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Is Inequality Increasing? Presentation for Parliamentary Library Vital Issues Seminar, 10 October 2012

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Is Inequality Increasing?Presentation for Parliamentary Library Vital Issues Seminar, 10 October 2012

Peter Whiteford, Crawford School of Public Policy

- This presentation is primarily descriptive – what has happened to income inequality in Australia over recent decades, and what factors appear to be associated with these trends.
- Data and methods; measures of inequality
- Situating Australia internationally
- Income inequality: trends and driving forces
- Redistribution through taxes and benefits
- Discussion and conclusions

- Data are from ABS income surveys from 1981-82 to 2007-08 and in some cases 2009-10. The ABS has changed and improved income measures over time; for consistency we use the “unimproved” income measure, showing lower inequality after 2005-06, but effects on earlier trends uncertain.
- Income measure is current weekly income of income units (nuclear family), adjusted for household size using “revised OECD equivalence scales”.
- Income is made up of market income (earnings, self-employment, investment and property income, private transfers); the addition of transfers from government (social security benefits) or privately (e.g. child support) produces gross income; direct taxes are deducted to estimate cashdisposable income.
- Interpreting changes as result of government policy decisions is problematic e.g. unemployment rose rapidly between time of 1981-82 Income Survey and election of Labor government in March 1983; declines in welfare receipt after 2000 partly reflect 1995 reforms (raising pension age for women, phasing-out dependency payments).
- There are also long-term “cohort effects” - e.g. rising educational attainment of women and increase in female labour force participation; declines then increases in employment of older workers.
- Some important policy changes not fully captured in cash disposable incomes e.g. reintroduction of Medicare, extension of superannuation, introduction of GST. However, policy trade-offs accompanying these changes may be incorporated e.g. wage restraint under Accord.

- What inequalities are we interested in or concerned about – inequality of income, inequality of opportunity, inequality of wealth?
- Inequality is often thought of as disparities or gaps – what is the distance between a low income and a high income household, or what is the ratio of their incomes, e.g. what is the gap between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% (decile) or the richest and poorest 20% (quintile)?
- A lot of inequality is at the extremes, i.e. within the richest and poorest income groups

- The measure of inequality most commonly used is the Gini coefficient, which varies between zero – when all households have exactly the same income and one – when one household has all the income. Preferred because it is calculated for everyone in the population.
- In 2003 the Gini coefficient for Australia was 0.301 and the 90/10 ratio was around 4 to 1; in the USA, the Gini was 0.381 and the 90/10 ratio was about 6 to 1; in Denmark the Gini was 0.232 and the 90/10 ratio was 2.7 to 1. The ratios of the average incomes of the top decile to the average incomes of the bottom decile were 4.6 to 1 (Denmark), 7.2 to 1 (Australia) and 16 to 1 (USA).

2005

2008

Australia

USA

Patterns of income growth by decile and period, Australia, 1981-82 to 2007-08 Average annual percentage change in real equivalent income unit income, working age

Trends in income inequality in different income components among working age income units, Australia, 1982 to 2007-08Concentration coefficient

Women

Men

- Earnings represent around three-quarters of total pre-tax household income, the largest single component.
- In 1983, a full-time worker at the 90th percentile earned 2.0 times as much as a worker at the 10th percentile- this disparity increased to 2.3 in 1996, 2.5 in 2004, and 2.8 in 2009-10.
- In 1982 a working-age family at the 90th percentile earned 112 times as much as a family at the 10th percentile – this disparity reduced to 56 times as much in 1996 and 49 times as much in 2009-10.
- When social security benefits are added in, this disparity was reduced to 9.8 times as much in 1982, 10.2 times as much in 1996 and 11.4 times as much in 2009-10.
- Taxes reduced the disparity to 8.0 to 1 in 1982, 7.5 to 1 in 1996 and 9.6 to 1 in 2009-10.

- Inequality is lower the longer the time period over which it is measured:
- Between 2001 and 2009 the Gini coefficient ranged between 0.306 in 2000, 0.300 in 2003, 0.312 in 2007 and 2008 and 0.299 in 2009; inequality over a two-year period varied between 0.286 and 0.295; inequality over a four year period varied between 0.273 and 0.282; inequality over the 9 years was 0.263. Before 2009 longer term measures showed increasing inequality.

- Broader measures of resources also suggest lower inequality:
- Taking account of non-cash benefits (health, education, community services) even after subtracting indirect taxes reduces inequality. For example, the 90/10 ratio for disposable income in 2009-10 was 3.94 to 1, but for “final income” it was 2.64 to 1 – but up from 2.48 to 1 in 2003-04.
- Adding imputed income from housing reduces the Gini coefficient in 2009-10 from 0.328 to 0.309 – but still shows increasing inequality (0.277 in 2003-04 and 0.290 in 2005-06).

- Inequality is mainly reduced by raising the bottom not reducing the top:
- Direct taxes and cash transfers increase the incomes of the 10th percentile by 231% and lower the income of the 90th percentile by 19%;
- The net effect of Indirect benefits and taxes is to raise the 10th percentile by a further 50% and raise the 90th percentile by 1%.

- Trends in inequality differ by time period, income components and income measures. Thus, there is no single trend, but the complex interaction of multiple influences.
- Market income inequality rose in period of Labor government, mainly reflecting higher joblessness and wider wage dispersion. Disposable income inequality rose significantly less (about 1/3 as great), reflecting both transfer and tax changes. Real market incomes fell for the second, third and fourth deciles, but these declines were offset by increases in social security benefits.
- Despite increasing wage dispersion, market income inequality fell from 1996-97 to 2007-08, mainly because of increased family earnings, particularly for women. Capital income inequality rose significantly after 2003, but insufficient to offset lower inequality in earnings.
- The effectiveness of the tax system in reducing inequality was stable in the 1980s and early 1990s, but reduced after 1996. Average tax rates fell most for the highest decile (about 4 percentage points).
- The effectiveness of the transfer system in reducing inequality increased by about 40% in the period of the Labor government, but fell back to its original level by 2007-08. This does not necessarily reflect explicit policy change, but rising earnings among lower income groups lead to a scaling back of income support, heightened by indexation of key benefits to prices.

- Wage inequality has increased steadily from early 1980s onwards.
- Trends differ significantly by time period – in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s median income growth was very slow and there was a hollowing out of the middle class – gains being highest at the top and bottom of the income distribution. Much of the increase in inequality was offset by taxes and transfers – and more so if account is taken of non-cash benefits and indirect taxes.
- From the mid 1990s to the great recession income growth was very high by historic and international standards – Australia had the highest income growth at the median of any country apart from Ireland. All income groups had large real income increases, but the richest did best. Taxes and transfers reduced inequality less effectively than in the mid 1990s. Even though market income inequality fell, disposable income inequality rose.
- After 2008, incomes fell somewhat and inequality fell, mainly due to large declines in incomes from property and investments at the top of the income distribution. The various household stimulus packages were very progressive, as was the large increase in age pensions