Two visual thoughts

An interruption from my series of posts on the deservingness of benefit claimants, to share two charts that caught my eye over the past two weeks (and because of a time shortage this week…), looking at global inequality and unions in Britain.

Firstly, courtesy of Seamus Milne in the Guardian, a look at how trade union membership and income inequality in Britain have changed over the 20th century. I’ve not seen this data presented in this way before, and it’s a strong reminder of the role that unions have played in Britain (even if this kind of plot can’t be taken as evidence of causality etc, it’s thought-provoking).

Secondly, the OECD this week released a report called Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising. I’ll do a longer, more considered post on this soon, particularly on their analysis of welfare trends, but in the meantime my eye was drawn to this post which looks at the difference the tax/benefit system makes – some countries (e.g. France) have high market inequalities that are much-reduced after accounting for tax/benefits, while other countries (e.g. the US) have similar market inequalities but much higher post tax/benefit inequalities (and some countries like Korea simply have relatively low levels of market incomes). But as I said, more on comparative and changing welfare states soon.

(And just to re-state what readers will already now, here is the OECD’s illustration of rising inequality internationally – can never look at this enough times, given how central it is…)

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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2 Responses to Two visual thoughts

  1. Phil Whittington says:

    That top graph has a couple of things “wrong” with it quite apart from the questions you pose on causality. Let’s assume causality for the sake of argument.

    1) why would this chart be published if one more powerful – say, plotting union membership against conditions for the working class – told the same story? It’s a mistake always to think that a smaller share of income for the rich means an improvement for the common man, especially if the national cake is shrinking.

    2) Income! In times tough times like the 1970s or today, the rich do suffer a drop in incomes. But they never have to dip into savings or equity (or debt) like the less fortunate. Income inequality is a secondary concern much of the time.

    Anyone with experience of the private sector knows that, while the interests of the top 1% are not perfectly aligned with our own, they are not the diametrical opposite, either. The founder of my company is a Californian trader with oodles of cash. He’ll be all right whatever the government’s policy. But if his “income” falls, he can’t employ me.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Sorry Phil, ran out of time to reply until now (in a sleepy, day-after-Christmas-party sort of way…). Anyway, this takes us into a vast debate that we should have in person at some point. The reasons I don’t like high levels of income inequality is that (i) I think it’s intrinsically unfair; and (ii) I think we have a worse society because of it (cf. all the Spirit Level stuff, much as I’m critical of bits of it). Which isn’t to disagree with your point that for the perspective of absolute levels of income, inequality is not necessarily bad for everyone.

      As for income vs. wealth/debt – well, yes! We have relatively bad data on this, but it’s improving – a new book on this by Karen Rowlingson and Stephen MacKay was just advertised in my inbox this morning.

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