In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
The UK benefits system is complex and this is just one reason why some people fall through the safety net. There are criticisms that it doesn’t reward work and doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work. One rather radical policy that has been discussed in numerous countries is the idea of a ‘Basic Income’.
The Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is a policy where individuals receive a regular payment from the government, essentially for doing nothing. The income is paid and aims to cover basic living costs and on top of this, individuals can then work, earn income and pay tax on it. Experiments of this policy are already in place and over the next few years, we may see many more being trialled and much discussion of the possibility of implementing this in the UK. We tend to be fairly risk averse when it comes to radical policies and so while we may see discussion of it in the UK, I imagine we’ll want to see the relative success of the policy in other countries first!
There are many variations of the scheme and lots of questions that need addressing. Will it encourage people to work more or less? Might it reduce the stigma of claiming benefits, if this is a basic income that everyone receives? Does it simplify the system and hence provide more people with a basic income thus targeting poverty?
Some proposals have this payment as a universal one – non means tested and not conditional on anything. Other proposals, including one in Finland, sees just the unemployed receive the benefit and appears to be a social experiment to see if such a policy discourages the unemployed from taking jobs. Traditionally individuals receive a benefit if they are out of work, but this benefit can be cut (in some cases quite substantially) if they begin to work. This creates a disincentive to supply labour. However, under the basic income scheme, those who moved into work would continue to receive the basic income payment and hence the disincentive effect is removed. The policy thus creates a basic level of economic security. As Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley argue, it would offer:
“…financial independence and freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure, education and caring, while recognising the huge value of unpaid work”.
There isn’t universal support for this type of scheme and many remain very cautious about such a radical policy and how the incentives will work. Key questions focus around the marginal rate of income tax that might be needed to finance such a policy. Furthermore, there is discussion about the equity of the policy if it is universal and hence non means-tested.
In Switzerland, the policy was put to a public referendum and it was rejected, with 75% of voters voting against such a policy. However, with changes in the structure of economies and, in many countries, technological change increasingly leading to automation, some argue that such a system will help to protect people. Lord Skidelsky, Professor of Political Economy at Warwick University said:
“Credible estimates suggest it will be technically possible to automate between a quarter and a third of all current jobs in the western world within 20 years … It [Basic Income] would ensure the benefits of automation were shared by the many, not just the few.”
Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is certainly something we are likely to hear a lot about during 2017. Whether or not the time has come for implementation is another matter, but it’s a good idea now to look into both sides and the relative success of the upcoming trials around the world.
8 basic income experiments to watch out for in 2017 Business Insider, Chris Weller (24/1/17)
What is basic income? Basic Income Earth Network (January 2017)
Finland trials basic income for unemployed The Guardian, Jon Henley (3/1/17)
Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Universal Basic Income: An idea whose time has come? Citizen’s Income Trust (14/6/16)
Is the world ready for a guaranteed basic income? Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner (13/4/16)
France’s Benoit Hamon rouses Socialists with basic income plan BBC News, Lucy Williamson (24/1/17)
Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland The Guardian, Libby Brooks (1/1/17)
- What is basic income?
- What are three advantages of this policy? If you can, try to use a diagram to explain why this is an advantage.
- What are three disadvantages of moving towards this type of policy?
- Why does the provision of benefits affect an individual’s labour supply decision?
- Do you think that income tax would have to rise in order to finance this policy? Do you think high income earners would be prepared to pay a higher rate of tax in order to receive the basic income?
- If the trials showed that the policy did create an incentive to work in countries like Finland, do you think the results would also occur in the UK?
In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?
As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.
The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:
Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.
Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.
Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.
What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.
The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’
Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.
For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.
The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.
The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.
The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.
The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.
The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
- Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
- How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
- What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
- How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
- Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
- How does globalisation affect poverty?
- Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
- Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain
One of the most controversial policy changes being made by the Conservative government relates to the tax credit system. For many years, the tax and benefits system in the UK has come in for significant criticism. It has been described as overly complex, a system that doesn’t reward work and yet a system that doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work.
The changes that the government is proposing are wide-ranging and focused in part on reducing the deficit. With changes to tax thresholds, the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) and changes to the thresholds at which tax credits are available, the Treasury suggests that £4.5 billion will be saved per year. It also says that most working families will be made better off. However, the IFS suggests that some families could lose up to £1000 per year following the changes.
In addition to these changes, the amount of tax-free childcare is also set to increase, helping those households with young children
Tax credits are designed to help low income families and working tax credit, in particular, is aimed to encourage people to move into work. A key change to this tax credit will see the threshold at which the recipient’s payments of this benefit begin to decline move from £6420 to £3850. The withdrawal rate – the rate at which the benefit is withdrawn – will also be increased.
