Getting people into employment will not on its own ensure decent living standards and reduce poverty, finds Peter Taylor-Gooby. His research shows that, while higher employment is associated with lower poverty, other factors are more important. The most important factor in reducing poverty levels across the countries looked at was the strength of contractual rights, and other policies, such as access to child care, policies to reduce discrimination against women were also significant.
Most people think paid work is the royal road to a better life for people of working age. The value of work is at the centre of policy thinking across the board, from Labour’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to UKIP’s commitment to ‘enroll unemployed welfare claimants onto community schemes or retraining workfare programmes’. Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit puts work ‘at the centre of our welfare system’. The EU’s 2020 Growth Strategy ‘is about more jobs and better lives.’ And so on.
The idea that getting people into work will solve the problem of achieving decent living standards for those of working age was given extra impetus as unemployment rose from about 5 to over 8 per cent between 2008 and 2012, paralleled with a rise in working-age poverty. Now unemployment is falling back towards pre-crisis levels but, as IFS analysis shows, poverty among working age adults is failing to respond. The poor quality of many of the new jobs indicates short-comings in the case for paid work as the foundation of welfare.
Most of those in poverty live in working households. Among families the proportion in households with at least one member in work rose from 50 to 68 per cent between 1996 and 2013 according to the DWP’s Households Below Average Incomes statistics. The job market started to recover from its low point in 2012 but many of the jobs on offer are far from satisfactory. The number of part-time workers rose from 7.2 million to 8.2 million between the recession in 2008 and 2014, the numbers of involuntary part-timers from 0.7 to 1.7 million and the number of temporary workers from 1.4 to 1.7 million. The Labour Force survey shows a doubling of zero-hour contracts between 2007 and 2013 to 300,000.
These statistics suggest that we need to pay attention to the quality as well as the quantity of jobs created. Our new research examines factors affecting employment and poverty across 17 European countries for the period of prosperity and growth between 2001 and 2007. This is the time when the sun shone, the most favourable period in recent history for the work = welfare = decent living standards project. The research shows that, even at this time, new welfare was much more successful at getting people into work than at reducing poverty.
Employment rates rose across Europe, especially for women. However, far from declining, poverty rates also increased (by the standard EU 60 per cent of median income measure) from 18 to 18.6 per cent between 2001 and 2007 in the UK, and also in other successful economies such as Germany (11 to 15.2 per cent), Sweden (9 to 11.5 per cent) or Poland (16 to 17.3 per cent). One explanation is to do with access to paid work. Governments need to make sure that even more people move into work. This is the logic that lies behind the EU’s Employment Strategy and Horizon 2020 programme and behind national work-centred policies such as Universal Credit. Then the great recession swept everyone towards work at any price policies, redoubling the stress on paid work.
These were the good times, when, if ever, the link between work and decent incomes should be strongest. Higher employment is associated with lower poverty, but the analysis shows that, even during this period, other factors were more important. In fact the most important factor in reducing poverty levels across the countries was the strength of contractual rights. Other policies such as access to child care, policies to reduce discrimination against women were also significant.
The level of employment plays a role in ensuring decent living standards, but one that is less powerful than that of employment rights. The suggestion is that while employment is probably a good thing, if we want people to be better off, we also need to make sure that the quality of jobs is adequate. The best way to ensure that is to strengthen contractual rights against dismissal and to promote trade union membership. Recent trends in policy to weaken employment protection, to undermine the role of trade unions and to introduce high fees for access to employment tribunals move us in entirely the wrong direction. Shovelling people into low-paid jobs is all the fashion, but it is not the answer to the problem of poverty among those of working age.
For more, see “Can ‘New Welfare’ Address Poverty Through More And Better Jobs?” by Peter Taylor-Gooby, Julia M. Gumy and Adeline Otto.
About the Author
Peter Taylor-Gooby is Research Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. He chaired the British Academy New Paradigms in Public Policy Programme (2010/2011) and is Chair of the REF Social Work and Social Policy and Administration panel 2011-15, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Founding Academician at the Academy of Social Sciences and, previously, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sociology and Social Policy Section.
George Osborne’s Autumn Statement was a reminder of the government’s missed targets and missed opportunities, writes John Van Reenen. The Chancellor’s promise to eliminate the structural deficit has failed spectacularly and the UK economy is barely above its pre-crisis level, a major cause of which was the the decision to launch a premature austerity programme in 2010. Crucially, Osborne’s plans fall short in addressing Britain’s chronic problem of low productivity.
There are things to like in the Autumn Statement. The reforms to end the “cliffs” in stamp duty and make it more graduated tax are welcome, but even better would have been to replace stamp duty entirely with a tax on land values. Rather than taxing people who move, tax the unmoveable wealth that they have. And if you have to raise taxes, few will feel sympathetic with multinationals who will find it harder to avoid taxes or banks who won’t be able to offset their accumulated losses against future taxes.
