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?
Over the past 13 years of the Labour government, the incomes of the richest 1 per cent in the UK have grown substantially faster than that of other income groups, as they also did under the previous Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997. But, thanks to complex redistributive policies, including tax credits, the rise in relative poverty that occurred in the 1980s and 90s has been arrested. With the exception of the top 1 per cent, disposable income growth has been similar across the income groups.
As Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics editor argues:
During the Thatcher-Major years, real incomes for the richest fifth of the population rose fastest, averaging growth of about 2.5% a year. The next richest quintile did a little less well, the middle 20% a bit less well still, and so on all the way down to the poorest 20% of the population, which saw the smallest real income gains of less than 1% a year.
Under Labour, the very high rewards secured by the top 1% of earners has obscured an even distribution of real income growth across the five quintiles.
The new coalition government maintains that anti-poverty policies have failed:
… Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, made a statement trashing Labour’s record: “Vast sums of money have been poured into the benefits system over the last decade in an attempt to address poverty, but today’s statistics clearly show that this approach has failed. Little progress has been made in tackling child poverty, society is more unequal than 50 years ago and there are more working age people living in poverty than ever before.
A new approach is needed which addresses the drivers behind poverty and actually improves the outcomes of the millions of adults and children trapped in poverty.”
The following articles explore what has been happening to inequality and poverty and look at the policies proposed by the coalition government. The data on inequality are also given, along with commentary on them by the Institute for Fiscal Studies
Labour’s poverty record may be flawed, but the damage was done by the Tories Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/5/10)
The distribution of income: For richer, for poorer Guardian editorial (24/5/10)
What the poverty figures show Guardian Joe Public blog, Julia Unwin (chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) (21/5/10)
Data and reports
Households Below Average Income (HBAI) 1994/95-2008/09 Department for Work and Pensions(19/5/10)
Households Below Average Income (pdf file) National Statistics, First Release (20/5/10)
Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Office for National Statistics (see also, especially Tables 26 and 27)
Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2010 Institute for Fiscal Studies
A range of poverty data The Poverty Site
- What has happened to the distribution of original, gross, disposable and post-tax income distribution (a) by percentage shares of quintile groups of income; (b) in terms of gini coefficients? (See the “Effects of taxes and benefits on household income” reference above.)
- Why is income inequality likely to increase unless strong redistributive policies are pursued by the government?
- What are ‘the drivers behind poverty’?
- To what extent is there a trade-off between economic growth and redistributing incomes from rich to poor?
- Why is it argued that in an increasingly interdependent world, senior executives have to be paid extremely high salaries and be given very large bonuses in order for a company to recruit sufficiently talented people and yet wages have to be kept low to allow goods to remain competitive?
- Why was income much more equally distributed in the 1960s and 70s than it is today?
- What redistributive policies is the new coalition government in the UK pursuing? What factors will determine their success?
Since Labour has been in power the gap between rich and poor has remained more or less unchanged – a fact that might be surprising given a Labour government and fiscal policies that have become increasingly redistributive in nature. In fact income distribution in the UK has not changed since 1991 according to Office for National Statistics figures. Economists measure income distribution in various ways, but two of the key indicators are the Gini coefficient and the Lorenz curve. For more information on income distribution and some useful data, you may like to download an income data spreadsheet from the IFS (zip file). If you are interested in where you fit into the income scale, then you may also like to try the Institute for Fiscal Studies interactive income model. Why not try a range of different scenarios to see where different levels of income fit into the overall income scale.
UK income gap ‘same as in 1991’ BBC News Online (16/12/08)
- Define the terms (a) Gini coefficient and (b) Lorenz curve.
- Using diagrams as appropriate, show how the Lorenz curve will change when income distribution becomes (a) more equal and (b) less equal.
- Explain how the value of the Gini coefficient will change as income distribution gets more equal. With reference to the IFS spreadsheet (linked to above) descibe how the Gini coefficient has changed in recent years.
- Discuss reasons why income distibution in the UK has stayed the same since 1991 despite a series of redistributive measures adopted by the Labour government since 1997.
Globalisation has reduced the bargaining power of unskilled workers and pushed up inequality in many western countries, the OECD said, urging governments to improve their social safety nets.” With the gap between rich and poor widening once again, the media have been considering the impact of widening income and wealth distribution. The articles below look at this widening gap and also at the ways in which the rich are using their money.
Gap between rich and poor widens Guardian (20/6/07)
For the super-rich it’s all give and take – at record levels Guardian (20/6/07)
Looking after the super-rich BBC News Online (Evan Davis blog) (9/8/07)
||Define what is meant by the terms (i) Lorenz curve and (ii) Gini coefficient.
||Using illustrations as appropriate, show how the Lorenz curve and the value of the Gini coefficient have changed in the past decade.
||Assess the likely impact on the major macroeconomic targets of growing income inequality.
||Discuss policies that the government could put in place to try to reduce the level of income inequality.
During the period that Mrs Thatcher was in office, the post-war trend towards greater equality of income was reversed. Although some of the changes the Labour government has made since 1997 have helped those on lower incomes, the rise in incomes at the top of the scale has meant that the gap between rich and poor has widened again. The article below from the Guardian looks at the latest figures on income inequality.
Inequality at same level as under Thatcher Guardian (18/5/07)
||Define the terms (a) Lorenz curve and (b) Gini coefficient.
||Given the changes in income distribution outlined in the article, discuss how the value of the Gini coefficient has changed since 1997.
||Draw Lorenz curves to show the changes that have taken place in income distribution during Mrs Thatcher’s period in office and during Tony Blair’s time in office.
||Analyse two policies that the government could introduce to reverse these income distribution trends.