The idea is that this will help to target the benefit more tightly – make it more vertically efficient. But, the concern is that this will also mean that low-income working households are worse off, despite the introduction in April 2016 of the National Living Wage. The Chancellor suggests that anyone who is working full time will be better off following these changes and that as such the changes will actively encourage work and lead to an increase in the supply of labour. This, the government argues, is a good policy for the working population, tax payers and for the wider economy.
This policy will remain controversial, with changes set to come in from 2016 and then 2017. It is certainly difficult to assess the impact of these changes on households and part of that stems from the complexities of the existing system, which mean that some households are eligible for some benefits, whereas others are not.
The final impact, if such changes are approved, will only be known once the tax credit changes are implemented. The House of Lords will vote on whether to ‘kill’ the tax credit cuts and Mr. Osborne, despite some concerns from Conservative back-benchers has said he is ‘comfortable’ with the policy and that the House of Lords should respect the views of the other house. Until we see the results of the vote and, even then, the impact of the changes on households, both sides will continue to produce data and estimates in support of their views.
Tax credit changes: who will be the winners and losers? BBC News, Brian Milligan (20/10/14)
Tax credit cuts: Osborne ‘comfortable’ with plan despite pressure from fellow Tories The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart (22/10/15)
George Osborne insists he signalled tax credit cuts before the election Independent, Jon Stone (22/10/15)
George Osborne: I am “comfortable” with tax credit cuts The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (22/10/15)
Commons Speaker warns Lords not to block tax credit cuts The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (21/10/15)
Tax credits: George Osborne ‘comfortable’ with ‘judgement call’ BBC News (22/10/15)
Osborne stands firm despite tax credits unease Financial Times, George Parker and Ferdinando Giugliano (22/10/15)
Austerity was a political choice. Now it’s starting to look like a bad one The Guardian. Heather Stewart (25/10/15)
- What are tax credits?
- How do they aim to affect the supply of labour?
- Using indifference analysis, explain how the income and substitution effects will work, following a change to tax thresholds.
- What is meant by vertical efficiency and the targeting of benefits?
- Why would the changes to tax credits help those in full-time work more than those in part-time work?
- What are the main arguments for and against the changes to tax credits?
The 2015 Rugby World Cup is now well under-way, with record crowds, surprising results and some heartbreak. But what about the economic impact of the Rugby World Cup? Big sporting events bring in spectators (estimated to be 466,000), athletes and crucially they all spend money. But what happens when the host country doesn’t make it through? Unfortunately for all England fans out there, this is a very relevant question.
Go to the area surrounding a stadium on the day of a rugby world cup match and you will barely find a pub with any room to move. Spending on drinks and food in local pubs and restaurants on match days is extremely high and many hotels are at breaking point with reservations. Predictions were that there would be an increase in direct expenditure by international visitors of £869 million. A report by Ernst and Young looked at the Economic Impact of the Rugby World Cup 2015 and it provides detailed analysis of how such sporting events can generate benefits to the host nation. The highlights are:
- £2.2 billion of output into the economy
- £982 million of value added to national GDP
- £85 million in infrastructure
- 41,000 jobs across the country
- £1 billion of added value
But, what happens when you take out the host team? Suddenly we see less interest in the daily matches and the feel good spirit takes a dive. Of course, the other home teams are still around and English fans are being encouraged to support them, but commentators suggested that this early exit will have a significant economic impact. Alex Edmans from the London Business School suggests that when a host nation exits a rugby sporting event at an early stage, the pessimism can wipe 0.15% of the stock market the following day. This translates to around £3 billion for the UK. He noted:
A defeat makes investors more negative about life in general. If England were to lose, they wouldn’t just be negative about the England rugby team but also about economic outcomes in general.
Advertising revenues may also be hit, with a significant impact on ITV, who are showing all matches. With England out, the value of advertising slots has fallen and the advertising impact on some of the key England sponsors, such as O2, may be significant. However, English ticket holders may use this as an opportunity to make money, selling on their tickets to fans of surviving teams! The following articles and report from Ernst and Young consider this latest major sporting event that has come to the UK.
The Economic Impact of Rugby World Cup 2015 Ernst and Young 2014
An England Rugby World Cup exit could have knock-on effect for our stock market The Guardian, Sean Farrell (1/10/15)
Brands cheer on Rugby World Cup in face of England’s exit Financial Times, Malcolm Moore (4/10/15)
Rugby World Cup 2015: Early England exit could cost country £3bn International Business Times, Alfred Joyner (6/10/15)
Rugby World Cup brands play down commercial losses of England’s ‘lacklustre’ exit The Drum, Seb Joseph (5/10/15)
- What is an Economic Impact Analysis?
- How would you estimate the size of the multiplier effect of a sporting event, such as the Rugby World Cup?
- Following England’s exit, what happened to the stock market?
- How will media companies be affected by the Rugby World Cup and by England’s exit?
- Why do emotions affect the stock market?
- Do you think England’s exit will lead to greater spending in other parts of the country, such as Scotland and Wales, as England fans defect?