Inequality reaches a record high in the US, but which countries are worst off?

Five years after Lehman Brother's collapse, one group has fared spectacularly well: the richest 1 per cent. The world's superpower is now worryingly dependent on the financial fortunes of just 1.35m taxpayers. But where in the world is inequality the grea

It’s now almost five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating a global financial crisis. In the US, one group has fared significantly better than the rest as the country struggles out of recession – the richest 1 per cent.

Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that the incomes of the richest 1 per cent of Americans increased by 31 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while the incomes of the bottom 99 per cent grew less than 1 per cent. There’s a good Economist chart to illustrate this here. The share of national income flowing to the richest 1 per cent has now reached a record high of 19.3 per cent.

So how does this compare internationally? The UK has little reason to feel smug. According to a report this February by the Resolution Foundation, the richest 1 per cent of Britons own 10 per cent of national income.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned earlier this year that inequality was increasing across its 34 member countries. It has rated its members according to levels of inequality using the Gini coefficient (which measures the extent to which the distribution of income varies from perfect equality.) The UK ranks 28th out of 34 countries, and the US fares even worse at 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile are more unequal than the US. Meanwhile Slovenia, Denmark and Norway are three OECD nations with the most equal income distribution. You can find the full list here.

The Gini coefficient can’t distinguish between different distributions of inequality, in that it doesn’t tell you if inequality is high because the top 1 per cent hold a huge proportion of national wealth, or if the majority of the country’s wealth is held by the top 25 per cent. The Gini coefficient also depends on up-to-date GDP data, which is especially hard to extract from developing countries. This can sometimes make comparison hard.

The CIA world fact book, for instance, compares 136 countries in terms of inequality, but some of the data it uses is over 15 years old. Here the US ranked 95th out of 136 in terms of inequality, with the UK in 76th place, and Sweden, Slovenia and Montenegro topping the list. The most unequal countries were Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that both the UK and the US may be wealthy nations, but compared to their wealthy peers they stand out because of the wide gap between rich and poor. This has all kinds of implications. Rising inequality raises moral questions about fairness and social justice, and some researchers believe that inequality holds back economic growth. There’s also a worry that as the economic power of the richest 1 per cent increases, their political power increases with it.

In the US, for instance, the richest 1 per cent pay 37.4 per cent of income taxes – leaving the world’s superpower worryingly dependent on the financial fortune of just 1.35 million tax payers. Similarly in the UK, 30 per cent of government tax revenue comes from just 308,000 earners in 2012.
 

A homeless man rests along Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.