fuel poverty seen for 3 million households by 2016 Reuters (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise to 8.5m, report warns (including video) BBC News, Damian Kahya (15/3/12)
Nine million will live in ‘fuel poverty’ in the next four years Independent, Simon Read (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise sharply Telegraph, James Hall (16/3/12)
Call for urgent action on fuel poverty Financial Times, Sarah Neville (15/3/12)
Fuel poverty worse than estimated The Press Association (15/3/12)
3 million fuel-poor households by 2016, report claims Guardian, Mark King and Zammy Fairhurst (15/3/12)

Questions

  1. What are the causes of poverty?
  2. How has the definition of fuel poverty changed? Is the change a good one? Think about the equity and efficiency of such a change.
  3. The BBC News article says that government measures to alleviate fuel poverty could be regressive. What is meant by this and why could this be the case?
  4. What are the economic consequences of fuel poverty?
  5. We can estimate poverty by looking at the poverty headcount or the poverty gap. What is the difference between these two measures? Which one is a more accurate measure of poverty?
  6. Are there any other actions that you think would be effective in alleviating fuel poverty? Would they be cost effective?
  7. Why does Age UK fear ‘the current proposals to improve energy efficiency through the Green Deal and energy obligation schemes are a woefully inadequate response to one of the most serious issues facing our country today’?
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Making allowances for distribution

What will be the effect of raising tax allowances – the threshold at which people start paying income tax? The Coalition government in the UK has a policy of raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015/16. As a step on this road, the present plan is to raise the threshold from £7475 in 2011/12 to £8105 in 2012/13. The Liberal Democrats, however, are urging the Chancellor to raise allowances more quickly.

The government maintains that raising the personal allowance is progressive – that it will give relatively more help to the poor. New research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, however, casts doubt on this claim. The IFS demonstrates that the benefits will be unevenly distributed, with the greatest benefits going to middle-income families where more than one person works but where no-one earns the higher tax rate. The poorest people – those earning below the threshold – will gain nothing at all.

Read the following articles and the IFS report and establish just who would benefit by a rise in the tax threshold and whether or not the move could be described at ‘progressive’.

Articles
Tax move ‘benefits better-off’ Independent, Joe Churcher (9/3/12)
Raising tax threshold would benefit rich more than poor, says IFS MyFinances.co.uk (11/3/12)
Rise in income tax threshold would help the rich Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (9/3/12)
Budget 2012: raising the personal tax allowance threshold isn’t fair Guardian blog, Heather Stewart (9/3/12)

IFS report
A £10,000 personal allowance: who would benefit, and would it boost the economy? IFS, James Browne (March 2012)

Questions

  1. Define the term ‘progressive tax’.
  2. For what reasons might raising the personal tax allowance (a) be progressive; (b) not be progressive?
  3. How does eliminating child benefit for any families where either parent earns the higher tax rate affect the progressiveness of raising income tax thresholds?
  4. What additional measures could be taken to ensure that raising tax thresholds was progressive across the whole income range and for all households?
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Who benefits from child benefit?

Child Benefit is a universal benefit, which means it is awarded on the basis of having a certain contingency (a child!) and not on the basis of a contributions record or an income test. It is for this latter reason that the equity and efficiency of child benefit has come into question.

Is it really equitable or a good use of money for a family earning £200,000 per year to receive child benefit of £20.30 per week for the first child and £13.40 each week for every subsequent child? Do these families really need the money, or would it be better spent on education, healthcare etc? This question became even more pertinent with the growing budget deficit facing the UK and the Coalition’s policy of cutting the deficit and hence cutting government expenditure.

Child benefit was one of the benefits targeted by the Coalition. It would be removed from higher rate tax payers. Those earning more than £44,000 would no longer be eligible to receive it. For some this seems like a good policy – the benefit is being targeted at those who need it most – it is becoming more vertically efficient. However, for others this presents a problem, not least because it looks at individual income and not family income. If there is a 2 parent household, with each parent earning, say, £40,000 then total household income is £80,000. Yet, this family is still eligible to receive child benefit, as neither of their incomes exceed £44,000. However, a 2 parent household, where one person works and earns £45,000 and the other only works part time and earns £5,000 would not receive child benefit, despite their total household income being only £50,000. This policy, unsurprisingly, faced criticisms of inequity and that middle income households would be the ones who saw their income squeezed and were made significantly worse off.

Amid these criticisms, David Cameron has admitted that there is an issue with the threshold and those facing the cliff edge of becoming a higher rate tax payer and losing the benefit. The Chancellor is unlikely to be in favour of any significant changes that will reduce the projected £2.5bn savings the policy will make. Although the policy still looks set to go ahead, following the Coalition’s defeat in the House of Lords concerning cuts to welfare and Cameron’s desire to retain the loyalty of Conservative supporters, we may still see some revisions to the initial proposal. The following articles consider this highly charged issue.