But the economic elephant in the room is what has happened to productivity. GDP per hour is over 15 per cent below where we would have expected on long-term pre-2008 trends. This is why wages are so low and the deficit remains high. There is nothing serious in the Chancellor’s plans to tackle this pressing issue.
Missed Fiscal Targets
In 2010 George Osborne pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by the end of this Parliament – the 2014/15 financial year. This has spectacularly failed to happen with forecasts of government borrowing rising to £91 billion this year and no expectation of balancing the books before 2018/19. And don’t hold your fiscal breath on it happening even by then.
So what went wrong? Less income taxes have come in than expected in the last year, partly because of the increase in personal allowances, but mainly because of low pay. It’s a stunning fact that real earnings have fallen by over 8 per cent since 2008. Many jobs have been created, but they have generally poorly paid. Low wages, low taxes.
Harpo Marxist Economics
The fundamental problem is that growth has been pretty lousy under the Chancellor’s rule. Don’t be fooled by the 3 per cent headline GDP growth rate. The size of the economy is barely larger than it was on the eve of the crisis representing the worst recovery in over a century. Our faster growth this year is like a “Harpo Marx” effect. The story goes that when Harpo was asked why he was banging his head against a wall. He responded “because it feels so good when I stop.” Similarly, it is unsurprising to have strong growth when you’ve been pushed so far underwater. The real surprise is why it took so long.
A major cause of low growth was the Chancellor’s decision to launch a premature austerity programme in 2010 which choked off the nascent recovery. Austerity eased somewhat since 2012/13, but even the OBR estimates that this knocked off a percentage point off growth per year in 2010/11 and 2011/12. The Eurozone crisis also played a part, as EU leaders administer the same fiscal medicine as Dr. Osborne with similarly disappointing results. Southern European countries can at least say they have no choice if they wish to keep the Euro, but there is no excuse for Northern EU countries like Germany to insist in balancing their own budgets in the face of serious deflationary risks.
Attempting even more severe austerity to meet the 2010 targets – as some on the right have argued – would have been an even more serious error. Like the government’s policy to reduce net migration to under 100,000, it is better to fail at imposing a silly policy than to cause terrible harm in trying to meet it.
But what to do about the productivity elephant?
As analysed by the LSE Growth Commission, Britain has a chronic problem of low productivity rooted in the failure make long-term investments. We argued that we could address this though radical supply side changes in the way we support innovation, and educate, tax and finance our citizens.
A major way of reducing public spending after 2010 was to slash public investment. With low interest rates, under-utilised resources and falling private investment, this was the exact opposite of standard economic advice. The outcome was widely predicted – rather than building, we dug ourselves into a deeper economic hole.
Some of this infrastructure destruction has been reversed, but the Chancellor plans again to accelerate public spending cuts to pay for tax cuts after the election. Since public investment creates capital that can be used in the long-term, it should not be lumped in with current spending like civil service salaries. But for purposes of creating an absolute budget surplus it has been and so, once again, will be ripe for the chop. The Liberal Democrats and Labour rightly want to keep capital investment separate. Let’s hope, if re-elected, this will be one more target that the government misses.
About the Author
John van Reenen is Professor of Economics at the LSE and Director of the Centre for Economic Performance. He tweets from @JohnVanReenen
By Tony Burke | Published: October 27, 2014
The UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, according to a new report
On October 23, the Smith Institute launched a report entitled ‘Making work better: an agenda for government‘ – an independent inquiry into the world of work by Ed Sweeney.
Sweeney of course is the former chair of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), former deputy general secretary of Unite and former general secretary of the finance union Unifi, now part of Unite.
The report, which runs to over 100 pages, is the product of a nine month inquiry involving research, interviews, discussion events around the UK as well as opinion polling.
It sets out the argument that the UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, with poor treatment of workers who Sweeney’s report states are “underpaid, over-worked and ignored”.
The report also argues that the UK has a “long tail of broken workplaces” which are holding back the recovery and costing the country billions in lost income and in the payment of welfare benefits to those out of work but also to those workers eking out a living in low paid, precarious and agency work.
The report has been welcomed by Labour, the TUC and EEF (the manufacturing employers’ organisation), who were all represented at the report’s launch: shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna for Labour; general secretary Frances O’Grady for the TUC and Judith Hogarth, head Of employment policy of the EEF
Sweeney’s report highlights the UK’s poor performance on a range of indicators, including:
poor productivity, with the USA, France and Germany being 30 per cent more productive than the UK;
a skills shortage and mismatch, with half of employees interviewed saying that their jobs do not make full use of their skills and abilities;
job insecurity with over half of employees worried about loss of employment or job status – the Office of National Statistics now estimates there are 1.4 million zero-hour contract workers;
stagnating pay levels – since 2004 wages for workers on the median wage or less have stagnated or fallen in real terms and since 2010 median wages have fallen by more that 6 per cent in real terms;
and 50 of workers interviewed said they faced unreasonable treatment, while 40 per cent faced disrespect from employers.
