Poverty is a scourge which always needs fighting. I spoke about this on Monday. I was pleased to see the Prime Minister dedicate himself to an all out assault on poverty yesterday. Poverty is relative as well as absolute. The west has long since gone beyond making sure people have the basics for life – enough food to survive, a few clothes and shelter. Our welfare systems are designed to let people afford some of the benefits of the rich society around them in addition to some absolute minimum. The political argument is over how much should people enjoy from benefit payments, who should qualify for benefits, and what is the best way of encouraging and helping more people into work, and then into better paid work.
In my speech to the Conference fringe meeting I sketched a small society. Nine people each earned £20,000 a year. The average earnings of the community was £20,000, and there was no inequality. Total earnings were £180,000. A very well paid CEO of a multinational decided he wished to join this community, bringing his income of £820,000 a year. The socialist was against his arrival, as it would generate a huge jump in inequality.
After his arrival the average earnings of the community leapt from £20,000 to £100,000. Inequality shot up from zero, to the highest paid earning 41 times the lowest. The community now had someone to be jealous of. The total earnings of the community reached £1 million.
Surely, however, the community should welcome his arrival. It would immediately mean the community could collect around £500,000 or more of additional income, capital and sales taxes from the new arrival, to spend on the existing community members and their needs. It would allow them to find new markets for their products and services, or to gain higher paid employment by working for the new arrival. Far from the new arrival being bad news, he would generate more growth and allow the people on £20,000 a year each to earn more and to enjoy more public spending than they could afford for themselves. The inequalities need to be looked at on a post tax basis, not a pre tax basis, and need to take into account the impact of the spending by the more affluent on the incomes of the less affluent.
Poverty is the problem to tackle vigorously. Inequality is very bad if it comes about by the poor getting poorer. If inequality rises because more rich people decide to live here, it can provide money for higher living standards for all.