Minimum wages: the economics and the politics

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.

Britain’s housing crisis risks turning into catastrophe unless urgent action is taken

We have an endemic crisis of housing supply – caused primarily by policies, like Greenbelt, that constrain the supply of housing land precisely where it is most wanted. Paul Cheshire argues that nothing short of radical reform will improve housing affordability. But radical reform, like intelligently loosening restrictions on Greenbelt building, is frightening.  

The housing crisis – worst in London, but bad across Britain – is fundamentally driven by lack of supply. For the past five years, we have been building fewer houses than in any peacetime period since before World War One. But house building has been on a downwards trend since the 1960s. Reasonable estimates suggest the shortfall in England has been 1.6m to 2.3m houses between 1994 and 2012. Moreover, too many of those we have built have not been in locations where demand is highest. We persistently build houses where they are relatively least unaffordable and job prospects are relatively worst.

This is true from Lancashire (compare Preston with Ribble Valley) to Northants (Corby to Daventry), but is perfectly encapsulated in London. In the four biggest building boroughs; Tower Hamlets, Islington, Hackney, and Southwark, unemployment in 2012-13 averaged 11.35 per cent and the affordability ratio (median house prices to median earnings) was 9.98, we added an average of 14.57 per cent to the housing stock in 2004-2012. In the four slowest building borough; Merton, Bexley, Sutton, and Kensington & Chelsea, where the unemployment rate averaged 6.75 per cent and the affordability ratio 15.07, we added an average of just 2.11 per cent to the stock over the same period.

We may have 32,500 hectares of Greenbelt land within the GLA – including around at least two Tube stations – but we have concentrated new supply where prices relative to earnings are least unaffordable and job prospects worst. And we are not just building too few houses; those we have been building do not satisfy demand. We have an endemic crisis of housing supply – caused primarily by policies, like Greenbelt, that constrain the supply of housing land precisely where it is most wanted. No wonder house prices are rising at over 10 per cent a year.

Fundamental reform is needed, but this has to be informed by a clear understanding of how markets work. Land markets certainly suffer from problems of market failure, but they still provide vital information about where there are shortages and what there are shortages of. So while we ignore price distortions at our peril, we need to be guided by them, not blindly obey them. But what do our political parties offer? Grandstanding and baby kissing. From the Conservatives, we have Help to Buy; from Labour, policies to control rents and increase security of tenure. Neither addresses the fundamental problem of supply. Both will probably make housing just a tad less affordable.

Following the watering down of the coalition’s draft National Planning Policy Framework, the Tory policy for the housing market morphed into cynical electioneering with Help to Buy, announced in the 2013 Budget. There are two schemes, but even the less toxic Help to Buy 1 – restricted to buyers of new build – may be making housing less affordable. Remember (as the OBR told the Treasury Select Committee within days of the Budget) that the underlying problem is almost perfectly inelastic supply. Anything that increases demand mainly adds to pressure on prices. While a proportion of Help to Buy 1’s financial help will increase supply, there will be a displacement effect. Given how inelastic the supply of houses is because of constraints on land supply, it is possible that the adverse effects of the good scheme on affordability will more than offset any positive effects via increased supply. Help to Buy 2 – the purely bad one – just makes access to mortgages for housing easier. Insofar as it has any effect, it will be almost entirely to increase house prices. Oh – and help us, the taxpayers, take on some housing risk banks did not want to shoulder.

Labour has announced its own version of baby kissing: partial controls on rents, increased security of tenure, and elimination of agent’s fees for finding housing for renters. The best that can be said for these proposals are that there effects will be modest. If these policies have any effect, it would be to modestly decrease rental supply, since it would become less attractive to be a landlord. The abolition of fees to agents will, of course, just get transferred into rents (because costs to landlords will increase). All forms of tenure are in the end substitutes for each other, so the net adverse impact on housing affordability will be small – perhaps negligible. It will just reduce the rate of growth of the rental sector and maybe frighten a few institutional investors who might be considering entering the market.