The report also recommends that the government should amend the Information & Consultation Regulations to giver workers a stronger voice and bring the UK into line with other EU countries.
The ICE Regulations are barely used by unions to establish these structures as they are dauntingly complex and unions usually face open hostility from some of the worst employers who do not wish to hear the views of their workers, never mind consult with them.
The report makes a series of important recommendations, including a new mandate for the Low Pay Commission to increase the national minimum wage towards 60 per cent of the median wage; a target for government of lift one million workers to the living wage by 2020 and, interestingly, a requirement on the government to promote the positive role trade unions play in achieving fair pay and giving ACAS the power to promote collective bargaining and good employment relations.
At the launch, the issue of collective bargaining was a major talking point, with a number of speakers and questioners (including academics and trade unions) arguing strongly that the restoration of widespread collective bargaining would do much to restore decent work and pay equality.
Speakers pointed out that this was always ACAS’s role (it was the Major government who scrapped ACAS’s role in promoting collective bargaining) and it would require significant political and financial support.
On the role of trade unions, Chuka Umunna said in his remarks:
“The report is right to highlight that trade unions have an important role to play here in boosting training, pay and conditions for their members and helping Britain win that race to the top.
“At a time of rapid global economic change and a cost of living crisis at home, it is vital that the UK continues to have strong and modern trade unions as a genuine voice fighting against discrimination and abuse.”
Building on Ed Sweeney’s report, Chuka Umunna also announced the setting up a further review of Labour’s policies in regard to the world of work, to be lead by John Monks, former head of the TUC and the ETUC, Douglas McCormick, former MD of Atkins UK Rail and Alison Downie, head of the Employment Department at Goodman Derrick LLP.
Frances O’Grady hit the nail on the head at the launch when she said:
“With so many facing stagnant pay and too many new jobs made insecure through zero-hours contracts, agency working or low value self employment, we won’t fix the economy without fixing the workplace.”
Labour has to recognise that in order to win the election and win back working people, there is crying a need to promote clear policies to end low paid and low skilled work; but also to end exploitation, firmly regulate precarious work and create decent employment in decent workplaces.
Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite
Increase in number of people on low pay
By Left Foot Forward | Published: November 3, 2014
The number of people on low pay has risen by 147,000 to 5.3 million in the last year, according to a study by KPMG.
Childcare vouchersjThe research indicates that 22 per cent of employees are now earning less than the Living Wage – up from 21 per cent last year.
According to the data, part-time, female and young workers are the most likely to be earning a wage that fails to provide a decent standard of living.
The research, conducted by Markit for KPMG, also found that the proportion of people earning less than £7.65 per hour (£8.80 in London) is higher amongst part-time workers. More than 4 in 10 part-time workers take home less than the Living Wage, compared to 13 percent of full-time employees.
There are also more part-time roles paying less than the Living Wage (2.98 million) than full-time jobs (2.29 million), despite making up less than a third of all UK jobs.
The research revealed that during October of this year almost three times as many people who earned less than the Living Wage (29 per cent) reported that their household finances had worsened over the month, compared to just 10 per cent who saw an improvement. Meanwhile, twice as many people who earn below the Living Wage (18 per cent) reported an increase in their need to borrow, compared to 9 per cent who saw a reduction.
The financial outlook for many remains bleak. Five per cent of those earning less than the Living Wage said they expected to see their household finances worsen between now and November 2015. Almost a quarter (22 per cent) also reported fears over job security.
Commenting on the research, head of Living Wage at KPMG Mike Kelly said:
“Although there are almost 1,000 organisations pledged to pay a Living Wage, far too many UK employees are stuck in the spiral of low pay.
“With the cost of living still high the squeeze on household finances remains acute, meaning that the reality for many is that they are forced to live hand to mouth. Inflation may be easing, but unless wages rise we will continue to see huge swathes of people caught between the desire to contribute to society and the inability to afford to do so.
“For some time it was easy for businesses to hide behind the argument that increased wages hit their bottom line, but there is ample evidence to suggest the opposite – in the shape of higher retention and higher productivity. It may not be possible for every business, but it is certainly not impossible to explore the feasibility of paying a Living Wage.”
