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The pandemic has put poorer households under great financial strain. On average, low and high income households have seen similar proportionate falls in income - but this does not mean that the pain has been equally shared. While richer households can cut back on non-essential spending and fall back on their savings, poorer households are unable to do so. Over half of adults in the poorest 20% of families have had to borrow to fund basic costs such as food or housing.
Unless action is taken, the unequal economic impact of Covid-19 will be felt well into the future. Job losses have been concentrated in the poorest households, threatening a longer-term divergence in employment chances. Many of the richest households have been able to build up their savings over the course of the crisis, further widening the gap between them and the increasingly economically insecure poor. They will use these increased savings to buy assets. Even as the economy has tanked, asset markets have remained reasonably buoyant. This divergence can in part be explained by the wealth gap because the asset-owning class has been least affected by the crisis and in part because of policy decisions that protect financial markets, even at the expense of the real economy.
Poorer households have also seen far worse health outcomes than the well-off. In part, this is because they are less likely to be able to work from home and are therefore more exposed to the virus. It is no small irony that the UK’s “key workers” earn, on average, 8% less than the median wage, reflecting in part the freeze on public sector pay under austerity and persistently low pay in sectors such as social care. At the same time, the UK’s high levels of economic inequality have given rise to wide health inequalities, which the Marmot Review found to have widened since 2010. One consequence of this is that the Covid-19 death rate in the most deprived parts of the country is double that of the most well-off.
A key step towards a more equal economy would be to make the tax system fairer. There is an emerging consensus that we need to improve the way we tax wealth. Wealth has soared relative to incomes over the past four decades, with these gains concentrated very narrowly at the top, and yet the tax take from wealth has remained flat.
Property wealth provides an instructive example. House prices have tripled relative to incomes since the 1970s, a key driver of economic inequality. A number of homeowners have seen their accumulated wealth soar as house prices have shot up in certain areas, but have been taxed very little on these gains despite them being uncorrelated with any work, effort or skill on the homeowners’ part.
Income from wealth is currently taxed far more weakly than income from work, which is one of the reasons that the very wealthy pay a much lower effective average rate of tax on their remuneration. Wealthier households are also more likely to benefit from a complicated system of reliefs and exemptions, meaning that the effective rate of inheritance tax paid on estates valued at over £10 million is half that paid on those with a value of £2 to £3 million. Tax avoidance schemes allow the very wealthiest to circumvent tax. Taking the wealthiest 0.01% of households as an example, who control a not insignificant 5% of national wealth, approximately 30-40% of this is held offshore.