As I explain in the book I have just co-authored, nothing short of radical reform will improve housing affordability. But radical reform, like intelligently loosening restrictions on Greenbelt building, is frightening. Even excellent reforms will probably only make a real difference over a period longer than five years. But if people were convinced that prices of land and housing were going to behave as they do in Germany in the future, not as they have in England in the past, there could be a step change in prices relative to incomes, because expectations are built into current prices.

But the other frightening thing is that radical reform will have to come because the present system is building up pressures that, over time, will cause more and more damage. The issue is not will we reform, but will we reform in time to avoid something like a catastrophic collapse? In the meantime, kissing babies is sadly much more attractive for politicians.

Paul Cheshire is co-author, with Max Nathan and Henry Overman, of Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging Conventional Policy Wisdom (Edward Elgar, 2014). The  LSE/ Radio 4 debate “Where will we all live” , featuring Paul Cheshire will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 11 June at 8pm. A Storify of this event is available here.

Note: This article first appeared in City AM on Wednesday 4 June 2014 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

Paul CheshireLondon School of Economics

Paul Cheshire is Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics. He is co-author, with Max Nathan and Henry Overman, of Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging Conventional Policy Wisdom (Edward Elgar, 2014).

How to bring down house prices in London

The London property market is potentially in bubble territory with demand clearly outstripping supply, causing prices to rise to eye-watering levels. What can be done to bring prices down? Kath Scanlon explores the possible policy routes in detail. She argues that local authorities can make it a condition of planning permission that dwellings remain in private rental for a specified period, encouraging the supply of new build housing that London desperately needs. But since new homes will only ever be a tiny proportion of transactions, she writes that we also need to persuade older ‘over-occupiers’ to downsize.

The jury is still out on whether there is a housing bubble in London, but we’re certainly approaching bubble territory in terms of the number of discussions, seminars and debates on the subject. The key issue is clear: London house prices have been rising fast—much faster than incomes. Why is this happening—and what can be done about it?

Let’s look at the basics; at supply and demand. Demand for housing in London has been growing but supply is stagnant. Demand is up because London’s permanent population is growing through natural increase and migration (from abroad and elsewhere in the UK) and there’s an increasing group of part-timers: wealthy foreigners who want a London base. Mortgage conditions, tightened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, have now begun to relax and loans covering 95 per cent of property value are again available. Underpinning these is London’s pre-eminent position as a national and global centre of governance, finance, education and culture.

There is less agreement about the reasons for the stagnation of supply. Discussions about supply can be confusing because in popular usage the term can mean two things: the net addition to the housing stock (that is, new construction), and the number of homes offered for sale at any given time—of which the vast majority are existing dwellings. Let’s take new construction first. The rate of new build has increased, but still doesn’t come close to match the number of new households in London—so in pure numbers term the housing deficit is growing, which tends to push up prices. There are many reasons for this, and each commentator has his or her favourite.  They include the greenbelt, NIMBYism and ‘land hoarding’ by developers.

In terms of housing transactions, though, the overwhelming bulk of supply is not new build but existing homes. And while house prices have risen strongly in the last five years, the number of transactions has risen much more slowly, and is still well below the peak reached in 2006—so in that sense, the supply response has been disappointing.

What can be done to bring prices down? There are three broad possibilities, alone or in combination: control prices administratively, increase supply or reduce demand. There are proponents of administrative control of prices in one part of the housing market, in the form of rent control. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, they never advocate capping house prices. There are, however, ways of exercising indirect influence on house prices through regulation. One is to limit the size of mortgage loans by capping loan-to-value or loan-to-income ratios, which would reduce effective demand.


Another possibility is to increase supply. In terms of new construction, there is a huge amount of housing in the pipeline in London. But even (or perhaps especially) on the biggest sites, new homes are produced very slowly—even though there are few technical barriers to faster production. One reason is that house builders have learned that putting many houses on the market at the same time reduces the price of individual homes. But that doesn’t seem to apply to rented housing—even if hundreds of properties are leased at once, it doesn’t affect rents much. This means that developers could be willing to build rental-only homes at a faster rate than homes for sale. This wouldn’t directly bring down the price of homes for purchase, but would have an indirect effect by increasing overall housing supply.

