Politicians often make use of economic statistics to promote their point of view. A good example is a claim made by the UK Prime Minister on 23 January 2014. According to the latest statistics, he said, most British workers have seen their take-home pay rise in real terms. The Labour party countered this by arguing that incomes are not keeping up with prices.
So who is right? Studying economics and being familiar with analysing economic data should help you answer this question. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on just how you define the issue and what datasets you use.
The Prime Minister was referring to National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). This shows that in April 2013 median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £517.5, up 2.25% from £506.10 in 2012, and mean gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £620.30, up 2.06% from £607.80 in 2012 (see Table 1.1a in the dataset). CPI inflation over this period was 2.4%, representing a real fall in median gross weekly earnings of 0.15% and mean gross weekly earnings of 0.34%.
But when adjustments are made for increases in personal income tax allowances, then, according to the government, except for the richest 10% of the working population, people had an average increase in real take-home pay of 1.1%.
But does this paint the complete picture? Critics of the government’s claim that people are ‘better off’, make the following points.
First, the ASHE dataset is for the year ending April 2013. The ONS publishes other datasets that show that real wages have fallen faster since then. The Earnings and Working Hours datasets, published monthly, currently go up to November 2013. The chart shows real wages from January 2005 to November 2013 (with CPI = 100 in December 2013). You can see that the downward trend resumed after mid 2013. In the year to November 2013, nominal average weekly earnings rose by 0.9%, while CPI inflation was 2.1%. Thus real weekly earnings fell by 1.2% over the period (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
Second, there is the question of whether CPI or RPI inflation should be used in calculating real wages. RPI inflation was 2.9% (compared to CPI inflation of 2.4%) in the year to April 2013. The chart shows weekly earnings adjusted for both CPI and RPI.
Third, if, instead of looking at gross real wages, the effect of income tax and national insurance changes are taken into account, then benefit changes ought also to be taken into account. Some benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit were cut in the year to April 2013.
Fourth, looking at just one year (and not even the latest 12 months) gives a very partial picture. It is better to look at a longer period and see what the trends are. The chart shows the period from 2005. Real wages (CPI adjusted) are 8.0% lower than at the peak (at the beginning of 2009) and 5.0% lower than at the time of the election in 2010. The differences are even greater if RPI-adjusted wages are used.
But even if the claim that real incomes are rising is open to a number of objections, it may be that as the recovery begins to gather pace, real incomes will indeed begin to rise. But to assess whether this is so will require a careful analysis of the statistics when they become available.
UK pay rising in real terms, says coalition BBC News (24/1/14)
Are we really any better off than we were? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/1/14)
Government take-home pay figures ‘perfectly sensible’ BBC Today Programme, Paul Johnson (24/1/14)
Take-Home Pay ‘Rising Faster Than Prices’ Sky News, Darren McCaffrey (25/1/14)
David Cameron hails the start of ‘recovery for all’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (23/1/14)
Is take-home pay improving? The answer is anything but simple The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Katie Allen (24/1/14)
Cameron’s ‘good news’ about rising incomes is misleading says Labour The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/1/14)
The Tories’ claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts New Statesman, George Eaton (24/1/14)
FactCheck: Conservative claims on rising living standards Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (25/1/14)
Living standards squeeze continues in UK, says IFS BBC News (31/1/14)
Richest have seen biggest cash income squeeze but poorest have faced higher inflation IFS Press Release (31/1/14)
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS (22/1/14)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Consumer Price Inflation, December 2013 ONS (14/1/14)
Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet Institute for Fiscal Studies
An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 to 2013 ONS (31/1/14)
- Why are mean weekly earnings higher than median weekly earnings?
- Explain the difference between RPI and CPI. Which is the more appropriate index for determining changes in real incomes?
- Find out what benefit changes have taken place over the past two years and how they have affected household incomes.
- How have gross weekly earnings changed for the different income groups? (The ASHE gives figures for decile groups.)
- Which is better for assessing changes in incomes: weekly earnings or hourly earnings?
