This week the Productivity Commission issued a “stocktake of the evidence” on inequality in Australia. Its findings will surprise you. But it wasn’t as even-handed as it should have been.
Its report forcefully dispels the myths of the Left – that inequality is great and rapidly worsening – but is much more sotto voce in telling the Right there’s still a problem and that the reason it’s not as bad as some think is that governments have taken corrective actions the Right usually disapproves of.
This has allowed the conservative commentators of the national press to greet the report with great glee. One in the eye for their ideological opponents. Inequality? Nothing to see here.
The report looks at three different measures of economic inequality – the distribution of income, consumption and wealth – over a long period: the 27 years from 1988-89 to 2015-16. It focuses on the experience of households rather than individuals, and eliminates the effects of inflation.
The report concludes that inequality has risen only slightly over the period. Measured by the Gini coefficient – where zero means perfect equality and 1 means one household has everything – the distributions of both income and consumption have risen slightly.
The distribution of household wealth (mainly owner-occupied housing and superannuation savings) is most unequal of the three. It, too, has become a bit more unequal over the period.
But, particularly for income, inequality increased during the resources boom of the mid-noughties, then decreased in the years following the global financial crisis of 2008.
Over the 27 years, the disposable income of all households rose at an average rate of about 2.2 per cent a year in real terms.
The annual incomes of households in every decile (10 per cent group), from the bottom to the top, increased. It won’t surprise you that average incomes in the top two deciles rose by more than the economy-wide average. The top decile’s average income rose by more than 2.5 per cent a year.
It will surprise you that average incomes in the bottom decile rose at the same rate as the economy- wide average. So it was households between the bottom 10 per cent and the top 30 per cent whose incomes rose by less than the national average.
Many people would be surprised by all this. Why? Because they hear what’s happened in America and assume it must be pretty similar here. Wrong.
The report notes that our progressive income tax and highly means-tested welfare payments do a lot to equalise household incomes (as I’ve written recently in this column).
Our income equality in 2015 was about average for the rich countries. In 2017, our wealth inequality was eighth lowest among 28 rich countries.
Australians’ chances of moving between higher and lower income groups – a rough measure of equality of opportunity – “compare favourably with many other developed countries”, the report says.
It tells us that, at 9 per cent of Australians – 2.2 million people – our rate of poverty (measured as people with incomes below half the median income) is no higher than it was 27 years ago.
But if all these truths tell you we don’t have much to worry about, you’ve been misled. The report is much less up-front in reminding us of the qualifications to its findings.
It leaves the strong impression that, if inequality hasn’t increased much, and isn’t as great as in some other countries, there’s no great problem. This implies the inequality we started with was fine.
As Professor Peter Whiteford, of the Australian National University, has noted, the report does too little to remind us that all the averaging involved in Gini coefficients and decile groups rolls households who’ve gained together with households who’ve lost and tells us little has changed.
For instance, the report downplays the issue of the huge increase in the incomes of the top 1 per cent of households. Their extreme gains are averaged with the more modest gains of the next 9 per cent to give a rise in the incomes of the top decile that’s high compared with the rest of us, but not greatly so.
Since the increase in inequality occurred during the resources boom, the report notes quietly that, contrary to what conservative politicians keep telling us, “[economic] growth alone is no guarantee against widening disparity between rich and poor”.
I don’t accept another implicit value judgement that not much more could be done to reduce income and wealth inequality.
True. Then we’re reminded that this increase in inequality went away in the long period of weak growth following the financial crisis.
So what does the Productivity Commission want us to conclude? Let nature take its course? Don’t worry about increasing inequality because the next recession will fix it?
The report’s fine-print acknowledges the truth that a country’s degree of inequality is greatly influenced by its economic institutions (such as its tax system and the rules of its welfare system), by government policy changes, and by the public’s attitudes to inequality.
I happen to agree with the commission’s value judgement that the growing gap between the top 1 per cent of incomes and middle incomes isn’t of as great concern as the gap between the bottom and the middle.
But I don’t accept another implicit value judgement that not much more could be done to reduce income and wealth inequality (presumably, for fear the rich would stop wanting to get richer) and that, at the bottom end, the government should limit its intervention to assisting those poor people whose disadvantage has become “entrenched”.
In other words, don’t acknowledge that poverty is being kept high by successive governments’ refusal to lift the freeze on real unemployment benefits.
The report proudly informs us that the bottom decile’s income has kept pace with the economy-wide average, but does little to explain how this amazing truth came about.
The chief suspect is the Rudd government’s increase in the base-rate of the age pension, a boost so big it seems to have more than offset the adverse effects of the real dole freeze and the bipartisan policy of moving disabled and sole-parent pensioners onto the much lower dole.
Still think there’s nothing to see here?
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.