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A living wage alone won't stop runaway inequality

As well as boosting pay for low earners, we need to tackle excessive pay at the top.

A protestor marches down Market Street during a day of action in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement on December 2, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Getty Images.

It is encouraging to see a growing number of businesses and local authorities adopting the living wage and this week's piece by Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, is proof that the movement has reached far and wide. In his article, Warner considers the adverse effects of low pay but, more importantly, identifies that pay levels are threatening to become more about PR than social justice.

For example, some of the living wage’s most prominent private sector advocates (KPMG, Barclays, HSBC) are unlikely to have a significant number of low-paid staff who would benefit from the policy and many cleaning and catering jobs are still outsourced. Only when we see organisations with large numbers of low-paid staff implementing the living wage will we know that the movement has truly arrived.

Warner also touches on a problem highlighted by the TUC last year: that an increasing proportion of companies’ money is going to profits, rather than wages. And it seems that the shift from wages to profits is hurting those at the bottom of the income scale much more than those at the top.

We cannot ignore the fact that some Goldman Sachs staff (the subject of Warner’s article) are still set to receive average bonus payments of £250,000. This reflects the findings of last year’s Incomes Data Services Directors’ Pay Report, which showed that the average wage rise for FTSE 100 directors was 27 per cent in 2011. With bank bonus season nearly upon us, there are undoubtedly more stories of astronomical rewards in the financial sector to come.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the income scale, the majority are feeling the effects of real-terms reductions in take-home pay (with 2012 seeing an increase in national average earnings of just 1.6 per cent on 2011). The consequent lack of demand does not bode well for the long term health of the economy and, as an increasing number of academics and commentators have illustrated, it is in fact inequality of income  rather than low pay alone, that leads to so many of the economic and social ills we associate with poverty.

It would be naïve, then, to think that we can negate the effects of income inequality merely by promoting policies like the living wage while turning a blind eye to runaway high pay. In order to tackle the negative effects of income inequality, the welcome enthusiasm to promote the living wage must be met with a willingness to tackle pay at the top.