Falling wages, savage cuts and sham employment expose the recovery as bogus. Without a new vision we’re heading for social conflict
Sunday 19 October 2014 17.46 BST
The UK economy has been in difficulty since the 2008 financial crisis. Tough spending decisions have been needed to put it on the path to recovery because of the huge budget deficit left behind by the last irresponsible Labour government, showering its supporters with social benefit spending. Thanks to the coalition holding its nerve amid the clamour against cuts, the economy has finally recovered. True, wages have yet to make up the lost ground, but it is at least a “job-rich” recovery, allowing people to stand on their own feet rather than relying on state handouts.
That is the Conservative party’s narrative on the UK economy, and a large proportion of the British voting public has bought into it. They say they trust the Conservatives more than Labour by a big margin when it comes to economic management. And it’s not just the voting public. Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity. The trouble is that when you hold it up to the light this narrative is so full of holes it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.
First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit. Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.
More importantly, this rise in the deficit between 2003 and 2007 was not due to increased welfare spending. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, social benefit spending as a proportion of GDP was more or less constant at about 9.5% of GDP a year during this period. The dramatic climb in budget deficit from there to the average of 10.7% in 2009-2010 was mostly a consequence of the recession caused by the financial crisis.
First, the recession reduced government revenue by the equivalent of 2.4% of GDP – from 42.1% to 39.7% – between 2008 and 2009-10. Second, it raised social spending (social benefit plus health spending). Economic downturn automatically increases spending on many social benefits, such as unemployment benefit and income support, but it also increases spending on things like disability benefit and healthcare, as increased unemployment and poverty lead to more physical and mental health problems. In 2009-10, at the height of the recession, UK public social spending rose by the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP compared with its 2008 level (from 21.8% to 24%).
When you add together the recession-triggered fall in tax revenue and rise in social spending, they amount to 5.6% of GDP – almost the same as the rise in the deficit between 2008 and 2009-10 (5.7% of GDP). Even though some of the rise in social spending was due to factors other than the recession, such as an ageing population, it would be safe to say that much of the rise in deficit can be explained by the recession itself, rather than Labour’s economic mismanagement.
When faced with this, supporters of the Tory narrative would say, “OK, but however it was caused, we had to control the deficit because we can’t live beyond our means and accumulate debt”. This is a pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt. Whether debt is a bad thing or not depends on what the money is used for. After all, the coalition has made students run up huge debts for their university education on the grounds that their heightened earning power will make them better off even after they pay back their loans.
The same reasoning should be applied to government debt. For example, when private sector demand collapses, as in the 2008 crisis, the government “living beyond its means” in the short run may actually reduce public debt faster in the long run, by speeding up economic recovery and thereby more quickly raising tax revenues and lowering social spending. If the increased government debt is accounted for by spending on projects that raise productivity – infrastructure, R&D, training and early learning programmes for disadvantaged children – the reduction in public debt in the long run will be even larger.
Against this, the advocates of the Conservative narrative may retort that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that the recovery is the best proof that the government’s economic strategy has worked. But has the UK economy really fully recovered? We keep hearing that national income is higher than at the pre-crisis peak of the first quarter of 2008. However, in the meantime the population has grown by 3.5 million (from 60.5 million to 64 million), and in per capita terms UK income is still 3.4% less than it was six years ago. And this is even before we talk about the highly uneven nature of the recovery, in which real wages have fallen by 10% while people at the top have increased their shares of wealth.
But can we not at least say that the recovery has been “jobs-rich”, creating 1.8m positions between 2011 and 2014? The trouble is that, apart from the fact that the current unemployment rate of 6% is nothing to be proud of, many of the newly created jobs are of very poor quality.
The ranks of workers in “time-related underemployment”, doing fewer hours than they wish due to a lack of availability of work – have swollen dramatically. Between 1999 and 2006, only about 1.9% of workers were in such a position; by 2012-13 the figure was 8%.
Then there is the extraordinary increase in self-employment. Its share of total employment, whose historical norm (1984-2007) was 12.6%, now stands at an unprecedented 15%. With no evidence of a sudden burst of entrepreneurial energy among Britons, we may conclude that many are in self-employment out of necessity or even desperation. Even though surveys show that most newly self-employed people say it is their preference, the fact that these workers have experienced a far greater collapse in earnings than employees – 20% against 6% between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the Resolution Foundation – suggests that they have few alternatives, not that they are budding entrepreneurs going places.
So, in between the additional people in underemployment (6.1% of employment) and the precarious newly self-employed (2.4%), 8.5% of British people in work (or 2.6 million people) are in jobs that do not fully utilise their abilities – call that semi-unemployment, if you will.
The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance, with stagnant productivity, falling wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, and savage welfare cuts.
The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.
Without a new economic vision incorporating these dimensions, Britain will continue on its path of stagnation, financial instability and social conflict.
