Tag: tax and benefits system

An article in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, ‘Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility’ by Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins, looks at the persistence of wealth within British families across the generations. The article shows, ‘using rare surnames to track families, that wealth is much more persistent than standard one-generation estimates would suggest. There is still a significant correlation between the wealth of families five generations apart’.

It concludes that down the generations the main determinant of wealth is inheritance, despite all efforts to improve social mobility. The intergenerational elasticity of wealth inheritance is found to be 0.70–0.75 throughout the years 1858–2012. In other words, people’s wealth on average will be between 70% and 75% of that of their parents. Thus a large proportion of each person’s wealth depends on the wealth of their parents and a relatively small amount depends on other factors. As Clark and Cummins conclude:

The implications of this model are that wealth will be surprisingly persistent in families across multiple generations. This is what allows rich rare surnames to still remain rich on average even four generations later. It also implies that wealth differences between racial, religious and ethnic groups will also be highly persistent across generations.

So it is just inherited wealth in terms of money or property that gets passed from generation to generation? Or are their other factors, such as education, social class and social contacts, that cause people’s wealth to depend heavily on that of their parents? Clark and Cummins consider this question.

What is the latent variable that underlies the inheritance of wealth? Evidence in other work we have done on the inheritance of education status in England suggests that families can be conceived of as having an underlying social competence, which is highly persistent across generations. This social competence generates their outcomes on all dimensions of social status but with random components on each one. In this case, social mobility between generations measured on any single aspect of status will be much greater than mobility on a more general ranking of families’ overall social status, that averages earnings, wealth, occupation, education, health and longevity.

So does this mean that attempts to create greater social mobility and greater equality are futile? The authors maintain that although it is difficult to achieve greater social mobility, income and wealth can nevertheless be redistributed through the tax and benefits system.

News articles
Inheritance: how Britain’s wealthy still keep it in the family The Observer, Jamie Doward (1/2/15)
How the rich stay rich: social status is more inheritable than height ZME Science (25/11/14)
This is the proof that the 1% have been running the show for 800 years Quartz (23/11/14)

Journal article
Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility The Economic Journal, Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins (February 2015) (To read this article you will need to log in via Shibboleth using your university username and password.)


  1. What would be the implication of an intergenerational wealth elasticity (a) of 1; (b) of 0; (c) >1; (d) <0?
  2. For what reasons might there be a high intergenerational wealth elasticity?
  3. What is the likely relationship between the intergenerational distribution of wealth and the intergenerational distribution of income?
  4. What difficulties are there is using rare surnames as a means of establishing the intergenerational distribution of wealth?
  5. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of (a) a much higher rate of inheritance tax (in the UK it’s currently 40% on the value of a person’s estate above £325,000 when they die); (b) capping the amount that can be left to any individual from an estate, with anything above this taxed at 100%; (c) capping the total amount that can be left (other than to charity), with the rest taxed at 100%.
  6. What measures could be adopted to increase social mobility?
  7. What problems would arise from using the tax and benefit system to reduce inequality? (In 2012/13 the gini coefficient of original income was 0.52 and that of both gross income (i.e. income after benefits but before tax) and post-tax-and-benefit income in the UK was 0.37: see Table 27 of The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13.)

Calls for a simplified tax and benefit system have been ongoing and many see the Coalition’s plans for a Universal Credit as a step in the right direction. However, a second suggestion set out in a report by lobbying groups is to introduce a single rate of income tax at 30%. The argument is that it will simplify the system, help lower income earners and boost growth.

As well as the introduction of a single rate of income tax, The 2020 Tax Commission’s Report also suggests an increase in the personal allowance to £10,000; scrapping National Insurance Contributions, stamp duty, inheritance tax and air passenger duty, as well as cutting fuel duty by 5p. For the typical tax payer, it may sound great – the difference between your gross and your net pay would narrow, but the wider consequences must be considered. Although a single rate of income tax would undoubtedly simplify the system, the impact on government finances must be considered. The commission predicts that overall borrowing would fall by £35bn after 15 years, but that the national deficit would increase by £49.1bn in the first year. Perhaps not an ideal solution given the current state of the national deficit!

The report does contain some radical change, but the idea of simplification is well-recognised as a necessary principle of any tax system. As the Chairman of the Commission, Allister Heath said:

It is time for Britain to make a vital choice between tweaking the status quo and letting our economy continue to be crippled by complex and punitive taxes, and drastically changing course with a radical but realistic plan for a tax system fit for the 21st century.

The 2020 Tax Commission has set out that plan and would ensure that income is taxed once at a single, much more reasonable rate. It could create the conditions to establish the UK as a global trading hub, generating renewed prosperity for all those who live and work here.

The current system is complex and many people end up paying an extremely high rate of tax, once everything has been paid. The Guardian article below gives a nice illustration. “If you earn income from shares, first corporation tax is taken out of the profits. Then you pay taxes on the dividends. Then because those profits drive up the share price you pay capital gains tax as well.” With a simpler and fairer tax system, the Commission argues that it will boost the competitiveness of the UK economy and help boost its struggling growth rate. How many, if any, of these proposals will be incorporated into the government’s plans is anybody’s guess, but it definitely presents an interesting solution and problem.


The Single Income Tax The 2020 Tax Commission (May 2012)

Why it’s time for a single income tax Guardian, Matthew Elliott (21/5/12)
Business backs income tax rate of 30% Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (21/5/12)
Calls for single 30% income tax rate BBC News (21/5/12)
Single 30% tax rate ‘essential’ for growth Sky News (21/5/12)
Osborne urged to introduce 30pc income tax for all The Telegraph, Tim Ross (20/5/12)
Tax shake-up urged to empower consumers and kickstart growth Independent, Russell Lynch (21/5/12)
The Tax Reform Britain needs Wall Street Journal, Matthew Sinclair (20/5/12)


  1. What are the key principles of a tax system?
  2. Explain why simplicity is so important when reforming a tax system. How can it affect the incentive to work?
  3. Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
  4. If the reforms set out in the report were to go ahead, what do you think would be the impact on goods and services provided by the government, such as the NHS, education, roads?
  5. Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer.
  6. Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
  7. How might the proposals affect government finances in both the short and long term?