Children play football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How inequality is costing the economy billions

The social consequences of inequality, such as reduced life expectancy and worse mental health, cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year.

Since the late 1970s, the UK has become one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. As the rich have got richer, the rest of us have been left behind. Research released today by Oxfam shows that just five families now have as much wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population. It’s a frightening statistic, and for most people, one that offends their basic sense of decency. Can anyone really be "worth" this much? Can so many people be worth so little?

Worryingly, for some the answer appears to be "yes". For these people, an elite but small group of "wealth creators" are delivering jobs and driving economic growth. If five of these people happen to have the same wealth as a fifth of the population, well that’s just reward for their hard work and, no doubt, superior intellect. Perhaps even more concerning is the argument that inequality is not just acceptable, but desirable - driving the competitiveness vital to entrepreneurialism. But does seeing someone paid hundreds or even thousands of times more than you act as encouragement, or as a painful reminder of how little society values you?

The reality is that the consequences of the UK’s extraordinarily high levels of inequality are far-reaching and catastrophic. Of the developed OECD countries, the UK is ranked 17th out of 23 for life expectancy, 19th out of 22 on obesity, 17th out of 21 on teenage births, and 17th out of 23 for imprisonment. More equal societies, meanwhile, top the table on almost every measure.

Inequality shapes how we see others, our levels of trust in strangers, our sense of community. It erodes the bonds between individuals. But might it go even further? The IMF and others have pointed towards the damaging effects that inequality may have on economic growth. It makes perfect sense; if wages stagnate or fall for the majority of people, a consumer-led recovery becomes tricky to engineer without encouraging a huge growth in personal debt.

In addition, the impact of inequality on our health, wellbeing and crime rates may also have a financial cost. Research recently conducted by the Equality Trust has found that the impact on the UK of some of the social consequences of inequality, including reduced healthy life expectancy, worse mental health, higher levels of imprisonment and murder, could cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year. If this was broken down to an individual level, it would show that the impact of inequality on every man, woman and child in the UK can be valued at £622.

Yet these figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the costs associated with inequality remain incalculable. For example, how does one value the higher level of community cohesion, trust, and social mobility associated with less unequal countries? Our estimate is based on a comparison between the level of inequality in the UK and the average level seen in developed countries. In other words, small changes to our level of income inequality would have a huge effect.

In recent weeks, the issue of inequality has gained significant coverage, it is now unquestionably part of the public and political narrative. But we need action to match the rhetoric. A living wage, a fairer tax system, and the creation of jobs with genuine opportunities for advancement should all be part of political party manifestos. But all parties serious about reducing costly social problems must also include an Inequality Test - an explicit goal that the net impact of their policies will be to reduce the gap between the richest and the rest. The benefits of reducing economic inequality are clear - a richer, healthier and quite possibly happier society. But we need politicians to have the courage and conviction to deliver real change.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.