Biggest UK solar plant approved

The government last week approved the building of the UK’s largest solar plant on the Kent coast. The plant is likely to provide a number of economic benefits, including low-cost, renewable energy and jobs to the local community. However, some residents are concerned about the safety risks associated with the storage system.

Renewable energy helps to reduce negative production externalities associated with non-renewable energy that is both unsustainable and a heavy pollutant; consider the toxic effects of burning coal to produce electricity. Externalities are third party effects which are ignored by the market mechanism so anything that that helps to reduce the negative effects is seen as a good thing helping to correct market failure and achieve allocative efficiency.

There are, however, some issues related to renewable energy; firstly, whilst the production of energy produces very little in the way of emissions, the production of equipment; solar panels, wind turbines, etc, is not emission-free. Secondly, some local communities are concerned about the impact on their quality of life and house prices. It is one reason why so many wind farms are built offshore. In this particular case, local Kent residents are concerned about the risks of exploding energy storage batteries, required given that the sun does not always shine. These costs may include higher insurance premiums and lower house prices, even if the batteries do prove to be safe. Having said that, living next door to an oil field is unlikely to be on many homebuyers wish list, unless, of course, one has drilling rights.

One positive note for the government is that the project is being paid for by the private sector and requires no government subsidy. Welcome relief given last month’s record budget deficit of £62bn. Subsidies for the solar industry were cut some years ago as a result of the mass production of panels in China and their, subsequent, fall in price.

Read the orignial BBC News article.

Why economists do not like Xmas

Economics is sometimes called the gloomy science and economists are not the most popular people at parties. Tell someone you are an economist and their eyes glaze over and they go off to talk to someone more cheerful like an undertaker. One could possibly blame Thomas Malthus and his 1798 work  ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ for this since, in it, he argued that population grows exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc) while food production grows arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc) so the former would outstrip the latter and war, disease or starvation would occur to restore a balance.

Although it has not enhanced their popularity, economists have looked at the benefits of giving presents at Xmas and come up with the conclusion that such activities involve a significant waste of resources for society. This was originally suggested in 1993 by Joel Waldfogel who wrote “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”. He argued that, at Xmas, we are making choices for other people and since we have less information about their desires than they do, we are unlikely to buy what they would ideally purchase for themselves. Therefore the most efficient way of celebrating Xmas is either by giving cash or for potential recipients to improve the level of  information in the market by producing a list of one’s desired gifts.

However there is an argument that donors receives a benefit from giving gifts which they would not receive simply by passing over an envelope of cash since the gift reflects the amount of time spent in searching for the ideal present.

Although not recommended as a recipe for a harmonious family Xmas, an economist might suggest that, in order to maximise utility, rich people ought to forget about giving their family presents or money but should, instead, donate the money to those with a lower income since, for those on low incomes, the utility they gain from receiving money will exceed the loss in utility experienced by the donors.



gifts are frequently worth less to the recipient than they cost the giver and therefore there is a deadweight loss to society. Giving gift token are also inefficient, as judged by the discount rates they are sold at on eBay after Xmas. Therefore the most efficient way



Time is Money?

Last week’s and this week’s blog have moved away from the current state of the UK economy, Brexit, trade wars and other depressing areas and look instead at some of the techniques economists use when making comparisons between different projects.

When comparing alternatives, it is necessary to identify all the costs and benefits – monetary and non-monetary – and compare them. This involves finding a way of expressing them in money terms. Last week’s blog looked at how economists value a human life while this week’s considers the value of travel time (VTT), the amount of money a traveller is willing to pay to save time, measured in pounds per hour. This is important when considering whether to pursue major transport infrastructure projects since savings in travel time are an important benefit to be considered, as well as construction costs, savings in vehicle running costs from shorter or less congested journeys and reductions in accidents and fatalities.