- How would you define a change in living standards? What data would you need to be able to assess whether living standards have increased or decreased?
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?
First the good news. Employment is rising and unemployment is falling. Both claimant count rates and Labour Force Survey rates are down. Compared with a year ago, employment is up 279,092 to 29,869,489; LFS unemployment is down from 7.87% to 7.69%; and the claimant count rate is down from 4.7% to 4.0%.
Now the bad news. Even though more people are in employment, real wages have fallen. In other words, nominal wages have risen less fast than prices. Since 2009, real wages have fallen by 7.6% and have continued to fall throughout this period. The first chart illustrates this. It shows average weekly wage rates in 2005 prices. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in real wages is an average for the whole country. Many people, especially those on low incomes, have seen their real wages fall much faster than the average. For many there is a real ‘cost of living’ crisis.
But why have real wages fallen despite the rise in employment? The answer is that output per hour worked has declined. This is illustrated in the second chart, which compares UK output per worker with that of other G7 countries. UK productivity has fallen both absolutely and relative to other G7 countries, most of which have had higher rates of investment.
The falling productivity in the UK requires more people to be employed to produce the same level of output. Part of what seems to be happening is that many employers have been prepared to keep workers on in return for lower real wages, even if demand from their customers is falling. And many workers have been prepared to accept real wage cuts in return for keeping their jobs.
Another part of the explanation is that the jobs that have been created have been largely in low-skilled, low-wage sectors of the economy, such as retailing and other parts of the service sector.
But falling productivity is only part of the reason for falling real wages. The other part is rising prices. A number of factors have contributed to this. These include a depreciation of the exchange rate back in 2008, the effects of which took some time to filter through into higher prices in the shops; a large rise in various commodity prices; and a rise in VAT and various other administered prices.
So what is the answer to falling real wages? The articles below consider the problem and some of the possible policy alternatives.
Inflation, unemployment and UK ‘misery’ BBC News, Linda Yueh (16/10/13)
Employment is growing, but so are the wage slaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/10/13)
Living standards – going down and, er, up BBC News, Nick Robinson (26/7/13)
Revealed: The cost of living is rising faster in the UK than anywhere in Europe, with soaring food and energy bills blamed Mail Online, Matt Chorley (16/10/13)
Cutting prices to raise living standards is just a waste of energy The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (6/10/13)
Downturn sees average real wages collapse to a record low Independent, Ben Chu (17/10/13)
Why living standards and public finances matter Financial Times, Gavin Kelly (29/9/13)
Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn Calls on Government to Boost Wages to End UK Child Poverty International Business Times, Ian Silvera (17/10/13)
Do incorrect employment growth figures explain low UK productivity? The Guardian, Katie Allen (23/10/13)
Unemployment data ONS
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS
Consumer Prices Index ONS
International Comparison of Productivity ONS
- How are real wages measured?
- Why have real wage rates fallen in the UK since 2009?
- What factors should be included when measuring living standards?
- Why has employment risen and unemployment fallen over the past two years?
- What factors could lead to a rise in real wages in the future?
- What government policies could be adopted to raise real wages?
- Assess these policies in terms of their likely short-term success and long-term sustainability.
UK unemployment fell by 4000 to 2.51 million in second quarter of this year. But this was too small to have any significant effect on the unemployment rate, which remained at 7.8%.
According to the forward guidance issued by the Bank of England, Bank Rate will stay at 0.5%, barring serious unforeseen circumstances, until unemployment reaches 7%. So will this be soon?
There are good reasons to suggest that the answer is no. Reasons include the following:
(a) Many firms may choose to employ their part-time workers for more hours, rather than taking on extra staff, if the economy picks up.
(b) The recovery is being fuelled by a rise in consumption, which, in turn, is being financed by people drawing on savings or borrowing more. The household saving ratio fell from 7.4% in 2012 Q1 to 4.2% in 2013 Q1. This trend will be unsustainable over the long run, especially as the Bank of England may see a rapid rise in borrowing/decline in saving as serious enough to raise interest rates before the unemployment rate has fallen to 7%.