Why aren’t they doing so already? There are several reasons, but the most important has to do with the cost of land.  The price that developers can pay for land is the difference between the eventual sales value of the houses and the cost of development. Envision a block of two-bedroom flats—the kind of rented housing typically found in New York or Berlin. If the flats are sold individually to owner-occupiers, as normally happens in the UK, the sales price will be higher than if the developer sold the block as a whole to a landlord. That means that a developer building for owner-occupation or to individual buy-to-let investors will always be able to pay more for land than one who wants to build blocks for private rental—so the rental-only blocks just don’t get built.

There is a way around this. If the development has to be for private rental the overall value will be lower—and this brings down the price of the land. Under the British planning system there’s no special treatment of private rented housing—it doesn’t have a separate ‘use class’ or zoning. But the same effect can be achieved another way: local authorities can make it a condition of planning permission that dwellings remain in private rental for a specified period (say 10 or 20 years). This is known as ‘covenanted private rental’ and is one approach advocated in the Mayor’s Draft London Housing Strategy. Widespread adoption of this could help accelerate the supply of new build housing that London desperately needs.

But new homes will only ever be a tiny proportion of transactions. How could we increase the number of existing homes coming onto the market? If older ‘over-occupiers’—single people or couples living in family homes—could be persuaded to downsize, this would release their properties for younger families. Of course, not everyone agrees that this should be a policy goal: Mrs Thatcher famously campaigned for the poll tax by invoking the example of elderly widows unable to pay rates on their long-time homes. But we have to ask whether it is a sensible use of London’s housing stock to have older people living alone in large houses while families with small children are crammed into too-small flats.

One of the reasons that many older ‘over-occupiers’ remain in their large homes is that the alternatives are so grim.  Many would never move into a retirement home, however tidy and well-run, unless forced to do so by ill health or dementia. We need to create positive, attractive living arrangements for later life—homes that active older people would genuinely prefer to live in. There are some innovative projects that may suggest a way forward—for example, a new co-housing community for over-50s currently being created at Featherstone Lodge in South London could provide a model for that could be replicated elsewhere.

Finally, a few words about demand. The UK’s house-price surge is centred on London; north of Watford might as well be another country. Demand is strong in London in part because of the massive over-centralisation of the country’s economic and public life. In the USA, by contrast, New York is the country’s financial capital, Washington its political capital, Boston its capital of higher education and San Francisco its tech capital—but in the UK London plays all of those roles. Re-balancing this would reduce pressure on London house prices and contribute to a healthier country overall.

About the Author

Kathleen ScanlonLondon School of Economics

Kathleen Scanlon is a Research Fellow at LSE London. She has a wide range of research interests including comparative housing policy (across all tenures–social and private rented housing as well as owner-occupation), comparative mortgage finance, and migration.


The French are right: tear up public debt – most of it is illegitimate anyway

Debt audits show that austerity is politically motivated to favour social elites. Is a new working-class internationalism in the air ?


Chile artist burns studetn debt

Contracts for Chilean student loans worth $500m go up in flames – the ‘imaginative auditing’ of the artist Francisco Tapia, commonly known as Papas Fritas (Fried Potatoes). Photograph: David von Blohn/REX


As history has shown, France is capable of the best and the worst, and often in short periods of time.

On the day following Marine Le Pen’s Front National victory in the European elections, however, France made a decisive contribution to the reinvention of a radical politics for the 21st century. On that day, the committee for a citizen’s audit on the public debt issued a 30-page report on French public debt, its origins and evolution in the past decades. The report was written by a group of experts in public finances under the coordination of Michel Husson, one of France’s finest critical economists. Its conclusion is straightforward: 60% of French public debt is illegitimate.