When trying to value time saved by drivers and passengers, we first need to identify whether the journey is for work or non-work, (leisure and commuting) since the two are valued differently. A government paper in 2015 suggested commuting time saved should be valued at £11.21 per hour while leisure time is worth only £5.21. Time spent travelling for business is more complex with an average of £18.23 per hour, considerably more valuable than non-work time. This average contains considerable variations. For example, an hour saved on a business journey by car is worth £25.74 if the journey is more than 100 miles while, if it is less than 20 miles, the value is only £8.21 per hour. Time spent on rail travel, which might be expected to be less valuable because of the opportunity to work on the train, is actually more valuable, with an hour saved on a rail journey of more than 100 miles worth £28.99 per hour. This could be because the government paper takes into account the quality of the travel experience and considers such factors as whether the mode of transport is likely to be early or late and whether, on a train there are many, few or no seats free. Therefore, an hour spent in a car listening to the radio is far less of a cost to the employee than having to travel in a crowded train.

The final way in which time needs to be considered is in how we value costs and benefits accrued at different stages of a project. In a typical infrastructure project, the construction costs are front-loaded while the benefits, such as time saved and revenue generated occur over a longer period. If you were asked whether you preferred £100 today or the same sum in five years, you, along with the majority of the population, would prefer the former, not least because you could put the £100 in a savings account and it would be worth more than £100 in five years. Therefore economists “discount” the value of future costs and benefits and express the costs and benefits in terms of the “net present value” – the monetary value today of future costs and benefits. In a simple example, if the interest rate today were 5% and a project incurred costs of £100m today, the project would need at least £105m of revenue in a year’s time to be viable. In reality, one is not looking at one cost and one revenue figure but a series of figures over many years. The interest rate chosen is crucial since it would require revenue of £161 in five years to cover costs of £100 today at 10% but only £110 at 2% – a figure much closer to today’s borrowing rates. Hence the argument that now is an ideal time for our government to be improving the UK’s infrastructure.

What is the value of a human life?

Imagine you are an economist in the Department of Transport advising the Minister who has to chose between two alternative transport options. One is significantly more expensive than the other but will have a greater impact on road safety because it improves a major blackspot, notorious for fatal accidents between pedestrians and cyclists. Alternatively, if you were working for a health authority, you might have to advise on allocating scarce resource between areas which particularly benefit the elderly, such as hip replacements, or putting the money into areas which benefit other sectors of the population such as paediatrics. Although it might seem difficult and subjective, economists working in these areas have to place monetary values on a human life.

One way of valuing a human life is the VSL (Value of a Statistical Life) which uses  the money a person would pay to save one human life. This is not asking what they would pay to save their life or that of a member of their family or a friend, but the value they would place on an anonymous life. Alternatively, rather than carrying out surveys, economists consider future average earnings. Therefore the value of a life varies according to the age of the people being considered, hence actions which save a child’s life are more valuable than those which benefit the elderly. More problematical, this implies that saving lives in a high-income area is of greater value to society than in a depressed region.  Unsurprisingly, there is very little international agreement about the answer. The UK government figure is around €2.02m while the USA Department of Transport figure is €8.75m, indicating the way the VSL varies according to income levels.

A study in Sierra Leone illustrated this by looking at people’s preferred transport options to get from the capital, Freetown, across water, to the airport. By examining the different methods of travel (ferry, water taxi or  hovercraft) and considering the duration of the journey and the risks involved, the study found that the VSL of an African traveller ($577,000) was lower than that of a non-African traveller ($924,000) which was largely explained by the level of income, with higher income earners choosing the safest method – water-taxi-  even  though it was more expensive and took longer.