Webcasts
Child benefit cut will go ahead, says Osborne BBC News (13/1/12)
George Osborne: child benefit plans will go ahead The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (9/5/11)
Child benefit cut to hit 1.5 million families, says IFS BBC News (13/1/12)

Articles
Osborne sticks to child benefit cut The Press Association (13/1/12)
Middle-class parents could keep their child benefit after all Independent, Andrew Grice (13/1/12)
Welfare payment cap poses ‘real risks to children’s rights’ Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (11/1/12)
Universal child benefit has had its day Mail Online, Janice Atkinson-Small (13/1/12)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between a benefit such as income support and child benefit?
  2. Define the terms horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity.
  3. To what extent does child benefit (as a universal benefit) conform with your definitions above? Would the new means tested child benefit meet the objectives of horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity any better?
  4. Why are middle-income families and women likely to be the most affected by the proposed changes to child benefit?
  5. Why is there a growing pressure on the Coalition government to rethink the proposal?
  6. If child benefit is removed from higher rate tax payers, should other benefits be changed to compensate some families for their losses?
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Divided we stand

Divided we stand is the title of a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its sub-title is “Why inequality keeps rising”. The report shows how the gulf between rich and poor has widened in most countries, both developed and developing. As the introduction states:

In the three decades prior to the recent economic downturn, wage gaps widened and household income inequality increased in a large majority of OECD countries. This occurred even when countries were going through a period of sustained economic and employment growth.

The report analyses the major underlying forces behind these developments. Its conclusion is that inequality looks set to continue widening, especially with the worldwide economic slowdown and rise in unemployment. However, the report says that “there is nothing inevitable about growing inequalities. Globalisation and technological changes offer opportunities but also raise challenges that can be tackled with effective and well-targeted policies.”

So just what is the extent of inequality? How has it changed over time? And what can be done to reduce inequality? The webcast produced by the OECD to accompany the report looks at the problem, and the report and articles look at what can be done about it.

Webcast
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD (5/12/11)

Articles
Governments need will to fix growing inequality Times Colonist (Canada), Paul Willcocks (8/12/11)
Capitalism defies the laws of gravity Sydney Morning Herald, (7/12/11)
UK pay gap rises faster than any rich nation – OECD The Telegraph, (5/12/11)
The Income Inequality Boom: It’s Real and It’s Everywhere The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (6/12/11)
Income inequality growing faster in UK than any other rich country, says OECD Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (5/12/11)
OECD inequality report: how do different countries compare? Guardian datablog (5/12/11)
Inequality in Britain: faring badly in an unfair world Guardian (5/12/11)
OECD calls time on trickle-down theory Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (5/12/11)
Wage inequality ‘getting worse’ in leading economies BBC News, Adam Fleming (5/12/11)

OECD Report and Documents
Governments must tackle record gap between rich and poor, says OECD OECD Press Release (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – Introduction by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, at Press Conference OECD (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – 4-Page Summary of Report (5/12/11)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OECD (5/12/11)

Questions

  1. Why may inequality be seen as a ‘bad thing’ for society as a whole and not just the poor?
  2. Does it matter for the poor if rich people’s incomes grow at a greater rate than those of the poor so long as the incomes of the poor do indeed grow?
  3. Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. What has happened to the Gini coefficient over the past few years across the world?
  4. Are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is growing rapidly? Similarly, are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is not growing, or growing only very slowly?
  5. What are the causes of rising inequality?
  6. Identify policies that can be adopted to tackle growing inequality.
  7. What problems arise from policies to reduce inequality by (a) reducing inequalities in disposable income; (b) providing more free services to all, such as healthcare and education? How might these problems be mitigated?
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A petrol price petition – will it work?

A weekly expense for most families is filling up their car(s) with petrol, but this activity is becoming increasingly expensive and is putting added pressure on lower and middle income families in particular. For those families on lower incomes, a tank of petrol represents a much larger percentage of their income than it does for a higher income household. Assuming that petrol for a month costs you £70 and your monthly income is £500, as a percentage of your income, a tank of petrol costs you 14%. Whereas, if your income is £900, the percentage falls to 7.7% and with a monthly take-home pay of £2000, the cost of a month’s petrol as a percentage of your income is just 3.5%. This is a stark indication of why those on lower incomes feel the burden of higher petrol prices (and indeed, higher prices for any essential items) more than other families.

The price of petrol will today be debated by MPs, following an e-petition signed by more than 100,000 people and having the support of more than 100 MPs. When in power, the Labour government proposed automatic fuel-tax increases, but these were scrapped by the Coalition. However, in January, the government plans to increase fuel duty by 3p a litre and further increases in prices are expected in August in line with inflation. This could mean that the price of unleaded petrol rises to over 1.40p per litre.

And it’s not just households that are feeling the squeeze. The situation described in the first paragraph is just as relevant to firms. The smaller firms, with lower turnover and profits are feeling the squeeze of higher petrol prices more than their larger counterparts. Any businesses that have to transport goods, whether to customers or from wholesalers to retailers etc, are seeing their costs rise, as a tank of petrol is requiring more and more money. To maintain profit margins, firms must pass these cost increases on to their customers in the form of higher prices. Alternatively, they keep prices as they were and take a hit on profitability. If prices rise, they lose customers and if prices are maintained, profitability suffers, which for some companies, already struggling due to the recession, may not be an option.