While the UK has returned to growth, many workers continue to suffer economic hardship as real incomes have yet to recover. This means that, just as in the past, the UK economy is relying on an unsustainable growth model where workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. Setting the UK on a sustainable path and reversing the growth of in-work poverty requires policies to raise real wages, writes David Spencer.
Rejoice. The UK economy is back to where it was before the crisis. The depression is over and sunny economic uplands lie in the future. Feel good, damn it, the economy is growing again. But there is a reason why the positive growth statistics are treated sceptically. That reason relates to the fact that real incomes have fallen in the UK. Despite the restoration of growth, workers in the UK have continued to suffer cuts in their real pay. One of the arguments for growth is that it raises real incomes – in the UK at least, the reverse is proving to be true. The economy has achieved growth, while many millions of workers have suffered increasing economic hardship with little prospect of improvement.
From a growth perspective, the grim facts of the recovery provide cause for concern. The UK economy has only been able to grow by workers spending beyond their means. Workers have run down savings and borrowed more to increase their consumption and this has driven growth. But workers can only go on behaving like this for so long. Without a rise in real pay, the spending must come to an end and with it the recovery.
There is no sign yet of net exports recovering to support consumption and any rises in business investment will need to continually confound expectations to offset the further fiscal tightening to come. Again as in the past the UK economy is relying on workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. This is a growth model that cannot be sustained and will ultimately end in disaster.
Even the most ardent backers of the government’s current policy stance must harbour some concerns about the prospects for growth in the economy. Lower real wages may help firms keep a lid on their costs but from the perspective of raising demand on a sustainable basis they place restrictions on the ability of firms to grow output. Demand side barriers will bite in the end and terminate the recovery.
But beyond growth there are deeper issues here relating to work and its relation to poverty. Work has long been heralded as the best form of welfare and the route to economic success. This view – summed up in the mantra ‘work always pays’ – has been exposed as a miserable lie. Now it seems that work for many is no escape from poverty. Working hard for a living often means struggling to keep one’s head above water.
Evidence shows that in-work poverty is on the rise in the UK. Among working age adults in low income households, the number in working families has been growing and is now greater than the number in workless families. It used to be that worklessness was the prime determinant of poverty. Now it is more likely to be low waged work.
How did we get into this situation? The underlying causes are complex and multifaceted. They include the decline of unions, the deregulation of the labour market, an inadequate training system and the rise of the service sector at the expense of manufacturing. The UK has lacked the necessary modernising forces that would have otherwise led it towards a high wage economy. Instead, it has evolved an institutional structure that has favoured and entrenched low wages.
What can be done? In the short term, policies to raise real wages in the UK would help not only to sustain the recovery if that is the concern but also to address the problem of in-work poverty. The national minimum wage, although a welcome development, has not managed to address the problem of low pay and this is where calls for a living wage come in. Raising the minimum wage to the level of the living wage would be a bold but economically sensible step to take. Critics may say that this will lead to unemployment. Yet evidence shows that minimum wage hikes have not had adverse employment effects. Indeed, their effect has been to increase productivity via higher levels of worker morale and to reduce welfare spending.
Longer-term, the UK needs to break its reliance on a low wage growth model. For this, it needs a new industrial strategy that focuses on building things rather than on making money. It needs to invest in new industries via the help of the State. Challenging vested interests particularly in the world of finance and creating a model of sustainable prosperity based not on endless growth but on the promotion of human flourishing remain the ultimate goals. Whether these goals are achievable under current conditions remains a moot point. Yet they are goals that we need to keep in our sights and agitate for.
In the end, the UK cannot afford to pay workers less. Driving real wages down is a recipe for economic stagnation and human misery. For all our sakes, we should seek a rise in real wages.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit:
David Spencer is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the Leeds University Business School.
In an interview with EUROPP’s editor Stuart Brown and British Politics and Policy at LSE’s editor Joel Suss, Thomas Piketty discusses the rise in income and wealth inequality outlined in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and what policies should be adopted to prevent us returning to the kind of extreme levels of inequality experienced in Europe prior to the First World War. Professor Piketty recently gave a lecture at the LSE, the video of which can be seen online here.
Your research shows that inequality is rising and that without government action this trend is likely to continue. However, are we correct to assume that inequality is a fundamentally negative development in terms of its consequences on society?
There is no problem with inequality per se. In actual fact, up to a point inequality is fine and perhaps even useful with respect to innovation and growth. The problem is when inequality becomes so extreme that it no longer becomes useful for growth. When inequality reaches a certain point it often leads to the perpetuation of inequality over time across generations, as well as to a lack of mobility within society. Moreover, extreme inequality can be problematic for democratic institutions because it has the potential to lead to extremely unequal access to political power and the ability for citizens to make their voice heard.