A new approach, used particularly in healthcare economics, estimates the “Value of a Statistical Life Year” (VSLY) which measures the value of one additional year of life. If a medical process, such as a heart transplant for an elderly patient, costs £50,000 and increases life expectancy by one year yet costs £60,000 then in economic terms it is not cost-effective. However if the same treatment were provided for a child which increased their life expectancy by fifty years, then it would be extremely cost-effective. This approach has been made more sophisticated by introducing the idea of a Quality-Adjusted Life Year which is defined by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) as:

 “A measure of the state of health of a person or group in which the benefits, in terms of length of life, are adjusted to reflect the quality of life. One QALY is equal to 1 year of life in perfect health.
QALYs are calculated by estimating the years of life remaining for a patient following a particular treatment or intervention and weighting each year with a quality-of-life score (on a 0 to 1 scale). It is often measured in terms of the person’s ability to carry out the activities of daily life, and freedom from pain and mental disturbance.”

The World Health Organisation uses a range of between one and three times per capita GDP of the country per additional QALY while a value of £30,000 per QALY has been identified as the upper limit for treatments deemed cost effective in the UK,  approximately the value of per capita GDP.

Whether this figure is too low is a question for politicians rather than economists.

Sainsburys and Asda merger blocked by the CMA

The CMA has blocked the proposed merger between Sainsburys and Asda on the grounds that it would limit competition and harm consumer welfare. In addition, the GMB, a trade union, praised the decision fearing large job losses as part of any potential cost-cutting programme that is common when mergers take place.

Sainsburys and Asda had promised to sell off stores in areas of the country where they were the dominant firms in order to ensure the local competition was protected. Furthermore, they pledged to cut prices by £1bn. However, the CMA argued that tracking promised price cuts would be too difficult and, following on from consumer surveys, decided to block the merger of the 2nd and 3rd largest supermarkets (in terms of market share). Fewer substitutes, as a result of the merger, may cause the AR & MR curves for the new firm to become steeper, reducing output and increasing prices.

The firms argued that consumers would be better off as the additional economies of scale would lead to lower long-run average costs, which would then be passed on in the form of lower prices and, as a result, increased consumer surplus. The merged firm, which would have taken over Tesco as the UK’s largest supermarket, would, potentially, benefit from increased bulk-buying economies, as well as technical economies, in an increasingly competitive online grocery market.

BBC News article

Why bother with GDP?

Modern GDP statistics (“the value of goods and services produced in a given period”) have their origin in the USA around the 1930s with the work of Kuznets, who produced the first national income data in order to see the impact of the Great Depression on the US economy. They became more important during the Second World War when the UK government, prompted by Keynes, and the US government needed to be able to manage the war effort to maximum effect while still providing enough resources for consumption.

A major criticism of GDP is that it takes no account of what is produced, merely its value. As a result,  disasters can be good for GDP if they involve countries reconstructing roads or buildings damaged in the disaster. War is also a good way of boosting GDP since it will involve producing more tanks, weapons and aircraft! Similarly, two forks are, in GDP terms, as useful as a knife and fork, but less useful in reality when trying to spread butter. GDP and GDP per capita also take no account of how the income is shared among the population. A rich oil producing country might have a high GDP per head but, if the income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the standard of living of the majority might be below that of a country with a lower average of GDP.

Measurement of GDP is difficult since it is impossible to measure every transaction and therefore relies on surveys e.g. the Living Costs and Food Survey for about 5,000 households and monthly surveys of approximately 45,000 businesses. The development of technology has made the measurement of GDP more difficult. The UK Government set up an inquiry under Charlie Bean – OB and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – who identified activities which are now much harder to measure and value such as using Google Maps rather than buying a paper OS map or streaming films rather than buying or renting DVDs. Another problem is that many things have become cheaper and better – my new DVD recorder is easier to use and records more than a previous model but, in GDP terms, it is less valuable because it is cheaper.

There have been many debates over what should be included in GDP and although these might seem largely irrelevant, they matter when trying to compare countries’ GDP. In the past certain things, such as the sale of cannabis in cafes in Holland were legal and therefore recorded while a similar purchase in Romford would not be counted. However Eurostat wanted consistency among its members and decided that all transactions for goods or services involving money were to be recorded, whether they are legal, illegal, good or bad. Therefore, in a purely numerical way, those who argue in favour of increasing GDP as being a key government objective, could argue that encouraging the sale of drugs or prostitution is as valid as increased spending on education or health – something even an economist would find hard to justify! More relevantly sales of guns in the UK are part of the shadow economy but in the US they are legal, widespread and contribute to GDP.