(c) Despite the modest recovery, people’s average real incomes are well below the levels prior to the deep recession of 2008/9.
The articles consider the outlook for the economy and unemployment
UK unemployment holds steady at 7.8pc The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (14/8/13)
Unemployment rate is unlikely to fall sharply The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/8/13)
UK unemployment falls by 4,000 to 2.51 million BBC News (14/8/13)
UK wages decline among worst in Europe BBC News (11/8/13)
Squeezing the hourglass The Economist (10/8/13)
More people in work than ever before as unemployment falls Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (14/8/13)
Labour Market Statistics, August 2013 ONS
United Kingdom National Accounts, The Blue Book, 2013: Chapter 06: Households and Non-profit Institutions Serving Households (NPISH) ONS
- What factors determine the rate of unemployment?
- With reference to the ONS data in Labour Market Statistics, August 2013 above, what has happened to (a) the long-term unemployment rate; (b) the unemployment rate for 18–24 year olds?
- How would you define ‘living standards’?
- How is labour productivity relevant to the question of whether unemployment is likely to fall?
- How much have living standards fallen since 2008?
- Under what circumstances might the Bank of England raise interest rates before the rate of unemployment has fallen to 7%?
- Property prices are beginning to rise. Consider the effects of this and whether, on balance, a rise in property prices is beneficial.
Although every recession is different (for example in terms of length and magnitude), they do tend to have a few things in common. The focus of this blog is on consumer income and how it is affected in the aftermath of (or even during) a recession. According to data from the ONS, real national income per head has fallen by more than 13% since the start of 2008.
This latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, UK incomes have fallen by much more than they did in the 2 previous recessions experienced in the UK (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). We would normally expect consumer incomes to fall during and possibly directly after a recession, as national output falls and confidence tends to be and remain low. However, the crucial thing to consider with falling consumer incomes is how it affects purchasing power. If my income is cut by 50%, but prices fall by 80%, then I’m actually better off in terms of my purchasing power.
The data from the ONS is all about purchasing power and shows how UK consumer incomes have fallen at the same time as inflation having been relatively high. It is the combination of these two variables that has been ‘eating into the value of the cash that people were earning’. Comparing the incomes in the four years after the 2008 recession with similar periods following the early 1980s and 1990s recession, the ONS has shown that this most recent recession had a much larger effect on consumer well-being. Part of this may be due to the rapid growth in incomes prior to the start of the credit crunch.
It’s not just the working population that has seen their incomes fall since 2008 – the retired population has also seen a decline in income and according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is the wealthiest portion of older households that have taken the largest hit since 2007. According to the IFS, the average person over 50 has experienced a fall in their gross wealth of about 10%, or close to £60,000. Of course for these older households, the concern is whether they will be able to make up this lost wealth before they retire. The concern for everyone is how long until incomes and purchasing power increase back to pre-crisis levels. The following articles consider this latest data on economic well-being and the impact the recession has had.
UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels Guardian, Larry Elliott and Randeep Ramesh (23/10/12)
National income per head ‘down 13% in four years’ BBC Newsd (23/10/12)
Financial crisis hits UK retirement income Financial Times, Norma Cohen (23/10/12)
Over 50s ‘left £160,000 out of pocket by the financial crisis’ The Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/10/12)
Those near retirement in UK hit hard by crisis Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (23/10/12)
Living standards down 13pc since start of recession The Telegraph (23/10/12)
- Why is net national income per head said to be the best measure of economic well-being?
- Why is it so important to take into account inflation when measuring wellbeing?
- What explanation can be given for the larger fall in consumer incomes following the 2008 recession relative to the previous 2 recessions?
- According to data from the IFS, the richest portion of older households have suffered the most in terms of lost wealth. Why is this the case?
- What is meant by purchasing power?
- GDP has fallen by about 7%, whereas national income per head, taking inflation into account is down by over 13%. What is the explanation for these 2 different figures?
- How can recessions differ from each other? Think about the length, the magnitude of each.
- Is GDP a good measure of economic well-being? Are there any other ways we can measure it?