18 February 2011
Gavin Kelly asks how Britain can avoid going down the US path where for the last generation the majority of the gains from growth have gone to the richest.
If this year's question is "When will growth resume?", next year's will surely be "How do we make sure that growth benefits the great majority of working people?".
For much of the 20th century, that second question would not have been necessary. Higher growth was underpinned by rising labour productivity; higher productivity led to rising real wages. The link between growth and living standards held strong – it was the golden thread of the social contract, binding together the shared efforts of labour, capital and government in a win-win deal for all sides.
But today, across many advanced economies, that thread is badly frayed, while in others it has already severed. The US has seen a generation of flat or falling real incomes among the bottom half of earners. From 1970 to 2010 the link between productivity and wages ruptured – the "great decoupling", as Lane Kenworthy has called it. GDP continued to grow, but it didn't trickle down.
In the 37 years from 1973 to 2010, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families rose by only 10 per cent in real terms. Median US household income was $64,000 in 2007. Had it kept pace with growth in GDP, it would have grown to $90,000. As the table below shows, the richest 1 per cent of the population has captured a truly staggering proportion of the gains from all income growth – two-thirds of the total gain during the Bush years.
Alan Johnson benefits budget 2011 cameron chancellor Commission on Living Standards cost of living cuts David Cameron economy family food prices Gavin Kelly good life homeownership Housing income Independent inequality James Plunkett Labour Party Lib Dems living standards Middle Britain new statesman pension private rented prospect magazine social housing spending cuts Spending Review squeezed Squeezed Middle tax tax credits Treasury welfare