GDP data is particularly suspect in developing countries where a significant percentage of production takes place in the hidden economy; for example, in Zimbabwe only 6% of the labour force is formally employed. Similarly, my purchase of bottled water from Sainsbury’s is counted in the UK’s GDP, but the effort of an African villager who spends hours walking to and from a stream to collect “free” water has no value according to GDP statistics. There are also basic measurement difficulties in LDCs, such as obtaining accurate population figures, accurately measuring inflation and valuing the hidden economy, e.g. only half the maize produced in Nigeria is sold in a shop or market.

There is now a consensus that we are trying to measure too many things in our single GDP number and, although we can improve it by using GDP per head or median GDP or NNP, it is still deficient.

Economists have therefore started both to consider other possible methods of estimating economic activity and to develop alternative measures which go beyond simply the output of goods and services. One way of tackling the former is to look at light intensity to indicate economic activity in different areas with increases in intensity over time indicating growth. Such methods indicate that the proportion of economic activity occurring in villages, and not always measured, is more significant than thought and therefore the GDP of many developing countries is, similarly, larger than previously calculated. It also provides a fascinating snapshot of the difference between the North and South Korean economies.

However a major concern is how we measure the damage which our focus on output is doing to the environment. China’s focus on growth has resulted in 40% of its river water being undrinkable and one cannot always see the stars at night because of pollution. GDP does not take into account depreciation of natural resources lost to build houses and factories and damage to the environment but this is not easy to do. How does one put a monetary value on a rainforest, beautiful view or footpath by a river? One way is to make an estimate based on how much people pay to see them and, for things which benefit the environment, how much it would cost to replicate them. The UK government in 2012 formed the “Natural Capital Committee” to advise the government on things such as ‘forests, rivers, minerals and oceans’ and by 2020 the ONS must include a measure of natural capital in the UK’s national accounts. The aim is to move towards sustainable growth. Along the same lines, a US think tank has invented Earth Overshoot Day – the date when the earth used up its regenerative capacity for the year. In 2018 this occurred on 1st August.

Other measures include the Genuine Progress Index – a measure of economic welfare which is currently in use in Maryland. GDP is the base but invisible “goods” e.g. leisure time, volunteering, & housework are added while “regrettables” e.g. crime prevention spending such as burglar alarms, pollution and commuting time are subtracted. The Happy Planet Index tries to measure what matters – namely sustainable wellbeing for all and tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives.  Some countries have followed Bhutan which developed a Gross National Happiness index which sets out priorities such as psychological well-being, health, education, living standards, good governance and ecological resilience. Before adoption, all new projects must undergo a GNH impact review. We carry out an annual happiness survey as does the OECD and many of its members. These focus on six key variables which determine happiness – GDP/head, healthy years of life expectancy, having people to turn to, trust in others, freedom to make decisions and donations to charity.

A Confusing Tale of Two Economies (with apologies to Charles Dickens).

What is going on in the UK economy is currently hard to understand. Are we doing well or badly? There are many conflicting pieces of evidence and, in some ways, it is like an abstract painting – different people can look at it and see different pictures.

Consider the labour market – in the last three months of 2018, employment rate reached 76.1%, or 32.71 million, the highest since 1971, rising by 220,000 workers, of which 144,000 were female. Over the same period, unemployment fell to 1.34 million or 3.9%, the first time it has dropped below 4% since 1975. While some people see this as a positive sign of economic progress, others present three reasons why the data actually shows an economic problem for the UK.