There is no mathematical formula that tells you the point at which inequality becomes excessive. All we have is historical experience, and all I have tried to do through my research is to put together a large body of historical experience from over twenty countries across two centuries. We can only take imperfect lessons from this work, but it’s the best that we have. One lesson, for instance, is that the kind of extreme concentration of wealth that we experienced in most European countries up until World War One was excessive in the sense that it was not useful for growth, and probably even reduced growth and mobility overall.
This situation was destroyed by World War One, the Great Depression, and World War Two, as well as by the welfare state and progressive taxation policies which came after these shocks. As a consequence, wealth concentration was much lower in the 1950s and 1960s than it was in 1910, but this did not prevent growth from happening. If anything, this probably contributed to the inclusion of new social groups into the economic process and therefore to higher growth. So one important historical lesson from the 20th century is that we don’t need 19th century-style inequality to generate growth in the 21st century, and we therefore don’t want to return to that level of inequality in Europe.
How would you respond to those who doubt whether there is sufficient evidence to draw this kind of conclusion?
This will always be an imperfect inference because we are in the social sciences and we should not have any illusions about what is possible. We can’t run a controlled experiment across the 20th century or replay the century as if World War One and progressive taxation never occurred. All we have is our common historical experience, but I think this is enough to reach a number of fairly strong conclusions.
The lesson we have already mentioned – that we don’t need the kind of extreme inequality of the 19th century in order to have economic growth – is simply one imperfect lesson, but there are other important lessons if you look at, for instance, the rise of inequality in the United States over the past 30 years. For example, is it useful to pay managers a ten million dollar salary rather than only one million dollars? You really don’t see this in the data: the extra performance and job creation in companies which pay managers ten million dollars rather than one. In the United States over the past 30 years almost 75 per cent of the aggregate primary income growth has gone to the top of the distribution. Given the relatively mediocre productivity performance and the per capita GDP growth rate of 1.5 per cent per year, having nearly three quarters of that going to the top isn’t a very good deal for the rest of the population.
This will always be a complicated and passionate debate. Social science research is not going to transform the political conflict over the issue of inequality with some kind of mathematical certainty, but at least we can have a more informed debate using this historical cross-country evidence. Ultimately that is all my research is aiming to do.
What specific policies can be used to prevent us returning to the kind of extreme levels of inequality you have discussed?
There are a large number of policies which can be used in combination to regulate inequality. Historically the main mechanism to reduce inequality has been the diffusion of knowledge, skills and education. This is the most powerful force to reduce inequality between countries: and this is what we have today, with emerging countries catching up in terms of productivity levels with richer countries. Sometimes this can also work within countries if we have sufficiently inclusive educational and social institutions which allow large segments of the population to access the right skills and the right jobs.
However while education is tremendously important, sometimes it’s not sufficient in isolation. In order to prevent the top income groups and top wealth groups from effectively seceding from the rest of the distribution and growing much faster than the rest of society, you also need progressive taxation of income and progressive taxation of wealth – both inherited and annual wealth. Otherwise there is no natural mechanism to prevent the kind of extreme concentration of income and wealth that we’ve seen in the past from happening again.
Most of all, what we need is financial transparency. We need to monitor the dynamics of all of the different income and wealth groups more effectively so that we can adapt our policies and tax rates in line with whatever we observe. The lack of transparency is actually the biggest threat – we may end up one day in a much more unequal society than we thought we were.
Thomas Piketty is a Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics. He is the author of Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, March 2014).
Minimum wages are increasingly popular with politicians and the public; even most economists now agree that they have little or no negative effect on employment. Alan Manning discusses this newfound enthusiasm – and the likelihood that it will lead to much higher minimum wages in some parts of the world.
There was a time when the minimum wage was seen as a backwater of labour market policy, an appendix for which the best one could hope would be that it did not cause any problems. But no longer: in many countries, there is now a strong movement to raise minimum wages.
In November last year, Angela Merkel finally announced that Germany would be introducing a minimum wage, replacing or supplementing the current system that sets minima in a small number of lowpaying sectors and collective bargaining that sets minima in some other industries. In May this year, Swiss voters will be asked to vote on the world’s highest minimum wage – 22 Swiss francs an hour (about £15) – with one canton already having voted for that rate in principle though another has rejected it. And in 2011, the free market redoubt of Hong Kong introduced a national minimum wage.
In the United States, President Obama seems to have given up hope of his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour in the face of an impasse in Congress. But he has recently used his executive power to impose a $10.10 minimum wage on the few hundred thousand people who work on federal contracts.
The president is also actively encouraging states and cities to raise their local minimum wages, thus bypassing the obstacles in Washington. Increasing numbers of them are doing so, and some are going further: Seattle’s mayor, for example, proposes a $15 minimum wage. Minimum wages at this level – about 60% of median hourly earnings – are pushing the envelope of what has ever before been attempted with the minimum wage.
