No longer as truthful as should be deserved, some names, places and events deliberately vague to protect identities that aren't mine

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A lot of blather on earnings, inflation, and living wages

Yes, it's that time in my life where once again, I blog about money matters, and harp on about a concept which I fully believe deserves its champoins: the living wage.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just released this document: which is handily summarised in the following BBC news article:

The news article actually focuses on the rising cost for families of raising children, and the amount of money needed to do such things nowadays, however it includes some of the basic informations relevant to singletons that is part of the JRF report.  The JRF report in itself focuses on the larger issue of a Minimum Income Standard, i.e.  a living wage.  It does this on a UK wide basis, so naturally various generalizations are made in order to poivde a suitable set of assumptions that can be plugged into a statistical analysis, but I'll cover that later.

Firstly, lets define a few things so nobody gets confused, because all of the following are (unless otherwise stated) very separate things:

National Minimum Wage (NWM): This is what the government says all employers must pay, currently set at £5.93 per hour, assuming you're 21+, regardless of whether you work full or part time.  This is due to increase to £6.08, an increase of about 2.5%, this is below the level of both the CPI and RPI (markers of inflation, detailed below)

Consumer Price Index (CPI): A measure of inflation, currently around 4.5%  An internationally recognised measure of the comparative cost of goods and services.  Importantly, the basis for many benefits was changed recently to this index, rather than the higher RPI, meaning benefits are generally lower and buy you less for your money.

Retail Price Index (RPI): A UK-only measure of inflation, currently around 5.2%.  RPI includes multiple housing and estate costs as part of its calculation, including items such as council tax, mortgage interest payments and stamp duty on house purchases, where CPI does not.  In real terms, this can make it a much more useful basis of inflation for the layman, however for statistical and economical policy purposes, the RPI has some significant drawbacks compared to using other measures of inflation, such as CPI.

Poverty Threshold: Naturally, the point at below which, you are officially living in poverty.  This is generally taken as 60% of the median income.  This works out about £120 per week for a single person.  That figure is after income tax, NI, rent, council tax and water costs. But before other utility bills, food etc.  Naturally, depending on where you live, the poverty threshold for that reason would vary according to average rent and water rates in the area.  A person on the minimum wage, working 40 hours a week can pay rent of approx £400 and be *just* above the poverty threshold.  It is important to note that utility and food bills, commuting costs, etc may reduce available/disposable income significantly.  60% of median income barely puts you at subsistence costs, that's why anything below it is called poverty silly!  Which leads us to the next and final definition...

Living Wage: Synonymous with the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) in the JRF report, this is what is deemed required to live an 'acceptable', yet modest, standard of living.  What is acceptable is of course subjective, and most reports concerning living wages do extensive research with polling groups to determine what people expect, but as a rough guide, it is usually the poverty threshold, plus some extra money for (as examples:) cinema once a month, a friend's birthday present, a new pair of jeans or some t shirts every few months, the occasional newspaper purchase etc.  Regular heavy nights out are not included in this, it's arguably a level that will help keep you sane by allowing you to go out for a movie, for a drink, for a film, whatever once in a while.  You're likely to still have money woes, but you can at least afford a roof over your head.  A small roof, but a roof nonetheless, along with water and heat.  Hopefully it's already obvious why I argue living wages should be a more realistic minimum wage.

Back to the JRF report, they developed their own price index based on research regarding public opinion on what constitutes an acceptable standard of living and expected outgoings, this MISPI came in much higher than the RPI or CPI, as the MISPI attempts to account for the fall in purchasing power attributable to CPI or RPI linked inflation, in addition to the increasing cost of the items that make up those indicies themselves; things like the rising cost of bread, fuel, etc.  The idea of these 3 indexes was to show that the purchasing power, especially for those on lower wages (i.e. around the poverty threshold), is limited by the inflation tracking method.  Additionally, wages would need to increase by the same index to maintain the same relative level.  If the price of bread inflates at 7% but wages only at 5%, suddenly you're 2% short on the cost of bread.  Thus, by switching benefits from the higher RPI to the lower CPI, not only have benefits fallen, but their purchasing power has also fallen, for the segment of the population most reliant on them (but then anyone following economic developments of the last 4 years shouldn't find this surprising).