Firstly, there is a view that the rise in employment is because of an increase in zero hours contracts, with workers working far less than they would like, suggesting that we have rising under-employment instead of unemployment. Secondly some suggest, similarly, that self-employment has been responsible for some of the fall in unemployment, with many of the newly-self-employed working less than they would like. Finally, others argue that the reason for falling unemployment is that employers have cut back on investment, preferring to meet additional demand by hiring more workers, knowing that they can get rid of them if the economy stagnates after Brexit. This last explanation dovetails well with the UK’s poor productivity record, with productivity actually falling by 0.2% in the last quarter of 2018.

Turning now to earnings and inflation; with unemployment so low, we would expect both earnings and inflation to be rising rapidly. In fact, last month, average earnings growth fell from 3.5% to 3.4% and the CPI only increased from 1.8% to 1.9%, due to prices for some food and alcoholic drink items increasing more in price this year than they did a year ago, and core inflation (which ignores the price of food and energy because they are highly volatile) fell by 0.1% to 1.8% in February. Nevertheless, some economists regard this as only a temporary respite, suggesting inflation will rise to 2.5% in the next few months because of higher oil prices and rising wages, with a further jump possible if tariffs rise after Brexit (whenever that is!).

Turning now to GDP, it grew by 0.2% in the three months to January 2019 with the service sector expanding while manufacturing and construction contracted. This meant that growth for 2018, was only 1.4%, the slowest rate for 10 years. Also suggesting that the outlook is poor was a survey of consumer confidence showing that it had fallen over the last year and data showing that we currently have the lowest annual house price growth in the UK for six years. However, government borrowing is at a 17 year low because of rising tax receipts – £200m in February 2019 compared to £1.2bn in February, 2018, meaning that the government is on course to meet its target for structural borrowing to be below 2% of GDP in the financial year 2020/21. Further confusing evidence of our economic situation is provided by the latest UN Annual Happiness Report, which shows the UK has risen from 19th  to 15th out of 156 countries surveyed, with Finland, once again at the top of the table, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands.

It is not surprising that economists find it hard to assess how the economy is doing since some of the indicators discussed above reflect what has happened in the past, rather than what is currently happening. (Imagine steering a car by only looking in the rear-view mirror). Unemployment, for example, shows the state of the economy six months to a year ago since firms do not immediately hire or fire workers when their orders change. Other indicators, such as GDP are subject to frequent revisions as more accurate data becomes available. Therefore some economists prefer more informal guides to the economy. David Smith, Economics Editor of The Sunday Times, uses the number of skips in his road, since more skips suggest more building and home improvements and therefore greater economic activity.  In an attempt to improve our awareness of the current state of the economy, the ONS is introducing new economic indicators such as the volume of road traffic and businesses’ value-added tax returns which will, hopefully, provide a more up-to-date picture of the economy.

Shopping not going too well for Sainsbury’s and Asda.

A typical UK family spends approximately 10% on food, with the figure being 4% higher for low income families. Therefore, what happens in the grocery industry is of significance to all consumers in the UK.

The proposed merger of Sainsbury’s and Asda would, if no changes are made in their operation, create a business which has 29% of the grocery market (Sainsbury’s 15% and Asda 14%), employ 343,000 workers (Sainsbury’s 187,000 and Asda 156,000), have 2,104 stores (Sainsbury’s 1,428, Asda 676) and revenue of £50.7bn (Sainsbury’s £28.5bn, Asda £22.2bn). The new business, which joins Britain’s second and third largest supermarkets together, would push Tesco out of first place

The arguments in favour of the merger focus on the economies of scale which the new firm would gain, such as bulk buying and marketing economies. It would allow it to build a stronger on-line presence and counter the competition from the discounters Aldi and Lidl and also from the entry of Amazon into the grocery market. According to the Chief Executive of Sainbury’s, consumers would benefit from price cuts of 10% on “everyday products”.

