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?
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)
- What are the key principles of a tax system?
- Explain why simplicity is so important when reforming a tax system. How can it affect the incentive to work?
- Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
- 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?
- 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.
- Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
- How might the proposals affect government finances in both the short and long term?
The owner-occupied housing market has seen widespread coverage. With house prices falling throughout the recession and problems accessing mortgages for many people, it is this sector of housing that has received most attention. However, it is rental homes that we’ll be considering here and a new strategy being adopted by landlords. As access to mortgages dried up, people instead turned to renting. Demand for rental properties began to increase, such that competition between potential tenants increased significantly. Not only has there been a substantial increase in rents – up by some 35%, but it has also led to a new ‘sealed bid’ strategy.
A strategy that is often used for purchasing houses is where potential buyers submit sealed bids and it is this approach which is now spreading to the rental sector, as demand and competition for properties increases. Potential tenants are required to submit a sealed bid, containing the amount that they are willing to pay to rent out the property and all this must be done within a deadline. Whoever submits the highest bid ‘wins’ the property and hence tenants are encouraged to submit a bid at or close to the maximum they are willing to pay. Landlords insist that they are not trying to force tenants to pay more, but that it is simply the most effective way of letting properties that are short in supply, but face significant demand. As the BBC News article states:
‘It seems that with the current state of the housing market, sealed bids will be here to stay – as long as many would-be renters are chasing a dwindling supply of good rental homes.’
Rental ‘gazumping on the up as demand rises Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/11/10)
’Bidding war’ for homes to rent BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (20/11/10)
Rental market’s now so hot tenants are having to make sealed bids Mail Online, Sebastien O Kelly (8/11/10)
Is the buy-to-let market on its way back? Seek4Media (20/11/10)
Gazumping on the rise as London rental soars Gulf Times, London Evening Standard (8/11/10)
- Using a supply and demand diagram, explain the trend we have seen in the rental market, thinking about the impact on demand, supply and hence on price. How does this explain why sealed bids have been used to combat the increased competition?
- Which factors have affected (a) the demand for rental properties and (b) the supply of rental properties? How is the elasticity of demand and supply relevant here in terms of the impact on price?
- To what extent is a sealed bid format fair on potential tenants? Who does such a strategy favour?
- How could this sealed bid strategy be an example of price discrimination?
- What is likely to happen to your consumer surplus if you have to submit a sealed bid?
Throughout 2009/10, a new millionaire was created in Brazil every 10 minutes – not bad for a developing country! Despite the global recession, Brazil has managed growth of almost 5% and is set to overtake both the UK and France to become the world’s 5th largest economy. Brazil will hold the next World Cup and the Olympic games after London, bringing it further recognition as a global power. It has the third largest aircraft manufacturing industry in the world and is even doing its bit to tackle climate change, with 50% of its cars running on bio-fuels. It exports more meat than any other country and is looking to become an energy power. With falling unemployment, a buoyant economy, growing confidence, fantastic beaches and 6 millionaires created every hour, Brazil looks like the perfect place to live.
However, that is just one side of the story. Brazil is still a country with deep poverty – approximately 60 million people. The slums, or favelas, are home to 1 million people in Rio alone, where unemployment is high and drug wars common. There has been a concerted effort to reduce the drug trafficking business, but this has only created more unemployment. There is little sanitation, poor electricity and minimal chance of escape. Neighbourhoods need rebuilding, and despite high growth and arguably the most popular president in the world (Lula da Silva), there are calls for political, social, taxation and labour market reforms. This cycle of poverty and the equality gap needs addressing before the Brazilian economy can really be considered a global power.
Webcasts and podcasts
Will Brazil’s economy keep growing? BBC News, Matt Frei (27/5/10)
Brazil’s bid to be ‘world’s breadbasket’ BBC World News America, Paulo Cabral (26/5/10)
Tackling Brazil’s poverty BBC World News America, Gary Duffy (28/5/10)
Brazil’s development spurs economic quality hopes BBC World News America, Matt Frei (27/5/10)
Brazil’s air industry takes off BBC World News America, Paolo Cabral (24/5/10)
‘Our growth quality is better than China’ BBC World News America, Marcelo Neri (25/5/10)
Brazilian economy poised to overtake UK’s BBC News Today, Matt Frei (27/5/10)
Economic data Banco Central do Brasil
Brazil Economy EconomyWatch
Brazil CIA World Factbook
Brazil data World Bank
- What are the main causes of (a) inequality and (b) poverty in an economy? What is the difference between these concepts?
- How does the government subsidised housing programme aim to help low income households. Use a diagram to illustrate the effect.
- What policies can be used to reduce the equality gap?
- Are those living in the favelas in absolute poverty? How do we distinguish between absolute and relative poverty? Is it the same across the world?
- What are the adverse effects of fast growth in Brazil?
In 2008, the UK government set up a National Equality Panel to investigate inequality. “The Panel was asked to investigate the relationships between the distributions of various kinds of economic outcome on the one hand and people’s characteristics and circumstances on the other.” The panel delivered its report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, in January 2010. It “addresses questions such as how far up or down do people from different backgrounds typically come in the distributions of earnings, income or wealth?”
The aspects of inequality examined include: educational outcomes, employment status, wages and other sources of income (such as benefits) both for the individual and the household, and wealth. “In our main report, we present information on the distributions of these outcomes for the population as a whole. Where possible we indicate how they have changed in the last decade or more, and how the UK compares with other industrialised countries. But our main focus is on the position of different social groups within the distributions of each outcome.”
A major influence on people’s income was the income, wealth and class of their parents since these affected education, peer groups and a whole range of other life chances. This made it virtually impossible to achieve equality of opportunity.
The report also looks at policy implications. These include not just the redistribution of incomes, but also the more fundamental issue of how to create equality of opportunity. “The challenge that our report puts down to all political parties is how do you create a level playing field when there are such large differences between the resources that different people have available to them.”
So what has happened to inequality? What explanations can be offered? And what can be done to lessen inequality? The following articles look at the findings of the report and offer their own judgements and analysis.
Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 40 years ago’ BBC News (27/1/10)
The Big Question: Why has the equality gap widened even through the years of plenty? Independent, Sarah Cassidy (28/1/10)
UK is one of world’s most ‘unequal’ societies Irish Times, Mark Hennessy (28/1/10)
Unequal Britain: richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest Guardian, Amelia Gentleman and Hélène Mulholland (27/1/10)
No equality in opportunity Guardian, Phillip Blond and John Milbank (27/1/10)
Has the wealth gap really widened? Guardian, Tom Clark (27/1/10)
Inequality in a meritocracy Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell (29/1/10)
Who wants equality if it means equal poverty? (including video) Times Online, Antonia Senior (29/1/10)
A Major miracle on equality Public Finance, Richard Reeves (29/1/10)
UK one of the worlds most unequal societies; report says The Sikh Times (29/1/10)
Only policies, not posturing, will bring down inequality Independent (28/1/10)
The full 457-page report can be accessed here.
A 44-page summary of the report can be accessed here.
A 6-page executive summary can be accessed here.
Click here for the charts and tables from the report.
Another good source of information on the distribution of income is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings published by the Office for National Statistics.
- How can we measure inequality?
- Outline the findings of the report.
- Why is inequality so high in the UK and why has it continued to deepen?
- Have tax credits helped to reduce inequality?
- To what extent are greater equality and faster economic growth compatible economic objectives? How are incentives relevant to your answer?
- What specific policies could be adopted to give greater equality of opportunity? Identify the opportunity costs of such policies.