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.
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?