The UK is not immune from this newfound enthusiasm for the minimum wage, with all the main political parties seemingly falling over themselves to find some way to inject new vigour into the National Minimum Wage. Last autumn, the business secretary Vince Cable wrote to the Low Pay Commission (LPC), asking it to consider the economic circumstances in which the minimum wage could be increased at a rate above inflation. And the Labour Party has set up a Low Pay Review to consider options.
Not to be outdone, Chancellor George Osborne in January expressed the opinion that the nascent recovery means that the minimum wage can now be increased substantially. Without quite saying it in so many words, he dropped a heavy hint that he thought £7 an hour would be reasonable within 18 months, which would be a 10% increase from the current rate of £6.31.
I was a member of an expert panel convened by the Resolution Foundation and chaired by the LPC’s first chairman George Bain to reinvigorate the National Minimum Wage. Central to our ideas was that the LPC has been very successful in doing a limited thing – setting a minimum wage to tackle extreme low pay. But the wider problem of low pay remains as serious as ever and – in spite of its name – the LPC has never attempted to develop a strategy for this bigger problem. The LPC seems to have convinced itself that the minimum wage could not be pushed much higher without threatening jobs, but the consequence is that we can never learn whether that judgment is correct.
So what explains this widespread enthusiasm for the minimum wage? In my view, both economics and politics are at play.
The economics of minimum wages
A generation ago, the vast majority of economists would have said that a rise in the minimum wage inevitably costs jobs. This has changed, with two strands of research having the biggest impact. In the United States, the work of David Card and Alan Krueger, then both at Princeton University, shattered the cosy consensus and argued that the actual evidence linking the minimum wage to job losses was weak. Although their findings were controversial (and the debates rumble on to the present day), there has been a large shift in the weight of academic opinion.
The other strand of research that has been very influential examined the UK experience, with CEP researchers playing a sizeable role, though not the only one. Some people predicted that the introduction of the National Minimum Wage in 1999 would cause hundreds of thousands of job losses, but this simply did not materialise. Any impact on employment seemed to be tiny and LPC research has reached similar conclusions for subsequent years when the minimum wage rose faster than average earnings. In spite of this accumulating empirical evidence, it is still common to find economists fall ing back on the argument that a minimum wage must cost jobs because demand curves for labour inevitably slope downwards. Faced with a conflict between the evidence and twentieth century economic models, they reject the evidence rather than the theory – not an ideal template for scientific endeavour. But there are, in fact, uncomplicated theoretical reasons why the minimum wage set at modest levels has little or no effect on employment.
First, the increase in total labour costs associated with a given increase in the legal minimum wage is often considerably smaller than the numbers suggest. As the minimum wage rises and work becomes more attractive, labour turnover rates and absenteeism tend to decline. Moreover, the cost associated with losing a job rises; so, arguably, workers are inclined to work a bit harder and need less monitoring. Of course, an employer could voluntarily choose to pay higher wages if net labour costs actually fell, so a reasonable guess here is that these offsetting economies reduce, but do not eliminate, the impact of a rise in wage rates.
Then there’s the gap between employer perception and reality. Individual employers often view a rise in wages with horror, assuming it will drive them out of business. But all too often, they are implicitly assuming that they alone will suffer the cost inflation when it affects their competitors as well. Prices rise a bit and the effect on employment is only through the effect of a fall in sales, which may well be minimal.
But there is a more fundamental reason why there is no evidence of the job losses predicted by standard economic theory. The key assumption – that labour markets are highly competitive – is often wrong. The view of the labour market that underlies ‘Economics 101’ is not one that many people would recognise. For in this hypothetical world, losing a job is no big deal because finding an identical job is no harder than discovering that the local Sainsbury’s is out of milk and going to Tesco instead.
But that is not most people’s experience of labour markets. The reality is that competition for workers is not as strong as many economists would have you believe. An employer who cuts wages will find that most employees are unhappy, but that few will just walk out of the door. So it may make economic sense for employers to pay workers less than the marginal worker adds to revenues. In this more realistic world, a rise in the minimum wage will not necessarily price the marginal worker out of their job.
The politics of minimum wages
Academics might like to think their research has a big influence over public policy, but the driving force behind higher minimum wages is that they are very popular. Many people think there is something very wrong with an economic system in which someone who works hard is still unable to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families. Such views have always been common, but they are much more common after the crisis when living standards are threatened and the link between growth and living standards seems to have been severed.
