What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.
Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.
But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.
By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.
The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.
But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:
Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.
Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:
That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)
Economic growth more likely when wealth distributed to poor instead of rich The Guardian, Stephen Koukoulas (4/6/15)
So much for trickle down: only bold reforms will tackle inequality The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/6/15)
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)
Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS
- Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
- The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
- Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
- Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
- How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
- Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
- Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
- By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
In his 1971 book, Income Distribution, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, gave a graphic illustration of inequality in the UK. He described a parade of people marching by. They represent the whole population and the parade takes exactly one hour to pass by. The height of each person represents his or her income. People of average height are the people with average incomes – the observer is of average height. The parade starts with the people on the lowest incomes (the dwarfs), and finishes with those on the highest incomes (the giants).
Because income distribution is unequal, there are many tiny people. Indeed, for the first few minutes of the parade, the marchers are so small they can barely be seen. Even after half an hour, when people on median income pass by, they are barely waist high to the observer.
The height is growing with tantalising slowness, and forty-five minutes have gone by before we see people of our own size arriving. To be somewhat more exact: about twelve minutes before the end the average income recipients pass by.
In the final minutes, giants march past and then in the final seconds:
the scene is dominated by colossal figures: people like tower flats. Most of them prove to be businessmen, managers of large firms and holders of many directorships and also film stars and a few members of the Royal Family.
The rear of the parade is brought up by a few participants who are measured in miles. Indeed they are figures whose height we cannot even estimate: their heads disappear into the clouds and probably they themselves do not even know how tall they are.
Pen’s description could be applied to most countries – some with even more dwarfs and even fewer but taller giants. Generally, over the 43 years since the book was published, countries have become less equal: the giants have become taller and the dwarfs have become smaller.
The 2011 Economist article, linked below, uses changes in Gini coefficients to illustrate the rise in income inequality. A Gini coefficient shows the area between the Lorenz curve and the 45° line. The figure will be between 0 and 1 (or 0% and 100%). a figure of 0 shows total equality; a figure of 1 shows a situation of total inequality, where one person earns all the nation’s income. The higher the figure, the greater the inequality.
The chart opposite shows changes in the Gini coefficient in the UK (see Table 27 in the ONS link below for an Excel file of the chart). As this chart and the blog post Rich and poor in the UK show, inequality rose rapidly during the years of the 1979–91 Thatcher government, and especially in the years 1982–90. This was associated with cuts in the top rate of income tax and business deregulation. It fell in the recession of the early 1990s as the rich were affected more than the poor, but rose with the recovery of the mid- to late 1990s. It fell again in the early 2000s as tax credits helped the poor. It fell again following the financial crisis as, once more, the rich were affected proportionately more than the poor.
The most up-to-date international data for OECD countries can be found on the OECD’s StatExtracts site (see chart opposite: click here for a PowerPoint). The most unequal developed county is the USA, with a Gini coefficient of 0.389 in 2012 (see The end of the American dream?), and US inequality is rising. Today, the top 1% of the US population earns some 24% of national income. This compares with just 9% of national income in 1976.
Many developing countries are even less equal. Turkey has a Gini coefficient of 0.412 and Mexico of 0.482. The figure for South Africa is over 0.6.
When it comes to wealth, distribution is even less equal. The infographic, linked below, illustrates the position today in the USA. It divides the country into 100 equal-sized groups and shows that the top 1% of the population has over 40% of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 80% has only 7%.
So is this inequality of income and wealth desirable? Differences in wages and salaries provide an incentive for people to work harder or more effectively and to gain better qualifications. The possibility of increased wealth provides an incentive for people to invest.
But are the extreme differences in wealth and income found in many countries today necessary to incentivise people to work, train and invest? Could sufficient incentives exist in more equal societies? Are inequalities in part, or even largely, the result of market imperfections and especially of economic power, where those with power and influence are able to use it to increase their own incomes and wealth?
Could it even be the case that excessive inequality actually reduces growth? Are the huge giants that exist today accumulating too much financial wealth and creating too little productive potential? Are they spending too little and thus dampening aggregate demand? These arguments are considered in some of the articles below. Perhaps, by paying a living wage to the ‘tiny’ people on low incomes, productivity could be improved and demand could be stimulated.
