Take your place in line

5 Oct

In 1971 Dutch economist Jan Pen came up with a brilliant graphical way of conveying the distribution of income in a society. Imagine each person’s height is stretched in proportion to their income. Line them all up in height order with the shortest (poorest) at the front and the richest (tallest) at the back. Now imagine this parade passing by in 1 hour. Where would you be?

Can I share with you some figures from an OU course that uses data from 1995 as an example, bearing in mind that the income gap is accepted to have grown since then?

Rather than individually, people will be parading by in family groups, which means non-earners or low earning partners aren’t counted as destitute. The figures are also adjusted for family size, so based on a couple without children, a single person with the same income would be adjusted upwards since they have more to live on and a couple with children on the same income would be adjusted downwards since they have less to live on.

The average height of 5’8″ is used to represent the average household income.

And so the parade begins.

What’s immediately striking is how tiny almost everyone is, barring the few giants who arrive at the end.

After 3 minutes a single unemployed mum with two small children living below the Income Support level passes by, she is 1’10”.

Six minutes later a single male pensioner who owns his home and claims Income Support passes, he is 2’6″.

Everyone in the first 12 minutes is under 2’10” with household incomes less than half the average.

After 21 minutes a childless couple go by, he works full-time as an exhaust fitter, she does not do paid work, they are 3’9″.

After half an hour the person that passes is only 4’10” with a household income only 83% of the average.

We don’t see anyone who is 5’8″ until 62% of the population have already passed by.

After 45 minutes a couple pass with a baby and a toddler, he is a full-time technician in an engineering firm and she works part-time as a receptionist, they are both 6’10”.

With only 10 minutes left the heights really start to grow.

Fifty one minutes in and a single woman aged 45 with no children passes, she is a full-time personnel officer and is 8’7″ tall.

With only 3 minutes left a couple in their late fifties with grown children pass, he is a freelance journalist and she is a part-time manager of a day centre for the elderly. They are 11’11” high.

In the last minute a company chief executive and his non-earning wife pass, they are at least 60′ tall.

I shall let Pen describe the very last seconds

suddenly: the scene is dominated by colossal figures: people like tower flats… the rear of the parade is brought up by a few participants who are measured in miles… their heads disappear into the clouds

A modest estimate of the income of Britain’s richest man in 1995 would make him and his partner each 4 MILES high.

No-one denies that the earnings gap has increased in the past 15 years.

The average household income in Britain is cruelly distorted by these mile-high behemoths. If even the top 1% were discounted, today’s average income of £20,800 would be considerably reduced.

Which brings me to the magic number.


Our household income of £43,000 as an unadjusted figures quite firmly places us in the top earning part of the parade.

Adjusted to take into account one non-earning adult and three children, not so much.

The point of Child Benefit for me is to ensure that I exist. Because, you see, I don’t exist.

As a breeder and a dependant I’m accorded a social status that barely amounts to full citizenship – by which I mean I get to vote.

Child Benefit is the only recorded evidence that I am stepping back from paid employment to be a SAHM. For the years I claim Child Benefit my NI contributions will be topped up to compensate for me taking time out at no cost to the state to raise them. And by no cost I mean ME, my choice not to work costs the state nothing.

The only proof I have of my existence as anything other than a chattel is my Child Benefit.

My two older children are not my partner’s. Their father is a policeman, he earns a good bit less then £40,000 and is married.

Ignoring the rank stupidity of using the personal tax system to determine access to Child Benefit, how do we fit into George Osborne’s new structure?

As a socialist at heart I have no issue with the redistribution of wealth. If MrW and I lose Child Benefit for our child and it results in increased support for families on lower incomes I wholly support that.

What I am not fine with is my ex-husband and I losing child benefit for our children, the two with parents whose income doesn’t amount to the higher tax bracket. It is my ex’s income that determines the maintenance he provides, so surely it’s only fair that his income determines their entitlement to Child Benefit?


Linking MrW to Kathryn and Andrew through the personal taxation system will be somewhat of a challenge, and no less expensive than implementing a fair, means tested system.

But the thing that really pisses me off is that lower income families won’t be better off as a result of this. They won’t get more support.

The notion that a family on £18,000 is supporting, through their taxation, the provision of Child Benefit to a family on £50,000 is ludicrous Mr Osborne.

This is an attack on stay at home parents. This is an attack on those of us who wish to avoid institutionalised child-care (been there done that got the t-shirt no thanks).

Forcing parents who can manage adequately on one wage into the job market in this current economic climate is just plain stupid.

If you want fair Mr Osborne, as a non-working, non-claiming adult I want my tax allowance to be transferable to the person I am deemed to be dependant on. MrW. Only then will you have a fair measure of my household income and my decision to raise the next generation of tax payers will be recognised and valued.

