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Sussex academic sparks national row

Richard Dickens has caused national controversy (photo: sussex.ac.uk)

Richard Dickens has caused national controversy (photo: sussex.ac.uk)

A Sussex academic has been the focus of a political storm in recent weeks as his study has been used by the government to claim that inequality in the UK is improving.

Richard Dickens, the Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex and the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, has written in a study claiming that ‘after a very long period of increase, there is some evidence that inequity is finally falling due to increases in employment among women in particular’.

The study, titled “The changing patterns of earnings: employees, migrants and low-paid families”, was last week used by the government to support their economic policies. Liam Byrne, Labour party former minister said that ‘Despite the huge economic, social and political changes between 1970 and 2000, social mobility in Britain did not rise. Since 2000 new evidence suggests this might be beginning to change.’ The study has been seen as an endorsement of current Labour policies of tax credits as Dickens writes that ‘Earnings mobility also appears to be on the increase after a long period of decline. Tax credits have led to increases in employment and job retention, increasing the incomes of many low-income families.’

But the Conservative party have attacked Mr Dickens’ study as government propaganda. Chris Grayling, the Conservative Shadow work and Pensions Secretary condemned the new study as a ‘fractional improvement’ and also questions ‘if, indeed that fractional improvement even exists outside the Downing Street spin machine’.

Interestingly, in an interview with The Badger Dickens agrees that the government have been ‘misleading’ in the way they used the data, and that Chris Grayling makes a ‘valid point’. He was quick to stress that his article is focussed on pay mobility increasing year by year rather than across generations; thus, in this sense is ‘not about social mobility’. He highlighted the difference between his type of study and the Cohort study which follows individuals through their lifetime from birth. There have been Cohort studies in 1958, 1970 and in the more recent year of 2000 which is currently ongoing. Consequently there is only ‘weak evidence’ about mobility across generations so far.

Mr Dickens’ study analyses the earnings between a large group of people over a period of 30 years and the results show that wage mobility (how much a person’s earnings has varied from year to year) have generally

risen since 2000. But whilst wage mobility has risen, long-run inequity (the difference between how much the poorest and richest people earn over number of years) has fallen suggesting the beginnings of social mobility. However the 1980s and early 1990s were criticised as a period when a large increase in the inequality of earnings, income and distribution of work resulted in up to a third of British children living in comparative poverty in 1997.

Mr Dickens cites the changing role of women as the key to the narrowing of the inequity gap. In the late 1970s women had a much lower earning mobility than men, but by 2005 it was generally higher than that of their male counterparts. The study also investigates the social mobility of migrant workers, who generally start on lower pay than their British counterparts.

Europeans are catching up the fastest, whereas Asian men seem to show little or no signs of mobility at all. Dickens also acknowledges that the Government have ‘a lot of policies are geared towards it

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’ and that ‘Social class background has a big impact’.

But while it appears that there may be clear statistical evidence that social mobility is beginning to change over recent years, economic decline may reverse this trend. Professors Nick Bosanquet and Lucy Parsons have claimed that ‘the recession could be a new and extensive block on social mobility.’ At the moment the change in mobility is only just starting taking shape; it is in its ‘fractional’ beginnings.

In later years however, further studies including the year 2000 Cohort study will give us a better picture of the changing nature of social mobility in the UK.

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