So in most countries of the world, voters (including right-wing voters) support rises in the minimum wage. In the UK, a poll in January 2014 found 66% favouring a substantial increase in the minimum wage – with majorities among supporters of all main political parties. In the United States, a poll in March 2013 found 71% in favour of raising the minimum wage, including 50% of Republicans. In Switzerland, voters seem to support the record-breaking minimum wage even as it is opposed by their government.
In some places, these political pressures will almost certainly lead to much higher minimum wages than we have seen in recent experience – perhaps to around the 60% of median earnings mark. This is the point at which many economists get nervous that negative effects on employment must surely kick in, but we do not have many studies to know whether these concerns are valid. There are only a few countries around this level currently – Australia and New Zealand (with low current unemployment rates) and France (with a more dysfunctional labour market) – so this is hardly conclusive one way or the other. But it seems likely we may be about to find out.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring issue of the Centrepiece magazine and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
About the Author
Alan Manning is professor of economics at LSE and director of CEP’s community research programme. His 2003 book, Monopsony in Motion: Imperfect Competition in Labour Markets (Princeton University Press), explains the theory behind minimum wages; and his 2009 CentrePiece article ‘The UK’s National Minimum Wage’ describes CEP’s role in providing the intellectual context for the policy, advising on its implementation and evaluating its impact.
‘More than a Minimum: The Resolution Foundation Review of the Future of the National Minimum Wage’, was published in March 2014.
A flat in London has captured the headlines. The “studio” in question is minuscule, its rent £170 a week, and it was snapped up within 16 hours of being advertised. In it a bed seems to jut out from the kitchen units like an oversized ironing board, a naked bulb hangs over a tiny table with one chair, and the only practical way to browse the narrow wardrobe appears to be standing on the bed. It hardly deserves the name apartment – unless one goes back to its original etymological meaning of “a separated place”.
The significance of the story is more symbolic than actual. It marks the culmination of four decades of irrational housing policy, increasing urbanisation, woefully inadequate building programmes, uncontrolled rent inflation, and the divestment of social housing stock. It marks – especially seen in conjunction with a flat at One Hyde Park selling for £140m last month – the denouement of Britain’s housing crisis and its re-emergence as a class issue.
The reality behind the individual story may be much more complex, of course. Little is revealed about the personal circumstances of the tenant. For all we know this tiny pod could be the environmentally conscious selection of a fashionable urbanite seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, or the thoughtless impulse of a student who only plans to use it as a base and occasional “crash-pad”, or even the clandestine choice of a relatively well-off unfaithful spouse who works nearby.
However, the general trends emerging from the data are undeniable: our homes are shrinking – they are on average nearly half the size that they were in 1920s; prices, especially in the south-east, continue to soar while mortgage lending requirements are tightened; all of which makes buying a property unaffordable for the vast majority of first-time buyers. The rise in the cost of renting in England and Wales has consistently outstripped inflation, which in turn has consistently outstripped wage growth, creating an unprecedented squeeze on low- and middle-income households. Half of all rural land and more than a third of all land in the UK is owned by a tiny 0.6% of the population.
Even those trends, of course, are not without complicating factors. Data tends to be disproportionately skewed by the property market in the south-east, and the debate is consequently London-centric. A growing number of Londoners are taking advantage of that price differential and moving outside the M25. London men in their 40s spend on average 84 minutes of every day commuting – a factor which might make the small central flat a much more attractive prospect. We work increasing numbers of hours and lead an increasingly sedentary lifestyle – more than 14 hours a day are spent sitting down. Add sleep into the mix and perhaps house size becomes less important.
With our increasing presence in different social media platforms, online gaming communities and the ability to roam unlimited virtual space for information or entertainment, our requirements of private space may be changing. One’s Facebook wall is possibly a more vital personal space than the wall made of bricks and mortar above their monitor; superfast broadband is a more key requirement than a spare room.
Environmental factors mean we simply must try to limit the amount of space we take up, heat, light and consume. If this is the case, we should stop obsessively focusing on house size as the only factor which affects our quality of life. In urban areas, taking action to reduce light and sound pollution, ensuring there are plentiful green public spaces, free exercise programmes and the availability of fresh produce at low prices are just as crucial. In rural areas, the improvement of internet speed and availability, and the efficacy and price of transport are key.
The only statistics which are entirely indefensible, and the absolute crux of the issue, are those of the increasing number of people who are homeless, living in shelters or temporary accommodation. The facile answer to this national shame is, of course, less immigration, suggesting it could solve the housing crisis through a declining population. Yet a declining population brings with it a lack of growth and economic activity, reduced revenues and an increasing pension deficit. All this would inevitably result in is less, not more, housing.
The only answer to the lack of housing is building, utilising and converting more of it, and ensuring its fair distribution by making it affordable. Individual preference may reasonably lead one to a shoebox flat; lack of any alternatives shouldn’t.