Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.
The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’
No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:
The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.
Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.
Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.
The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.
Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)
Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)
- How may income inequality be measured?
- Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
- Why has inequality grown in the USA?
- The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
- What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
- What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
- Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
- Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
Pressure has been growing in the UK for people to be paid no less than a living wage. The Living Wage Foundation claims that this should be £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 in the rest of the UK. The current minimum wage is £6.19.
There has been considerable support for a living wage across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has stated that a Labour government would ensure that government employees were paid at least the living wage and that government contracts would go only to firms paying living wages. Other firms that paid less could be ‘named and shamed’. The living wage has also been supported by Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London. The Prime Minister said that a living wage is ‘an idea whose time has come’, although many Conservatives oppose the idea.
The hourly living wage rate is calculated annually by the Centre for Research in Social Policy and is based on the basic cost of living. The London rate is calculated by the Greater London Authority.
Advocates of people being paid at least the living wage argue that not only would this help to reduce poverty, it would also help to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity by improving motivation and the quality of people’s work.
It would also bring in additional revenue to the government. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Resolution Foundation, if everyone were paid at least a living wage, this would increase the earnings of the low paid by some £6.5bn per year. Of this, some £3.6bn would go to the government in the form of higher income tax and national insurance payments and reduced spending on benefits and tax credits. Of this £6.5bn, an extra £1.3 billion would be paid to public-sector workers, leaving the Treasury with a net gain of £2.3bn.
But what would be the effect on employment? Would some firms be forced to reduce their workforce and by how much? Or would the boost to aggregate demand from extra consumer spending more than offset this and lead to a rise in employment?. The following articles look at the possible effects.
Living wage for all workers would boost taxes and GDP Independent, Nigel Morris (28/12/12)
Living wage could save £2bn – think tank research BBC News (28/12/12)
‘Living wage’ would save money, says study Financial Times, Helen Warrell (28/12/12)
Why the Resolution Foundation and IPPR can go boil their heads Adam Smith Institute, Tim Worstall (30/12/12)
Living wage for public servants moves a step closer The Observer,
Yvonne Roberts and Toby Helm (15/12/12/)
Living wage: Ed Miliband pledge over government contracts BBC News (5/11/12)
‘London Living Wage’ increased to £8.55 by mayor BBC News (5/11/12)
Q&A: The living wage BBC News (5/11/12)
Scrooges in UK firms must pay a Living Wage This is Money, John Sentamu (23/12/12)
What price a living wage? IPPR and The Resolution Foundation, Matthew Pennycook (May 2012)
- How would you set about determining what the living wage rate should be?
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Would people being paid below a living wage be best described as absolute or relative poverty (or both or neither)?
- What do you understand by the term ‘efficiency wage’? How is this concept relevant to the debate about the effects of firms paying a living wage?
- Under what circumstances would raising the statutory minimum wage rate to the living wage rate result in increased unemployment? How is the wage elasticity of demand for labour relevant to your answer and how would this elasticity be affected by all firms having to pay at least the living wage rate?
- What would be the macroeconomic effects of all workers being paid at least the living wage rate? What would determine the magnitude of these effects?
More and more food banks are opening every week across the developed world. In the UK alone, there are over 250 food banks. These are run by volunteers and provide food and other basic provisions to those who struggle to feed themselves and their children. The food is donated by people or sometimes supermarkets. Some food banks receive financial help from local authorities.
According to the Trussell Trust, which runs many food banks in the UK, “In 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide, 100% more than the previous year.” But why, in mixed economies, where the State is expected to provide benefits to the poor, do so many people have to resort to food handouts?
Partly the problem is a cut in benefits – a response of many countries to rising public-sector deficits; partly it’s delays in receiving benefits or the complexities in claiming; partly it’s because some people have had their benefits suspended because of a change in their circumstances or changes in the conditions for claiming benefits; partly it’s the inability of people to afford to feed their families properly in times of rising food and energy prices and rising rents, where incomes are not rising in line with the personal rates of inflation that poor households experience; partly it’s the sky-high interest rates that many poor people, often deep in debt, have to pay to continue obtaining credit – often from ‘payday loan companies’ or ‘doorstep lenders’; partly it’s the inability of many poor people to find work which pays enough to feed their families and pay all their other bills.
Food poverty is a real and growing problem. But are food banks the answer? The following videos and articles look at the issues.
Growing demand for food banks in Britain BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (5/9/12)
Children will go hungry warn Bristol food banks This is Bristol, (2/7/12)
Children going hungry ITV News (16/10/12)
Food bank: We need more food to feed UK’s hungry The Telegraph, Gregg Morgan (27/9/12)
Food banks help struggling London families BBC News (21/6/12)
EU food aid to dry up by 2014? France 24 (16/10/12)
Food banks squeezed in Spain Euronews (3/11/12)
As donations dwindle, food banks are feeling the pinch Komo News, Elisa Jaffe (28/9/12)
Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state The Guardian, Patrick Butler (21/8/12)
Councils to invest in food banks LocalGov, Dominic Browne (22/8/12)
The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain BBC News, Paul Mason (4/9/12)
Food banks: ‘I had no-one else to turn to’ BBC News (4/9/12)
Poorest starved of dignity as charity food parcels double in just two years Daily Record (4/9/12)
More and more banking on generosity to others for food South Wales Evening Post (13/11/12)
Northern Illinois Food Bank Kicks Off Hunger Action Month St. Charles Patch, Rick Nagel (1/9/12)
More families get help as food becomes discretionary spend Sydney Morning Herald (21/8/12)
How a foodbank works The Trussell Trust
- Why do so many people find themselves trapped in food poverty?
- What factors are likely to lead to an increase in food poverty in the coming months?
- Should the government subsidise food banks?
- Discuss ways of tackling the problem of poor families being trapped in debt and having to pay very high interest rates.
- Is rent control a good means of tackling poverty?
There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.
But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?
The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?
One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.
Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.
With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.
The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.
The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)
- Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
- What forms can a tax on wealth take?
- How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
- Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
- Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
- What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
- What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people grew by nearly 4.7% last year to £414 billion (after growing by 18% in 2010).
This is in stark contrast to average households, who saw their real incomes decline by 1.9% in 2011. As the Guardian article below says:
The Rich Listers are not merely the 1%, but the 0.01%, and this fanfared celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.
So why are the rich getting richer and what are the implications for society and the economy? Watch and read the following webcasts and articles and then see if you can answer the questions below.
Rich List shows how super-wealthy have dodged recession (or) Channel 4 News (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List: Wealthy getting richer BBC News, Ben Thompson (29/4/12)
Britain’s richest see fortunes rise to record high Reuters, Tim Castle (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List shows rich recover wealth twice as fast Myfinances.co.uk, Ben Salisbury (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List suggests UK’s wealthiest defy recession BBC News (28/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List 2012: Wealth of richest grows to record levels The Telegraph, Patrick Sawer (28/4/12)
The Not-So-Rich-Any-More List Guardian, Oliver Burkeman and Patrick Kingsley (27/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List ITV News (29/4/12)
Distribution of Personal Wealth HMRC
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS (19/5/11)
Household Quarterly Release 2011 Q4 – Real household actual income and expenditure per head ONS
- Distinguish between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: income, wealth, savings, saving, expenditure, possessions?
- If the combined wealth of the 1000 wealthiest people increased in 2011, does this imply that their incomes rose? Explain.
- Why have the super rich got richer, while average incomes in the country have fallen?
- What are the costs and benefits to society (other than the super rich) of the super rich becoming richer?
- Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of an increase in income of the wealthy. Which is likely to be larger and why?