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10 July 2013

Why inequality has fallen and why it’s set to rise from now on

The gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed as real earnings have fallen but the coalition's welfare cuts mean it is set to widen from now on.

By George Eaton

The most notable finding from the ONS’s annual report on “the effects of of taxes and benefits on household income” is that income inequality fell betwen 2010-11 and 2011-12 to its lowest level since 1986. It notes: 

The Gini coefficient for disposable income in 2011/12 was 32.3%, a fall from its 2010/11 value of 33.7%, and the lowest level since 1986. This fall in income inequality is partly due to earnings (including income from self-employment) falling towards the top of the income distribution but increasing for the poorest fifth of households.

This is not as surprising as some suggest; it’s normal in times of economic stagnation for inequality to fall as middle class earnings decline and the automatic stabilisers protect the incomes of the poorest. The decision of the rich to delay earnings until 2012-13 in order to benefit from the cut in the 50p tax rate is also likely to be a factor. But it’s still a finding the Tories will hail as they seek to prove that “we’re all in this together”. 

They would be wise, however, to resist the temptation to do so. Owing to the coalition’s welfare cuts, many of which only took effect this year, inequality is forecast to significantly increase between now and 2015-16. In particular, George Osborne’s decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for at least three years (an unprecedented real-terms cut) means the poorest will see a sharp fall in their incomes. The IFS expects inequality “to rise again from 2011–12, almost (but not quite) reaching its pre-recession level by 2015–16.” 

While the Tories can take little credit for the fall in inequality (which is largely due the decline in real earnings), they will deserve the blame for the rise.

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