Elsewhere, there were concerns that the merger would reduce competition. The CMA has identified 694 areas of the country where it would fall because both Sainsbury’s and Asda have stores (either supermarkets or convenience stores) which currently compete. However, Sainsbury’s and Asda argue that the physical presence of stores is increasingly unimportant as more shopping is done on-line. Consumer groups and trade unions fear that the merger would effectively create a duopoly among the supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury’s/Asda) which would allow pressure to be placed on suppliers to lower prices, would involve redundancies as the new firm closed stores and sacked staff and lead to lower quality and higher prices.

Although their final report is not due until April, the Competition and Market Authority announced last month that the proposed merger  was likely to be against the public interest, leading to higher prices and a reduction in the range and quality of products. They have the power to block the deal or, if they allow it, to ensure that the two companies sell off a number of stores and allow another company to buy either the Sainsbury’s or Asda brand.

Do we have a housing crisis?

Last week it was announced that an American businessman had bought a house in St James’s Park, near Buckingham Palace, for £95 million. As you might expect, the house has a pool, gym, staff quarters and private gardens. At the other end of the scale, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that 40% of 25 – 34 year olds are not able to afford a 10% deposit to buy the cheapest house in their neighbourhood. In London, approximately twenty years ago, 90% would be able to afford the deposit whereas today only 33% can afford the deposit. Because of the difficulty faced by people getting on to the housing crisis, newspapers have been talking about a housing crisis for some time.

A sign of the housing crisis is the high price of housing, signifying either excess demand or restricted supply. Focusing first on the demand for housing, for many years buying a house was an ideal way of building up wealth for potential homeowners, thus increasing the demand for housing. Not only did borrowers previously receive tax remission for mortgage payments, the price of houses increased more or less continuously and so one could borrow, knowing that when the mortgage was repaid, the increase in the value of the house would more than have covered the cost of the mortgage. More recently the Government introduced the ‘Help to Buy Scheme’ in 2013, (now extended to 2023) which lends, interest fee, up to 20% of the cost of a new build home (40% in London) to borrowers who have been able to raise a 5% deposit, meaning they only need a mortgage for 75% of the value. It has helped to finance the construction of 170,000 homes of which 140,000 have been purchased by first-time buyers. But it has been expensive, costing taxpayers nearly £8 billion since 2013, and providing considerable profits for house builders as demand increased more than supply, thereby pushing up prices. Another criticism has been that the scheme has not helped the low-paid since they have not taken as much advantage of the scheme as those with higher incomes. In addition, we are seeing that buyers of homes using the scheme who now wish to sell, have found that their property has fallen in value since future buyers are not eligible for the help to buy assistance. There have also been a number of suggestions to boost supply. These include allowing more building on green belt land and introducing measures (not yet introduced) to help older buyers down-size and therefore free up larger homes.

Why are we so concerned about declines in house building and house purchases? Apart from the social and political issues which result from people not being able to afford to buy their own house, having to pay excessive rents or sleeping on the streets, there are significant economic implications of a failing housing market. Firstly, if  building slows, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, etc, lose their jobs and firms making bricks, providing carpets, furniture, ovens, fridges, etc, also experience a decline for their products and services and subsequently cut back on labour. As a result, incomes fall and, given the multiplier effect, the impact on the economy will be significant. It is worth noting that the multiplier effect will be large since so much of the expenditure involved in housing is domestic – i.e. there is relatively little leaked out of the economy in the form of imports.

Another way in which the housing market affects the economy is that a poorly-functioning housing market, causing high prices in booming areas, makes it difficult for firms to expand their labour force because workers cannot afford to move into the area. A final issue occurs via the wealth effect – the idea that households’ consumption is determined not only by their income but also by their wealth. For most people, their house is the main source of their wealth. Therefore, a booming housing market makes existing homeowners feel richer and they therefore spend more, believing that they have less need to save since their increasingly valuable house is adding to the value of their assets. Since the financial crisis, the housing market declined. When house prices dropped, people felt poorer and therefore felt the need to save more. This reduced consumption at a time when aggregate demand was already falling, thereby exacerbating the problems faced by the economy.