After a lot of stats work, the JRF document arrives at an MIS of approx £240 per week for a single person.  This is after income tax but before rent costs and coucil tax etc.  Figures for other types of household are in the document, but most people reading my blog are going to be operating on single household bases, even if in a couple.  This represents about 77% of the median income.  Gross weekly income to achieve this needs to be £288pw or £7.67 an hour.  This is a difference of £1.74 above the NMW, or if you prefer almost a 30% increase on what is legally required.  This represents a minimum salary of £15k pa

Naturally there are problems in the JRF analysis, the most obvious which is that its figured are generalized over the entirety of the UK.  Ni ether is any provision made for the variances caused by the needs or different societal habits of the separate cultural groups in the country.  Living wages by their nature vary by region, they are dependant on the cost, availability, and provision of goods and services specific to a particular area.  Rents naturally vary significantly across the country, especially contrasting rents in the north of England to the south east London & home counties area for example.  Along with that, typical council taxes, commuting costs, insurance premiums, etc vary.  Rural properties are given a dedicated exception in the JRF report, and the different in increased heating and commuting costs generally incurred as a result of living in the country affect the MIS figure greatly; in fact for a single person living in the country the MIS gross income is almost £19k.  The rent used in the MIS calculation is based on a council rent in Loughborough, equating to approx £50 per week.  As many of you reading this will know, in London, that will get you diddly squat.  However the JRF report does recognise its limitations and even the inaccuracies of the published figures stating "not everybody who has more than the minimum income can be guaranteed to achieve an acceptable living standard. However, someone falling below the minimums unlikely to achieve such a standard"

This is where I move to a move focussed approach then, based on the London Living Wage, which has been published for the past few years now by the Mayor of London, see  It acknowledges the fact that London has significantly higher costs than other part of the country, especially where rent is concerned, and there are countless news articles (though admittedly probably largely from the currently discredited ((if it ever had any credit to begin with)) NOTW) about emergency service, primary care, and educational personnel being unable to afford to live within a suitable distance of their workplace.  Many London workplaces already include 'london weighting' in city pay offers, which provides on average a 10 - 20% extra increase on the standard wage to compensate for the increased cost of living in London

The London Living Wage document takes a new baseline of poverty threshold specifically for the London area, which equates to £7.25, well above the NMW and allows only £832 'extra' income over the entire year in comparison to the MIS figure of £7.67 an hour.  Allowing a buffer of 15% for increased London costs and unexpected or sudden outgoings, the London Living Wage is stated at £8.30 per hour.  This is a full time salary of about £17250.  As a personal note, I'm on about £17750pa and whilst I struggle, yes, I can live in London, I can find a place to rent, I can eat, I can pay my spotify membership and buy a book if I want to.  I can't buy myself an extra PC monitor, or some new kink gear, or afford anything other than the cheap bottom of the range mattress for the bed, but I can live and pay my bills and afford the extra bit of money for a tube and some cake at exalted each week, so yes, the living wage seems pretty accurate there.

Unfortuantely, living wages, where they exist as a concept, are generally only paid by state or government institutions.  The LLW is paid to all staff employed by the various parts of the Greater London Authority (GLA), and pay is adjusted upon publishment of the LLW document each year, which is admirable.  Non Government agencies however, and especially private sector employers, which obviously make up the majority of employers, are completely free to pay whatever they like so long as it's at least the NMW.  As a result many service staff are paid exactly that, meaning one day, we will inevitably all die from an unsanitised telephone as all the cleaners become too poor to live within commuting distance to work in London.

And now I am too sleepy to remember what I was going to go on and say, so apologies for the rather abrupt end.

Finally, visit where after a few basic questions (3 to be exact) you can adjust your costs for rent, utilities etc to find what you need to be earning as a living wage in your current circumstances, and how that compares to your current earnings, for better or worse.

EDIT:  Now I remember what else I wanted to say.

Whether you take the JRF MIS or GLA LLW, for single 1 person households or couples with children, it's perfectly fair to point out that yes, you can survive on a lot less than that, chances are we've all done it.  You can eat 8p ramen for a month, and scrounge floorspace off friends or squat, and jump the ticket barriers, and make sandwiches to take to work instead of buying out each lunch, and blag all manner of things, but these things are generally done because you have no other option but to do that. As stated above, the LLW/MIS do not necessarily claim to be an adequate wage for every circumstance, but it is a statistical average that aims to provide an adequate standard of life, not just in terms of basic survival necessities, but variation in diet, social and recreational commitments etc, below which a person would find it very difficult to achieve such things.

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