Anyone who has read a newspaper in recent years knows how important debt is to contemporary politics. As David Graeber among others has shown, we live in debtocracies, not democracies. Debt, rather than popular will, is the governing principle of our societies, through the devastating austerity policies implemented in the name of debt reduction. Debt was also a triggering cause of the most innovative social movements in recent years, the Occupy movement.

If it were shown that public debts were somehow illegitimate, that citizens had a right to demand a moratorium – and even the cancellation of part of these debts – the political implications would be huge. It is hard to think of an event that would transform social life as profoundly and rapidly as the emancipation of societies from the constraints of debt. And yet this is precisely what the French report aims to do.

The audit is part of a wider movement of popular debt audits in more than 18 countries. Ecuador and Brazil have had theirs, the former at the initiative of Rafael Correa’s government, the latter organised by civil society. European social movements have also put in place debt audits, especially in countries hardly hit by the sovereign debt crisis, such as Greece and Spain. In Tunisia, the post-revolutionary government declared the debt taken out during Ben Ali’s dictatorship an “odious” debt: one that served to enrich the clique in power, rather than improving the living conditions of the people.

The report on French debt contains several key findings. Primarily, the rise in the state’s debt in the past decades cannot be explained by an increase in public spending. The neoliberal argument in favour of austerity policies claims that debt is due to unreasonable public spending levels; that societies in general, and popular classes in particular, live above their means.

This is plain false. In the past 30 years, from 1978 to 2012 more precisely, French public spending has in fact decreased by two GDP points. What, then, explains the rise in public debt? First, a fall in the tax revenues of the state. Massive tax reductions for the wealthy and big corporations have been carried out since 1980. In line with the neoliberal mantra, the purpose of these reductions was to favour investment and employment. Well, unemployment is at its highest today, whereas tax revenues have decreased by five points of GDP.

The second factor is the increase in interest rates, especially in the 1990s. This increase favoured creditors and speculators, to the detriment of debtors. Instead of borrowing on financial markets at prohibitive interest rates, had the state financed itself by appealing to household savings and banks, and borrowed at historically normal rates, the public debt would be inferior to current levels by 29 GDP points.

Tax reductions for the wealthy and interest rates increases are political decisions. What the audit shows is that public deficits do not just grow naturally out of the normal course of social life. They are deliberately inflicted on society by the dominant classes, to legitimise austerity policies that will allow the transfer of value from the working classes to the wealthy ones.

French Indignants A sit-in called by Occupy France at La Défense business district in Paris. Photograph: Afp/AFP/Getty Images A stunning finding of the report is that no one actually knows who holds the French debt. To finance its debt, the French state, like any other state, issues bonds, which are bought by a set of authorised banks. These banks then sell the bonds on the global financial markets. Who owns these titles is one of the world’s best kept secrets. The state pays interests to the holders, so technically it could know who owns them. Yet a legally organised ignorance forbids the disclosure of the identity of the bond holders.

This deliberate organisation of ignorance – agnotology – in neoliberal economies intentionally renders the state powerless, even when it could have the means to know and act. This is what permits tax evasion in its various forms – which last year cost about €50bn to European societies, and €17bn to France alone.

Hence, the audit on the debt concludes, some 60% of the French public debt is illegitimate.

An illegitimate debt is one that grew in the service of private interests, and not the wellbeing of the people. Therefore the French people have a right to demand a moratorium on the payment of the debt, and the cancellation of at least part of it. There is precedent for this: in 2008 Ecuador declared 70% of its debt illegitimate.

The nascent global movement for debt audits may well contain the seeds of a new internationalism – an internationalism for today – in the working classes throughout the world. This is, among other things, a consequence of financialisation. Thus debt audits might provide a fertile ground for renewed forms of international mobilisations and solidarity.

This new internationalism could start with three easy steps.

1) Debt audits in all countries

The crucial point is to demonstrate, as the French audit did, that debt is a political construction, that it doesn’t just happen to societies when they supposedly live above their means. This is what justifies calling it illegitimate, and may lead to cancellation procedures. Audits on private debts are also possible, as the Chilean artist Francisco Tapia has recently shown by auditing student loans in an imaginative way.

