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To tackle personal debt we need to tackle inequality first

An inequality test should be applied to all government policies to assess whether they will increase the gap between the richest and the rest.

Children play a game of football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets on February 21, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Today’s report on personal debt from the Centre for Social Justice makes for sobering reading. With average household debt at £54,000, nearly twice the level of a decade ago, it is clear just how many are struggling in austerity Britain.

We’re told that the causes of this astonishing personal debt are people being forced to use credit to pay bills as the cost of living rises, as well as the legacy of cheap credit before the financial crash. These are clearly significant issues, but the reality is that they are part of a far wider, systemic problem. One that many seem unwilling to recognise. The gap between the rich and the rest has widened alarmingly over the past 30 years, with the UK now experiencing one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world. Study after study, in both the UK and internationally, has shown that as inequality rises, so does household debt.

According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, single people need to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard. Couples with two children need to earn at least £19,400 each. But according to the ONS, just under half of people don’t get £19,400. About a third don’t get £16,850. For years, people have been told that if they work hard, they’ll get the rewards, but that simply isn’t true anymore. This is partly a result of a greater proportion of UK jobs being low paid. The proportion of jobs classed as low paid by the OECD is now among the highest of developed nations, and around 20 per cent of employees earn below the Living Wage.

Another issue is the increasing amount of insecure work such as temporary work and zero-hours contracts. Being trapped in a low-pay-no-pay cycle understandably plays havoc with budgeting. A further problem is a result of inequality driving up prices. This is most obvious in housing costs, where the average person trying to find a home finds themselves in a market where they are competing with people who are buying second homes, and with investors who are fuelling speculation-driven property inflation. In fact around 85% of new-build properties in central London and 38% of re-sales are estimated to have been purchased by overseas buyers.

Perhaps the biggest problem is also the simplest. Pay for FTSE Director’s may have increased by 14 per cent in the last year, but for the average employee pay continues to fall behind prices. We’ve now had four years of pay falling in real terms for most people. To tackle the debt crisis, the government needs to focus on reducing the UK’s high levels of income inequality. An inequality test should be applied to all government policies to assess whether they will increase the gap between the richest and the rest. Raising the level of National Minimum Wage and incentivising employers to offer jobs that pay a reliable income is a key way of tackling debt, driving demand in the economy, and reducing social security costs.

We also need a more progressive tax system, including proposals like a property speculation tax to stop the rich pricing the rest of us out of a home, but also a fiscal rebalancing away from consumption taxes like VAT, because they hit average and poor people hardest and hold back spending. Inequality is more than a driver of debt, it supresses our economic recovery and fractures our society. If the government wants to tackle debt, it needs to tackle inequality first.

Duncan Exley is director of The Equality Trust