However, recently, after ten years of decline, the number of mortgages issued has increased and there was the highest number of first time buyers last year for 12 years, according to the government’s annual English Housing Survey, published in January. The increase was linked to the Help to Buy scheme, loans from parents and grandparents and a relaxation in the mortgage market. However we have also seen the slowest growth in house prices for six years, possibly down to Brexit uncertainty and last year receipts from stamp duty (a tax on house purchases) fell, largely because of the slowdown hitting the top end of the market.

How are we doing?

Those of you who are Manchester United fans will have been pleased by their comeback against Newcastle over the weekend. However, in the excitement, you might have missed the news that former United star, David Beckham, and his wife Victoria have sold their Beverley Hills house (or mansion) which has six bedrooms and nine bathrooms, for $33million. They bought it eleven years ago for $22milion. At the other end of the scale, you might also have missed the report from the Social Metrics Commission, (SMC) putting forward a new measure of poverty for the UK.

Measuring the number of people in poverty is difficult. Some countries, such as the USA, focus on absolute poverty where an income is identified as the minimum needed to meet a family’s basic needs and those below it are deemed to be in poverty. A variant of this approach involves estimating a minimum standard above which people should live. An alternative, which has become the benchmark for the UK, is to focus on relative poverty (i.e. compared to other people) and consider those in poverty as living in households with incomes below 60% of the median.  However this is not straight-forward since there are two different ways of considering income (before and after housing costs are deducted) and the measure excludes assets people possess.

The SMC focusses strictly on measuring poverty, which, for them, is not having the resources available to meet current needs to be able to “engage adequately in a life regarded as the “norm” in society.”

To assess the number in poverty they consider the resources available to households, namely net income (net earnings from employment and self-employment, benefits and unearned net income (e.g. from rent or interest). They also include assets, such as savings which can be easily accessed and subtract any costs that the family must pay. These costs include debt repayment, housing costs (rent or mortgage payments), service charges in flats, building insurance, council tax, water rates, the community charge, childcare costs and additional costs faced by the disabled. Subtracting these costs gives an estimate of the resources available to a household. The next stage was to estimate the required level of resources needed to meet their benchmark and then set a poverty line at a threshold of 55% of the three-year median resources available measure.

Using this approach, their key findings, using 2016/17 data, were that:

  • 22% of the population (14.2 million) is living in a family considered to be in poverty. However 52% of people in lone-parent families (2.6 million) are in poverty.
  • Of those in poverty, 8.4 million are working-age adults; 4.5 million are children and 1.4 million are pension age adults.
  • The poverty rate for working-age adults is 21.6%; for children it is 32.6%; and for pension-age adults it is 11.4%. For pensioners, the rate has fallen from 20.8% in 2001 to 11.4% in 2017.
  • The majority (68.0%) of people living in workless families are in poverty, compared to 9.0% for people living in families where all adults work full time.
  • Those in poverty are not equally distributed across the country. Poverty rates in Scotland are lower and Welsh poverty rates are higher than in other UK countries. England has the highest child poverty rate and the overall poverty rate in London is more than 10% higher than in some other English regions.
  • The report also found that the number of people (2.5 million) above the threshold by 10% or less is almost identical to the number of people (2.7 million) below the threshold by 10% or less, suggesting that small changes in circumstances can either take people out of or put them into poverty. However 2/3 of those in poverty (12% of the total population) have been in persistent poverty, (being in poverty for two out of the last three years), suggesting that although they might be close to the benchmark, it is not easy to escape from poverty.

The SMC findings raise questions about the benefit system and how we deal with poverty.

Are we happy that over half of single parent families are in poverty?

Are we happy that 2/3 of those in families where no one is working are in poverty?

Are we happy that twice as many working age adults and three times as many children are classed as living in poverty compared to the percentage of pensioners in poverty?