2) The disclosure of the identity of debt holders

A directory of creditors at national and international levels could be assembled. Not only would such a directory help fight tax evasion, it would also reveal that while the living conditions of the majority are worsening, a small group of individuals and financial institutions has consistently taken advantage of high levels of public indebtedness. Hence, it would reveal the political nature of debt.

3) The socialisation of the banking system

The state should cease to borrow on financial markets, instead financing itself through households and banks at reasonable and controllable interest rates. The banks themselves should be put under the supervision of citizens’ committees, hence rendering the audit on the debt permanent. In short, debt should be democratised. This, of course, is the harder part, where elements of socialism are introduced at the very core of the system. Yet, to counter the tyranny of debt on every aspect of our lives, there is no alternative.


The shoebox flat is our housing crisis in microcosm

Our homes are shrinking in size and rising in cost, while a lack of supply means we can’t even choose where and how we live


One Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom

Opposite ends of the spectrum: One Hyde Park has seen flats go for up to £140m … Photograph: View Pictures/Rex


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.

Shoebox studio flat in London rented for £170 a week. … while this is the ‘shoebox’ studio flat in London which was let for £170 a week. 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.

Why the gap between rich and poor has narrowed. And why it won’t last

The narrowing of inequality is almost certainly a blip

Money no copyrightj“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” as the saying goes. It’s widely accepted that, in recent years, economic inequality has accelerated in the West. As the best selling author Thomas Piketty has noted, this is the scale of income inequality we are now dealing with:

“In a few weeks, Wimbledon will return to our television screens. The top tennis players in the world will compete for prize money that, boosted by broadcast income from more than 200 countries, will this year total £25  million.

“Forty years ago, the total prize money was £91,000. Taking into account the rise in the cost of living, the players will receive 33 times as much this year compared with in 1974. Over the same period, average real hourly earnings in manufacturing have merely doubled.”


As the below graph helpfully demonstrates, from the late 1970s up to the current recession the share of income going to the top tier of the population increased significantly. The top 1 per cent have a 14 per cent share of national income today, compared to less than 6 per cent in the late 1970s, according to the World top incomes database.

Income inequalityj

And yet contrary to popular wisdom, since the onset of the recession income inequality in Britain has actually narrowed. Indeed, believe it or not the better off were the hardest hit in the early years of the downturn, while the very poorest were sheltered to some extent by their reliance on benefits and tax credits.

The fall in income since the recession has been “largest for the richest fifth of households. In contrast, after accounting for inflation and household composition, average income for the poorest fifth has grown over this period (6.9 per cent), according to the Office for National Statistics.

As the prime minister claimed during a session of PMQs late last year, inequality in Britain is at its lowest level since 1986.

This seems bizarre when you consider that we hear it said so often that the government is waging some kind of war on the downtrodden through its austerity agenda. It’s almost as if the coalition were enacting the economic agenda of the left or something.

But hold your horses for just a second. Inequality has narrowed in recent years, but it’s unlikely to stay that way; for while the incomes of the wealthiest fell the most during the initial stages of the economic downturn, it is the poor who are now feeling the squeeze and who will be the hardest hit as changes to the benefits system take effect.

The Independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which has looked in detail at the cumulative impact of the government’s welfare reforms, said last year that much of the pain for lower-income groups was “occurring now or is still to come because these groups are the most affected by cuts to benefits and tax credits”.

“If the OBR’s macroeconomic forecasts are correct, then most of the falls in real incomes associated with the recession have now happened for middle-and higher-income groups,” senior research economist at the IFS Robert Joyce said.

If we look at some of the coalition’s reforms to the welfare system, it’s fairly easy to see why that might be the case, for many of the changes have only recently come into effect:

The Bedroom Tax – introduced in April 2013

Universal Credit – introduced in April 2014 (ongoing)

The Benefit Cap – introduced in April 2013

Changes to child tax credits – introduced in April 2012

Changes to Working Tax Credits – introduced in April 2012

In other words, and as the IFS has recognised, many of the government’s welfare reforms have only really started hurting the poor in the past year or so – and the pain will continue in the years to come.

At the other end of the income scale, pay is already outstripping inflation (wages including bonuses in the January to March period grew by 1.7 per cent. Significantly, for those who don’t receive a bonus pay is still lagging behind inflation). Top pay is also on the rise again. Research from last year found that the UK’s top 100 chief executives were paid £425m in 2012 – up by £45m 2011.

So what does this mean? It means that the narrowing of inequality is almost certainly a temporary blip. The recovery is well in motion for the rich, but there is a great deal of pain still to come for those at the bottom.

FT journalist in Piketty takedown accused of ‘serious errors’ of his own

New analysis by the economic consultant Howard Reed supports Piketty’s view that inequality is on the rise

Thomas PikettyjRight-wing journalists and commentators were cock-a-hoop this time last week after Thomas Piketty, whose bestselling book Capital in the 21st Century has taken the left by storm, was accused of cherry-picking data to support his view that inequality in on the increase.

The Financial Times was at the forefront of the attacks, with its journalist Chris Giles highlighting what he perceived to be “a serious discrepancy between the contemporary concentration of wealth described in Capital in the 21st Century and that reported in the official UK statistics”.

But new analysis by the economic consultant Howard Reed supports Piketty’s view that inequality is on the rise. And Reed has hit back at Piketty’s critics, accusing Giles of making “serious errors” of his own.

According to Reed, the apparent discrepancies in Piketty’s account were caused by the author making allowances for the different estimates of wealth in the data sources he used to calculate the trend since the early 19th century. Giles, Reed says, failed to adjust for these “discontinuities” in the data:

“Taken as a whole, these discontinuities imply that the estimate of the top 10 per cent share of wealth is 22.5 percentage points lower by 2010 than it would have been if the wealth statistics had been collected on a consistent basis after 1974, as they were before 1974. As I show, the main difference between the Piketty time series for UK inequality and the Giles time series for UK inequality is that Piketty corrects his data series to allow for this 23 percentage point drop (caused by changes in the methodology used to measure the wealth distribution) whereas Giles does not.”

The coup de grace comes later, however, when Reed says that it is Giles himself who is guilty of an inaccurate portrayal of the figures:

“To believe that the Giles series represents an accurate picture of the evolution of wealth inequality in the UK over the last 50 years, one would have to believe that the wealth share of the top 10 per cent really did fall by 12 percentage points during the 1970s, and by another 11 percentage points between 2005 and 2006. Does anyone really believe this? Of course not.”

He also accuses Giles of making “serious errors of his own”:

“However, Giles then goes on to make a very serious error of his own in handling the UK data: he treats changes in the way wealth inequality is measured over the decades as if they were real changes in the underlying distribution of wealth. This error leads him to the misleading conclusion that wealth inequality fell in the UK between 1980 and 2010, whereas in fact it has increased (although not by quite as much as Piketty’s published results would suggest).”

Reed does, however, acknowledge that Giles has “uncovered some errors and inconsistencies which Piketty will hopefully address in future work”.

You can read Reed’s full blog here.

Without reform, the funding model for the Work Programme is set up to fail ESA claimants

The government’s Work Programme, whereby providers are paid on a results basis, is not fit for purpose and risks failing Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants. Drawing on new research, Timothy Riley explains the problems with the funding model. In essence, getting the minimum performance benchmarks wrong creates a vicious circle of lower funding leading to lower performance, leading to still lower funding. He argues for a way forward that would cost no more than the government had planned.

The Work Programme is the government’s flagship national employment programme. It is substantially different from previous programmes, both in terms of its larger scale and the way it is commissioned. It is delivered by a range of (primarily private sector) providers who are largely paid on a payment by results basis, the results they are paid for being sustained periods in work for customers. The payment model differs for different groups of customers based in part on the benefits they claim, with job outcomes for customer groups considered to be further from the labour market being associated with larger payments.

Unfortunately, recent performance data has shown that whilst the Work Programme is performing better for the main Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) payment groups, it is still well below the Department for Work and Pensions’ expected minimum performance levels for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payment groups.

Figure 1: One-year job outcome measure – equivalent minimum benchmark compared to actual, by participant group (Jun 2011–Dec 2012 referrals)

Riley fig 1

Source: DWP: Information, Governance and Security Directorate; Inclusion calculations. Average weighted by monthly referral numbers.

The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion recently published a new report, Making the Work Programme work for ESA claimants, which sets out the problems with the funding model for Employment and Support Allowance claimants and what could be done to fix it. The report is a part of a wider project called Fit for Purpose, supported by 22 organisations and looking at the future of employment support for people with health conditions and disabilities. The final report will be available in the summer.

Specifically, we argue that a toxic mix of a weak economy, lower than expected referrals to the programme, changes to the rules on who is referred, provider under-performance and setting the targets too high in the first place have combined to lead to big shortfalls in funding and support for those on the programme.

Our calculations suggest that around 11% of ESA claimants that are required to take part in the Work Programme would have achieved a ‘job outcome’ if the Work Programme had not been introduced. The DWP, however, set their estimate at 15%. These targets have been missed in every contract, and as a consequence – because the Work Programme is a ‘payment by results’ programme – funding to support ESA claimants has been substantially lower than anticipated.

Of course, you could see this as a policy success: performance has been below expectations but the DWP has not had to pay so much to providers – so the risk of failure has been successfully transferred away from tax payers. But this would be a pretty short-sighted view. The state still picks up the tab through the benefits bill, and lower funding means more people out of work for longer and receiving less support.

We argue that getting the minimum performance benchmarks wrong risks a vicious circle of lower funding leading to lower performance, leading to still lower funding. In a sense, this means that the funding model has been set up to fail – with lower outcome payments, and therefore lower funding overall, hard-wired into the contracts.

We estimate that the money available to providers to deliver services to ESA claimants (based on DWP spend on ESA customers) is likely to be about 40% lower than was originally planned, with DWP likely to spend on average £690 per ESA claimant compared to an estimated £1,170 when the programme was designed. And this is going to get worse: as of April 2014 there are no more ‘attachment payments’ paid to providers when customers join the Work Programme, meaning that at current performance the DWP will pay providers on average only £550 per participant – which needs to cover two years of support.

When these figures are grossed up for the whole programme, taking into account lower referral numbers as well as lower performance, we estimate that the government will invest less than half of what it intended to on supporting ESA customers through the Work Programme – with spending around £350 million compared to the £730 million expected.

In the event, we find evidence that Work Programme providers are actually spending a bit more than they receive from DWP on ESA participants, in order to maintain some levels of service. In effect they are cross-subsidising from outcome payments for Jobseeker’s Allowance participants. Whilst this may be helping to paper over the problems with the payment model, it is clearly neither satisfactory nor sustainable in the longer term.

Our report sets out an alternative model that we argue should be implemented for the remainder of the programme. This new funding model is based on four key assumptions:

  • That spending should be restored for new participants to the same level as was originally intended – but foregoing the ‘savings’ that have already been banked by the Government;
  • That in return for increasing funding we should expect increased performance;
  • That the model should remain strongly outcome-based, so that risk is shared between the taxpayer and those providing services – in our proposal, around three quarters of funding would be linked to getting and sustaining jobs; and
  • That funding should be highest for those that need the most support (and specifically, those who used to claim Incapacity Benefit).

Our proposed payment model is below.

Proposed Work Programme payment model for ESA claimants

PG5 – ESA Volunteer

PG6 – ESA Flow

PG7 – ESA ex-IB

Attachment payment




Job entry payment




Job outcome payment (three months in work)




Maximum job sustainment payment*




Cost per attachment




* Same overall levels as current model, but paid over 9 months after job outcome payment.

Without reform, in our view the funding model for the Work Programme is set up to fail ESA claimants, particularly those joining over the next two years. Whilst we and many others are rightly thinking about what should come next with ‘Work Programme Mark 2’, it is critically important that the Work Programme Mark 1 works for ESA claimants. Our report shows the failings of the current payment model for ESA groups, and a way forward that is achievable and would cost no more than the government had planned.

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. Homepage image credit: Grant Kwok

About the Author

Tim RileyTimothy Riley is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. He specialises in research into labour market and skills policy, with recent projects including high profile evaluations of Lone Parent Obligations for the Department of Work and Pensions, and Want to Work for Jobcentre Plus, and has led Inclusion’s work on ethnic minority employment. @TimRiley83.


Why Falling Unemployment Can Be Bad News For Everyone by johnny void

Economic inactivity by reason (aged 16 to 64)

More people are in work than ever before claim the DWP triumphantly as the unemployment figures show another huge rise in self-employment. Whether these people are making any money, or whether they are pensioners with an ebay hobby, does not seem to matter as the Tories attempt to spin that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms are working.

Yet all that has happened is the economy has started to grow a bit and so unemployment has fallen a bit. This is what always happens when economies start to grow – and due to a rising population there are almost always more people in work than ever before unless there is a severe economic downturn. It matters barely at all what governments do to unemployed people – in a recession unemployment goes up, and in a recovery it goes down. This is because unemployed people are not responsible for unemployment, despite the multi-billion pound welfare-to-work scam pretending that they are.

But falling unemployment may be good for the country’s economy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for the people who actually live and work here. The key to this lies in the figures for Economic Inactivity, currently at its lowest level since 1990 according to the ONS. This is seen by politicians of all parties as a good thing. A closer look reveals that is far from the case.

The largest group of people who are economically inactive are those looking after a family, many who will share in their partner’s salary. The second largest group is students, whilst there are also 1.31 million people who have been lucky enough to retire before reaching pensionable age. The other groups include those who are long term sick, whose numbers remain fairly stable, and a million or so ‘other’ – students on a gap year perhaps, or volunteers who can afford not to claim benefits.

If the number of people who are ‘Economically Inactive’ is falling, and it is, sharply, then that means less young people who can afford to be students. It means less parents being able to afford to stay at home with young children, and less people able to afford to take early retirement. This is not good news if you happen to be one of those people, in fact it’s a bit shit.

What it also means is that these often more experienced workers remaining in, or rejoining the workforce, are crowding out those who are unemployed and desperate to find a job. This is almost certainly one reason why despite claims that hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created, unemployment stood at 2.46 million in the first period after this Government weren’t elected and has since fallen to just 2.24 million. It could also explain why the number of people unemployed over 12 months was 796,000 in August 2010 and after four years of welfare reforms, workfare and sanctions aimed at this group the number has actually risen to 807,000.

A fall in Economic Inactivity really represents a downward shift in the living standards of everyone. Those who are slightly better off are having to work longer and harder, and those at the bottom are more marginalised than ever. It’s good news for the bosses though, as more people are chasing every job and driving down wages for us all. And for the Tories – who can’t bear the thought of a pleb taking early retirement when they could be slaving for another few years – it’s the best news of all.

Follow me on twitter @johnnyvoid

An open letter to the Daily Mail…

Very well put letter to the Mail on Sunday


The Daily Mail chose today to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, champion of the oppressed, by publishing this article today.  Here’s my response.


Dear Daily Mail,

I’ve got a little boy.  His name is Isaac, and he’s nearly three.  Like any little boy, he loves cars, balls, and running around.  He’s barely ever still.

A few days ago though, he was.  I took him to the supermarket to spend his pocket money, and we passed the donation basket for our local food bank.  It was about half full – nothing spectacular, in fact, mostly prunes and pasta – and he asked what it was.  As simply as possible, I tried to explain that it was for people to give food for other people who couldn’t afford it.

This affected his two year old brain fairly deeply.  After a lot of thought, he decided to spend a little bit of…

View original post 715 more words