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)
- How may income inequality be measured?
- Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
- Why has inequality grown in the USA?
- 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?
- What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
- What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
- Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
- 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?
Each year in November, the Living Wage Foundation publishes figures for the hourly living wage that is necessary for people to meet basic bills. The rate for London is calculated by the Greater London Authority and for the rest of the UK by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.
The 2013 update was published on 4 November. The Living Wage was estimated to be £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK.
Two things need to be noted about the Living Wage rate. The first is that the figure is an average and thus does not take into account the circumstances of an individual household. Clearly households differ in terms of their size, the number of wage earners and dependants, the local costs of living, etc. Second, the figures have been reduced from what is regarded as the ‘reference’ living wage, which is estimated to be £9.08 outside London. The reason for this is that people earning higher incomes have seen their living standards squeezed since 2009, with prices rising faster than average post-tax-and-benefit wages. Thus, the Living Wage is capped to reflect the overall decline in living standards. As the Working Paper on rates outside London explains:
From 2012 onwards, two kinds of limit have been put on the amount that the Living Wage as applied can rise in any one year. The first limits the increase in the net income (after taxes and benefits) requirement for each household on which the living wage calculation is based, relative to the rise in net income that would be achieved by someone on average earnings. The second limits the increase in the living wage itself (representing gross income) relative to the increase in average earnings.
Nevertheless, despite this capping of the living wage, it is still significantly higher than the UK National Minimum Wage, which currently stands at £6.31 for those aged 21 and over. This can be seen from the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
Paying the Living Wage is voluntary for employers, but as The Guardian reports:
A total of 432 employers are now signed up to the campaign, up from 78 this time last year, including Legal & General, KPMG, Barclays, Oxfam, Pearson, the National Portrait Gallery and First Transpennine Express, as well as many smaller businesses, charities and town halls. Together they employ more than 250,000 workers and also commit to roll out the living wage in their supply chain.
But as The Observer reports:
The number of people who are paid less than a ‘living wage’ has leapt by more than 400,000 in a year to over 5.2 million, amid mounting evidence that the economic recovery is failing to help millions of working families.
A report for the international tax and auditing firm KPMG also shows that nearly three-quarters of 18-to-21-year-olds now earn below this level – a voluntary rate of pay regarded as the minimum to meet the cost of living in the UK. The KPMG findings highlight difficulties for ministers as they try to beat back Labour’s claims of a “cost of living crisis”.
According to the report, women are disproportionately stuck on pay below the living wage rate, currently £8.55 in London and £7.45 elsewhere. Some 27% of women are not paid the living wage, compared with 16% of men. Part-time workers are also far more likely to receive low pay than full-time workers, with 43% paid below living-wage rates compared with 12% of full-timers.
But although paying a living wage may be desirable in terms of equity, many firms, especially in the leisure and retailing sectors, claim that they simply cannot afford to pay the living wage and, if they were forced to, would have to lay off workers.
The point they are making is that it is not economical to pay workers more than their marginal revenue product. But this raises the question of whether a higher wage would encourage people to work more efficiently. If it did, an efficiency wage may be above current rates for many firms. It also raises the question of whether productivity gains could be negotiated in exchange for paying workers a living wage
These arguments are discussed in the following podcast.
Higher ‘productivity’ will increase living wage BBC Today Programme, Priya Kothari and Steve Davies (4/11/13)
UK living wage rises to £7.65 an hour The Guardian (4/11/13)
More than 5 million people in the UK are paid less than the living wage The Observer, Toby Helm (2/11/13)
Increasing numbers of Scots are paid less than living wage Herald Scotland (2/11/13)
Labour would give tax rebates to firms that pay living wage Independent, Jane Merrick (3/11/13)
Employers praise Ed Miliband’s living wage proposal Independent, Andy McSmith (3/11/13)
Miliband’s living wage tax break will raise prices, warns CBI chief The Telegraph, Tim Ross (3/11/13)
Living Wage rise provides a boost for low paid workers BBC News (4/11/13)
Information and Reports
What is the Living Wage? Living Wage Foundation
The Living Wage Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University
Living wage Mayor of London
One in five UK workers paid less than the Living Wage KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Number of workers paid less than the Living Wage passes 5 million KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Living Wage Research for KPMG Markit (October 2012)
- How is the Living Wage calculated?
- What are the reasons for announcing a Living Wage figure that is lower than a reference living wage? Assess these reasons.
- If there are two separate figures for the Living Wage for London and the rest of the UK, would it be better to work out a living wage for each part, or even location, of the UK?
- Why might it be in employers’ interests to pay at least the Living Wage? Does this explain why more and more employers are volunteering to pay it?
- Assess the Labour Party’s pledge, if they win the next election, that ‘firms which sign up to the living wage will receive a tax rebate of up to £1000 for every low-paid worker who gets a pay rise, funded by tax and national insurance revenue from the higher wages’.
- Which is fairer: to pay everyone at least the Living Wage or to use tax credits to redistribute incomes to low-income households?
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people grew by nearly 4.7% last year to £414 billion (after growing by 18% in 2010).
This is in stark contrast to average households, who saw their real incomes decline by 1.9% in 2011. As the Guardian article below says:
The Rich Listers are not merely the 1%, but the 0.01%, and this fanfared celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.
So why are the rich getting richer and what are the implications for society and the economy? Watch and read the following webcasts and articles and then see if you can answer the questions below.
Rich List shows how super-wealthy have dodged recession (or) Channel 4 News (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List: Wealthy getting richer BBC News, Ben Thompson (29/4/12)
Britain’s richest see fortunes rise to record high Reuters, Tim Castle (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List shows rich recover wealth twice as fast Myfinances.co.uk, Ben Salisbury (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List suggests UK’s wealthiest defy recession BBC News (28/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List 2012: Wealth of richest grows to record levels The Telegraph, Patrick Sawer (28/4/12)
The Not-So-Rich-Any-More List Guardian, Oliver Burkeman and Patrick Kingsley (27/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List ITV News (29/4/12)
Distribution of Personal Wealth HMRC
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS (19/5/11)
Household Quarterly Release 2011 Q4 – Real household actual income and expenditure per head ONS
- Distinguish between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: income, wealth, savings, saving, expenditure, possessions?
- If the combined wealth of the 1000 wealthiest people increased in 2011, does this imply that their incomes rose? Explain.
- Why have the super rich got richer, while average incomes in the country have fallen?
- What are the costs and benefits to society (other than the super rich) of the super rich becoming richer?
- Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of an increase in income of the wealthy. Which is likely to be larger and why?
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)
- What are the causes of poverty?
- How has the definition of fuel poverty changed? Is the change a good one? Think about the equity and efficiency of such a change.
- 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?
- What are the economic consequences of fuel poverty?
- 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?
- Are there any other actions that you think would be effective in alleviating fuel poverty? Would they be cost effective?
- 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’?
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)
- As the price of petrol rises, why do people continue to buy it? What does it suggest about the elasticity of this product?
- Why do higher prices affect lower income families more than higher income families?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against George Osborne’s planned 3p rise in petrol duty?
- Do you think that higher prices are contributing towards sluggish growth? Why?
- What type of tax is imposed on petrol? Is it equitable? Is it efficient?
- 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?