In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
The IFS has launched a major five-year review into all aspects of inequality. The review is led by Sir Angus Deaton, the Scottish-born Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The review will cover all aspects of inequality, including inequality of income, wealth, health, life-span, education, social mobility, housing, opportunity and political access, and by gender, age, ethnicity, family and geography. It will look at trends in and causes of inequality, the impacts of globalisation and political change, barriers to tackling inequality and poverty, and at various policy measures.
Although the published Gini coefficient in England and Wales has not changed much over the past 15 years, largely because of support given to the poor by tax credits, it did rise from 31.7 to 33.2 from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (the latest year for which figures are available). Other measures of inequality, however, have changed more dramatically. There is huge geographical inequality in income in the UK, reflected in inequality in health. Average weekly earnings in London are 66% higher than in the north east of England. And, according to the IFS, ‘Men in the most affluent areas can expect to live nearly 10 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, and this gap is widening’.
The UK has the greatest inequality of income of developed countries, with the exception of the USA. The IFS warns that the UK could follow the USA:
…where wages for non-college-educated men have not risen for five decades, and where rising mortality for less-educated white men and women in middle age has caused average life expectancy in America to fall for the last three years – something that has not happened for a century. We have not experienced anything similar in the UK but we have now had a decade of stagnant wages and there is recent evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ – deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – are now rising among middle-aged Britons. Sir Angus will go on to say:
‘I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich, “taking” rather than “making”, rent-seeking rather than creating, enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.’
The initial report, which introduces the IFS Deaton Review, points to some possible causes of growing inequality, including the dramatic decline in union membership, which now stands at just 13% of private-sector employees, with more flexible labour markets with growing numbers of workers on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Other causes include growing globalisation, rapid technological change making some skills redundant, the power of large companies and their shareholders, large pay rises given to senior executives, growing inequality of access to education and changing family environments with more single parents.
About one in six children in the UK are born to single parents – a phenomenon that is heavily concentrated in low-income and low-educated families, and is significantly less prevalent in continental Europe.
Then there is the huge growth in housing inequality as house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes. Home ownership has increasingly become beyond the reach of many young people, while many older people live in relative housing wealth. Generational inequality is another major factor that the Deaton Review will consider.
Inequalities in different dimensions – income, work, mental and physical health, families and relationships – are likely to reinforce one another. They may result in, and stem from, other inequalities in wealth, cultural capital, social networks and political voice. Inequality cannot be reduced to any one dimension: it is the culmination of myriad forms of privilege and disadvantage.
The review will consider policy alternatives to tackle the various aspects of inequality, from changes to the tax and benefit system, to legislation on corporate behaviour, to investment in various structural resources, such as health and education. As the summary to the initial report states:
The Deaton Review will identify policy responses to the inequalities we face today. It will assess the relative merits of available policy options – taxes and benefits, labour market policies, education, competition policy, ownership structures and regulations – and consider how policies in different spheres can be designed to complement each other and minimise adverse effects. We aim not just to further our understanding of inequalities in the twenty-first century, but to equip policymakers with the knowledge and tools to tackle those inequalities.
IFS Deaton Review
- Identify different aspects of inequality. Choose two or three aspects and examine how they are related.
- Why has inequality widened in most developed countries over the past 20 years?
- What is meant by ‘rent seeking’? Why may it be seen as undesirable? Can it be justified and, if so, on what grounds?
- What policies could be adopted to tackle poverty?
- What trade-offs might there be between greater equality and faster economic growth?
- What policies could be adopted that would both reduce inequality and boost long-term economic growth?
Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
- What are the main strengths and weakness of using GDP as measure of economic performance?
- Is high GDP growth alone enough to foster economic and social wellbeing? Explain your answer using examples.
- Write a list of alternative measures that could be used alongside GDP-based metrics to measure economic and social progress. Explain your answer.
Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.
The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.
The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.
All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.
The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.
The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.
The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”
So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?
Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)
- Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
- What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
- Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
- What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
- Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
- What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
- What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
- What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?
As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.
The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:
Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.
Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.
Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.
What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.
The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’
Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.
For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.
The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.
The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.
The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.
The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.
The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
- Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
- How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
- What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
- How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
- Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
- How does globalisation affect poverty?
- Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
- Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain