Monday, May 31, 2010

How The Poor Got Richer

They've never had it so good

You'd never guess it from the constant wailing of the poverty lobby, but over the last half century the poor have got a whole lot richer.

A standard measure of poverty is net income of the poorest 25% of households (specifically, the bottom quartile point). And as it happens, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have recently published a compilation of the official figures going back to 1961 (obviously it's far too much to expect HMG to publish its own compilation). They have helpfully adjusted the figures for inflation so we can see the underlying trends in real income.

The figures show that the real income of this poorest group has approximately doubled since 1961, an average annual growth rate of 1.4% pa (ie the growth in income at the bottom quartile point).

In fact, it turns out that in real terms the bottom 25% are now considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961*.

Just think about that.

Tyler remembers 1961 very well. His family were most definitely not in the top 25%. They had no car, no TV, no phone, no fridge, no central heating, and certainly no foreign holidays. Yet in truth they did not consider themselves poor. His father was earning the average national wage in manufacturing (£16 pw), and the Tylers were all housed, fed, and clothed. Not what anyone could call dollar-a-day out and out poverty.

But the top 25%, wow, they were living the life of larry:

So what we're saying is that the bottom 25% today have a higher real income than those people in the 1961 Saab 95.

How on earth can that be called poor?

As we've blogged many times, poverty as defined by the poverty lobby and the government today is miles away from what most of us actually think of as poverty. Today's poor have material resources way beyond those of the affluent middle classes back in the days of SuperMac and never had it so good. And even further beyond what Tyler and millions of others knew as children.

Ah yes, I know - the world has changed since 1961. Everyone's so much richer today. Virtually every household has a telly, a fridge, a telephone, and central heating. 75% have a car. Having those things may have made you rich in 1961, but these days it's a given. You can have all of that and still be poor.

Except of course, you can't. If you're housed, clothed, fed, and in possession of a fortune in consumer durables, then sorry, you are not poor. By both historic and international standards, you are in fact pretty rich.

And as Iain Duncan Smith sets about his much heralded welfare reform programme, he needs to remember that. Poverty in Britain was conquered long ago.

Yes, there are plenty of people who live sad dysfunctional workless lives. But that's nothing to do with lack of material resources. That's to do with poor education, destructive personal behaviour, and our grotesque level of welfare dependency. None of which will be solved by yet more welfare cash.

Which is why we have long argued for reformulating our definition of what constitutes poverty. Ideally, we'd like to switch to an absolute standard of poverty such as they have in the US. But if we have to stick with a definition measured relative to median income, we'd settle for dropping the current poverty line at 60% of median income, and switching to a 50% line.


First, because we estimate it would save £20-30bn pa from the current welfare bill. And second, because it would increase the attractiveness of work relative to welfare (ie it would make the poverty trap problem a whole lot easier to solve).

And as it happens, Tyler has recently been working on a TPA paper on precisely this issue - watch this space.

*Footnote update - Tyler has quite rightly taken to task for slack use of statistical terms in this post. Matthew T has spotted that our figures for the bottom 25% and the top 25% relate not to the average income of those two segments of the population, but to the quartile points - ie the income of the 25/100th  household in the distribution. So all we're showing is that the 25/100th household in 2008-09 is now richer than the 75/100th household in 1961. It's a fair cop, but we'd argue the 25th percentile point is still a widely used "breakpoint" between the poor and the not poor. We'll do some more digging within that bottom 25% when we have a moment.


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