Wealth Inequality in America YouTube, Politizane (20/11/12)
The rise and rise of the cognitive elite The Economist (20/1/11)
Inequality in America: Gini in the bottle The Economist (26/11/13)
Pen’s Parade: do you realize we’re mostly dwarves? LVTFan’s Blog (21/2/11)
Here Are The Most Unequal Countries In The World Business Insider, Andy Kiersz (8/11/14)
Inequality in the World Dollars & Sense, Arthur MacEwan (Nov/Dec 14)
Britain is scared to face the real issue – it’s all about inequality The Observer, Will Hutton (19/1/14)
The tame inequality debate FundWeb, Daniel Ben-Ami (Nov 14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
GINI index World Bank data
List of countries by income equality Wikipedia
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (see table 27)
Income Distribution and Poverty: Gini (disposale income) OECD StatExtract
- Distinguish between income and wealth. Is each one a stock or a flow?
- Explain how (a) a Lorenz curve and (b) a Gini coefficient are derived.
- What other means are there of measuring inequality of income and wealth other than using Gini coefficients (and giants and dwarfs!)?
- Why has inequality been rising in many countries over the years?
- How do (a) periods of rapid economic growth and (b) recessions affect income distribution?
- Define ‘efficiency wages’. How might an increase in wages to people on low incomes result in increased productivity?
- What is the relationship between the degree of inequality and household debt? What implications might this have for long-term economic growth and future financial crises? Is inequality the ‘enemy of growth’?
The ONS has just released its annual publication, The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. The report gives data for the financial year 2012/13 and historical data from 1977 to 2012/13.
The publication looks at the distribution of income both before and after taxes and benefits. It divides the population into five and ten equal-sized groups by household income (quintiles and deciles) and shows the distribution of income between these groups. It also looks at distribution within specific categories of the population, such as non-retired and retired households and different types of household composition.
The data show that the richest fifth of households had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £81,284 in 2012/13, 14.7 times greater than average of £5536 for the poorest fifth. The richest tenth had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £104,940, 27.1 times greater than the average of £3875 for the poorest tenth.
After the receipt of cash benefits, these gaps narrow to 6.6 and 11.0 times respectively. When the effect of direct taxes are included (giving ‘disposable income’), the gaps narrow further to 5.6 and 9.3 times respectively. However, when indirect taxes are also included, the gaps widen again to 6.9 and 13.6 times.
This shows that although direct taxes are progressive between bottom and top quintiles and deciles, indirect taxes are so regressive that the overall effect of taxes is regressive. In fact, the richest fifth paid 35.1% of their income in tax, whereas the poorest fifth paid 37.4%.
Taking the period from 1977 to 2012/13, inequality of disposable income (i.e. income after direct taxes and cash benefits) increased from 1977 to 1988, especially during the second two Thatcher governments (1983 to 1990) (see chart opposite). But then in the first part of the 1990s inequality fell, only to rise again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, with the Labour government giving greater cash benefits for the poor, inequality reduced once more, only to widen again in the boom running up to the banking crisis of 2007/8. But then, with recession taking hold, the incomes of many top earners fell and automatic stabilisers helped protect the incomes of the poor. Inequality consequently fell. But with the capping of benefit increases and a rise in incomes of many top earners as the economy recovers, so inequality is beginning to rise once more – in 2012/13, the Gini coefficient rose to 0.332 from 0.323 the previous year.
As far as income after cash benefits and both direct and indirect taxes is concerned, the average income of the richest quintile relative to that of the poorest quintile rose from 7.2 in 2002/3 to 7.6 in 2007/8 and then fell to 6.9 in 2012/13.
Other headlines in the report include:
Since the start of the economic downturn in 2007/08, the average disposable income has decreased for the richest fifth of households but increased for the poorest fifth.
Cash benefits made up over half (56.4%) of the gross income of the poorest fifth of households, compared with 3.2% of the richest fifth, in 2012/13.
The average disposable income in 2012/13 was unchanged from 2011/12, but it remains lower than at the start of the economic downturn, with equivalised disposable income falling by £1200 since 2007/08 in real terms. The fall in income has been largest for the richest fifth of households (5.2%). In contrast, after accounting for inflation and household composition, the average income for the poorest fifth has grown over this period (3.5%).
This is clearly a mixed picture in terms of whether the UK is becoming more or less equal. Politicians will, no doubt, ‘cherry pick’ the data that suit their political position. In general, the government will present a good news story and the opposition a bad news one. As economists, it is hoped that you can take a dispassionate look at the data and attempt to relate the figures to policies and events.
