UK incomes are decoupling from economic health

Has the typical family gained from the UK's growth since the 1970s?

On both sides of the atlantic, there has been a relatively long-running debate about the extent to which "decoupling" – the failure of typical household incomes to grow at a rate matching the increase in GDP – has occurred.

The classic treatment of the topic compares GDP per capita to the median family income, as Lane Kenworthy did for the USA:

The difference is clear, albeit not entirely unsurprising (what the graph shows is largely the result of the large increase in income inequality since the 1980s). Yet not everyone accepts that it demonstrates a real phenonmenon.

Kenworthy writes:

One objection is that the price deflator typically used to adjust GDP per capita for inflation differs from the deflator used for median family income. I’ve addressed that here by using the same deflator for both.

A second concern has to do with GDP per capita as an indicator of economic advance. Since the 1970s a larger portion of GDP has gone to replace old capital equipment and therefore can’t go to household income. Also, the number of persons has increased less rapidly than the number of households, so a per capita (per person) measure of GDP could mislead.

A third worry is that the income measure used to calculate median family income is too thin. If a growing portion of GDP has gone to employer benefits, that would help middle-class households, but it wouldn’t show up in these income data.

He addresses the second and third concerns by using a per-household measure, which includes in-kind payments and the effects of taxation. The result is a very similar graph:

This demonstrates, he says, that "decoupling is real and sizeable".

But what about the UK? Have we got the same problem? Yes:

All the data comes from the ONS, the inflation measure used is RPI, and both median and mean household income are taken measured from after the application of taxes and distribution of benefits.

Just as in the US, income growth for middle-class households has become decoupled from growth of the economy.

Stocks are up in the NYSE, but real incomes aren't. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496