GDP may have risen, but the poorest fifth still lose out on £2,000 a year because of rising inequality

What would Britain be like if the income distribution was the same as in 1977?

GDP figures released today have shown a slight increase of 0.3 per cent over the past three months. But what will this mean for those at the lower end of the income scale, or even those in the middle?

We know that income inequality in the UK has been rising since around 1980, and has offset the benefits of economic growth for most people. But how has it actually changed incomes? Who has gained, who has lost, and by how much?

Figures published by the Resolution Foundation Commission on Living Standards found that in 1977, of every £100 of value generated by the economy, £16 went to the bottom half of workers in wages. By 2010 that figure had declined by 26 per cent, to just £12.

To find out what's going on in a bit more detail, we used figures from the Office of National Statistics to calculate what income levels would have been in 2010/11 if the distribution of income had remained as it was in 1977. We’ve then compared this to the actual income levels in 2010/11.

These figures are household income after taxes and benefits, adjusted for the number of people in each household.

The bottom fifth of households are getting almost £2,000 less than they would if total household income was still distributed as in 1977, while the top fifth are getting over £8,000 more. The pay ratio between the top fifth and the bottom fifth also climbed from 4 in 1977 to 5.5 in 2010/11.

If you are in your 30s and 40s and grew up in the UK then you spent your childhood in a society that was significantly more equal than the one we live in now. In the post-war years inequality decreased, reaching its lowest point in the 1970s. The 1980s, however, saw the steepest increase in inequality on record in the UK, with the gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth increasing by 60% in just a decade, leaving Britain out on a limb (alongside the US) as one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Since then, successive governments have used the rhetoric of decreasing inequality but failed to reverse this trend.

This rise in inequality is not just affecting the very poor and the very rich. Increasing inequality has meant less income for all households in the bottom four-fifths of the population. Although the pie got larger between 1977 and 2010/11, we can see that the bottom four fifths are all getting a much smaller portion of that pie.

In absolute terms, those losing out the most are not the poorest but those in the middle, who are getting £2,500 less than they would be without the rise in inequality since the 70s. However, it is the poorest that are losing out on the highest proportion of their income. Households in the bottom fifth are living on an average of £10,693 per year, and an extra £1,948 would be an 18% increase on their incomes. With wages lagging behind inflation, a food and fuel poverty crisis and cuts starting to bite, that extra income could be life changing for many of the UK’s poorest families.

Photograph: Getty Images

Annie Quick is a researcher at York University.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.