Mr. Halfon, the Tory MP whose motion launched the e-petition said that fuel prices were causing ‘immense difficulties’ and the Shadow Treasury Minister Owen Smith has said:

‘With our economic recovery choked off well before the recent eurozone crisis, we need action.’

With inflation at 5.2% (I’m writing an hour or so before new inflation data is released on 15/11/11), higher prices for many goods is putting pressure on households. This is possibly contributing towards sluggish growth, as households have less and less disposable income to spend on other goods, after they have purchased their essential items, such as groceries and petrol. A criticism leveled at oil companies is that they quickly pass on price rises, as the world price of oil increases, but do not pass on cuts in oil prices. The issues raised in the debate and how George Osborne and David Cameron respond, together with inflation data for the coming months, may play a crucial role in determining just how much a tank of petrol will cost in the new year.

MPs to debate motion calling for half in petrol prices BBC News (15/11/11)
Petrol price rise: David Cameron faces Commons revolt after No10 e-petition Guardian, Cherry Wilson (15/11/11)
David Cameron faces backbench rebellion over fuel price hike Telegraph, Rowena Mason (14/11/11)
Petrol prices may be slashed by Rs 2 per litre on November 16 The Economic Times (15/11/11)
Paying the price as fuel costs rise BBC News (15/11/10)
Oil barons the big winners from soaring pump prices, ONS figures reveal Daily Mirror, Graham Hiscott (15/11/11)
Scrap rise in petrol duty: 100 MPs demand Osborne abandon planned 3p increase Mail Online, Ray Massey and Tim Shipman (15/11/11)

Questions

  1. As the price of petrol rises, why do people continue to buy it? What does it suggest about the elasticity of this product?
  2. Why do higher prices affect lower income families more than higher income families?
  3. What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against George Osborne’s planned 3p rise in petrol duty?
  4. Do you think that higher prices are contributing towards sluggish growth? Why?
  5. What type of tax is imposed on petrol? Is it equitable? Is it efficient?
  6. Why can the oil companies pass price rises on to petrol stations, but delay passing on any price reductions? Is there a need for better regulation and more pressure on oil companies to change their behaviour?
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A Minimum that is still too low?

The National Minimum Wage is a rate applied to most workers in the UK and is their minimum hourly entitlement. For adults over the age of 21, it has recently been increased to £6.08 – 15p rise. Rises have also been seen for 18-20 year olds, 16 and 17 year olds and apprentices. Undoubtedly this is good news for workers receiving the minimum wage, but what does it mean for firms and national unemployment data?

Market wages are determined by the interaction of the demand and supply of labour and when they are in equilibrium, the only unemployment in the economy will be equilibrium unemployment, namely frictional or structural. However, when the wage rate is forced above the equilibrium wage rate, disequilibrium unemployment may develop. At a wage above the equilibrium the supply of labour will exceed the demand for labour and the excess is unemployment. Furthermore, firms are already facing difficult times with the economic climate: sales remain relatively low, but costs are still high. By increasing the national minimum wage, firms will face higher labour costs and this may discourage them from taking on new workers, but may also force them into laying off existing workers.

It is hoped that the size of the increases will help low paid workers, as costs of living continue to rise, but won’t cause firms to reduce their labour force. This is one reason, in particular, why the increase in the minimum wage for young workers is smaller than that for adults. Youth unemployment is relatively high and so it is essential that firms keep these workers on, despite their increased costs.

Although the TUC has welcomed the increases in the National Minimum Wage, saying they will benefit some 900,000 workers, the General Secretary of Unison has said that it isn’t high enough.

“The rise to £6.08 is a welcome cushion, but with the price of everyday essentials such as food, gas and electricity going up massively, it won’t lift enough working people out of the poverty trap.”

The following articles consider this issue.

Minimum wage rises by 15p to £6.08 an hour Telegraph (3/10/11)
Minimum wage up by 15p to £6.08 BBC News (1/10/11)
150,000 social care workers paid below legal minimum wage, research reveals Guardian, Shiv Malik (3/10/11)
Unions want £8 an hour minimum wage Press Association (1/10/11)
Hunderds of thousands of women to benefit as minimum wage hits the £6-an-hour mark for the first time Mail Online, Emma Reynolds (29/9/11)
Unions demand minimum wage of £8 an hour Telegraph (30/9/11)
Changes will benefit workers Sky News (2/10/11)

Questions

  1. Is the minimum wage an example of a price ceiling or a price floor?
  2. If the National Minimum Wage was imposed below the market equilibrium, what would be the effect?
  3. If imposed above the market wage rate, the National Minimum Wage may create unemployment. On which factors does the extent of unemployment depend?
  4. Why is it expected that female workers are likely to be the main ones to benefit? What does this say about gender inequality?
  5. Why does the General Secretary of Unison not believe the higher National Minimum Wage will help people out of the poverty trap?
  6. How will the National Minimum Wage affect a firm’s costs of production. Illustrate the likely impact on a diagram.
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