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
Reference tables in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, Historical Data, 1977-2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
Rates of Income Tax: 1990-91 to 2014-15 HMRC
Inequality is on the up again – Osborne’s boast is over New Statesman, George Eaton (26/6/14)
Disposable incomes rise for richest fifth households only Money.com, Lucinda Beeman (26/6/14)
Half of families receive more from the state than they pay in taxes but income equality widens as rich get richer Mail Online, Matt Chorley (26/6/14)
Rich getting richer as everyone else is getting poorer, Government’s own figures reveal Mirror, Mark Ellis (26/6/14)
The Richest Households Got Richer Last Year, While Everyone Else Got Poorer The Economic Voice (27/6/14)
- Define the following terms: original income, gross income, disposable income, post-tax income, final income.
- How does the receipt of benefits in kind vary across the quintile groups? Explain.
- What are meant by the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient and how is the Gini coefficient measured? Is it a good way of measuring inequality?
- Paint a picture of how income distribution has changed over the past 35 years.
- Can changes in tax be a means of helping the poorest in society?
- What types of income tax cuts are progressive and what are regressive?
- Why are taxes in the UK regressive?
- Why has the fall in income been largest for the richest fifth of households since 2007/8? Does this mean that, as the economy recovers, the richest fifth of households are likely to experience the fastest increase in disposable incomes?
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.
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD (5/12/11)
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)
- Why may inequality be seen as a ‘bad thing’ for society as a whole and not just the poor?
- 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?
- Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. What has happened to the Gini coefficient over the past few years across the world?
- 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?
- What are the causes of rising inequality?
- Identify policies that can be adopted to tackle growing inequality.
- 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?
Most people, when asked, would like to earn more and many people are prepared to make sacrifices to do so. They may devote considerable time to obtaining qualifications; work much harder in order to gain promotion; work longer hours. What is more, when people do earn more, they take on extra commitments: a bigger house with a bigger mortgage; sending their kids to a private school; getting used to a more luxurious lifestyle. In fact, many people have to spend more on things such as home help, convenience foods and all sorts of labour-saving devices in order to cope with their longer hours.
Some people get so fed up with this pressurised lifestyle that they say ‘enough is enough; let me off this merry-go-round’. They may be happy to take a cut in income to live a simpler life and have more leisure time. Others, however, find that the merry-go-round just keeps going faster and faster and that they cannot get off; except, perhaps, if they make themselves ill, or worse still, die!
Now, if you are struggling as a student to make ends meet and find your debts are inexorably mounting, you may have little sympathy for people earning six-figure salaries! But are you in danger of trying to achieve this lifestyle for yourself? Do you see the main goal of your degree as getting you a better-paid job? What would count as ‘rational behaviour’ here and what would an economist advise you to do?
Then there is the question of whether the high paid are worth their high salaries. Are these salaries a reflection of the value of their output and the sacrifices they make? Or do they reflect economic power, custom and practice or asymmetry of information? And what do we mean by ‘worth’?
The following articles look at some of the highest paid people in the public sector. Some 38,000 public-sector employees earn more than £100,000. In the private sector the figures are much higher: some 545,000 people.
The perils of earning a £100,000 salary BBC News Magazine, Jon Kelly (22/9/10)
Ranking the pay packets of the public sector’s top dogs BBC Panorama programme, Vivian White (19/9/10)
Public Sector pay: The numbers BBC News (20/9/10)
Over 9,000 in public sector earn more than David Cameron, survey claims Guardian, Nicholas Watt (19/9/10)
On the inequality myth The Economist blogs (20/9/10)
Portal to Annual survey of hours and earnings (ASHE) Office for national Statistics
Family Spending – A report on the 2008 Living Costs and Food Survey (see Chapter 3) Office for national Statistics
Income inequality Office for national Statistics (10/6/10)
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2008/09 Statistical Bulletin (ONS) (10/6/10)
Data: The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2008/09 Office for national Statistics
- Use Gini coefficients to examine what has happened to income distribution in the UK in recent years.
- Are high-paid earners ‘worth’ what they are paid? How would set about establishing what they are worth?
- Is it rational to seek a higher paid job if it involves longer hours and more stress? Why may it be difficult to make a ‘rational’ decision?
- Should the Prime Minister be the highest paid public-sector employee? Explain your answer.
- What factors will you take into account when deciding what jobs to apply for?
- To what extent can imperfect information explain people’s choices about work-life balance?
- To what extent can marginal productivity explain the huge salaries and bonuses paid to top executives in both the public and the private sectors?