Source: Mackintosh & Mooney, Identity, inequality and social class in Woodward (ed), questioning identity: gender, class ethnicity, 2004, The Open University


22 Responses to “Take your place in line”

  1. Rachel Durik October 5, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    I’m so confused. I guess I need to read up on what’s going on over there! From what I remember, you got child benefit no matter what your income right? So that’s changing now?

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

      Yes Rachel – from 2013 it will no longer be a universal benefit that goes to mothers (or fathers if the child lives with them or there is no mother). Instead it will be removed entirely from couples where one wage earner falls into the higher tax bracket (earns over £44,000). If both partners earn £43,999 they will keep the benefit. So in effect a family with 2 wage earners bringing in up to £87,999 will keep it and families with one earner earning as low as £44,000 will lose it. Apparently this is what the Tories call “fair”. Still not quite got my head round what’s fair about it!

  2. TheMadHouse October 5, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    What a fantastic post, which explains things for me – thank you. MadDad isnt in that bracket, but it is very unfair

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

      You couldn’t make it up could you? 🙂

  3. Marylin October 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    It’s so fucking morinic isn’t it??

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

      Yeah that!

  4. The Moiderer October 5, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I love this. I work in the world of statistics and someone once said “Statistics are like a bikini, they cover all the interesting bits”. I am constantly steering people away from reporting averages because they are anything but and even worse when we average percentages!
    Anyway – I totally agree because my hubby is a stay at home dad and losing child benefit removes his wage for looking after the little one (which incidentally he spends totally on the little one) even though I am a high earner.

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

      I continually find myself at odds with the way exam results are presented in this country – statistics are always deserving of a second, third, fourth, look – as many as it takes for you to go “hang on a minute…!:

  5. cartside October 5, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    That way of presenting income is just the best I’ve ever seen. I knew the stats, and that the vast majority of people are below average income, but seeing it like that really brings the unfair state of wealth distribution home.

    I truly don’t get the proposals. Should it not be the opposite, if both partners earn a combined income of whatever, they lose child benefit? With adjustment for expensive regions, such as London/southeast?
    We’re laughing of course because there’s no way either of us will earn more than £44K. So looks like we’re to keep it although I’d gladly give it up if it meant a real redistribution of wealth. But this? That’s just lunacy. And I really don’t get the policy/ideology behind it – is it to force people to work when there’s no jobs? It confused me so much that I still can’t believe this is actually the proposal – it’s just plain stupid, or did I miss something?

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

      I don’t think you’ve missed anything – it really is as stupid as it sounds.

      Someone in 2004 figured that on a worldwide scale that the poorest would be 1 inch tall and Bill Gates would loom over us all at 150 miles tall, his head poking through the thermosphere. It’s just a bit too much to imagine.

  6. Plan B October 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Really interesting points. I have to say as someone who would also fall into the tall, but still in the range of normal humanity, end of your parade I’ve been thinking – fine, I don’t need my child benefit, let someone who needs it more have it. I too hadn’t really read into the detail and I agree it seems ridiculous.

    I’m not sure I get, though, how that fits in with your argument that it is child benefit that gives you an identity as far as the state is concerned. (which is another interesting point and one which is really giving me pause for thought – and a more convincing reason for why I am still clinging to my smidgen of a job). Are you saying that only non-working parents/carers should get it? Surely not, as there are thousands of parents who rely on it to support poorly paid employment and I’m sure you don’t want it taken from them either. I must be missing something. Would love to hear more…

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

      No – but if they take it away from me and hand responsibility for my children’s entitlement to Child Benefit over to a man who isn’t even the father of two of them I lose the last bit of paper in the system that actually acknowledges that these are my children, that I am their mother, that I am a living breathing individual. I don’t exist for tax purposes, my tax allowance is redundant, I am not entitled to any help with tertiary education, jobseeker’s allowance, nothing – I am nothing but the dependant of my OH. If I want to go to university and get a first degree, not an additional one, he has to pay. I pay nothing in (at the moment – I did for 20 years) and I get nothing out. I’m an unused NI number! If Child Benefit isn’t linked to ME how am I going to explain the years I don’t pay NI for? At the moment my Child Benefit claim is proof that I’m not simply loafing around being a kept woman (oh I wish!).

  7. Ehmummy October 5, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    That was the sound of my brain imploding. Brilliant.

    • mrsw October 5, 2010 at 11:28 pm #

      Yup – that’s exactly what mine did the first time I read this.

  8. Iota October 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    Cup your hands behind your ears, and do you hear that? It’s me cheering, from the other side of the Atlantic.

    One thing that really I can’t bear about America, is the philosophy that if you have children, you should be able to afford to bring them up. If you can’t, then don’t have them. Of course this is impeccable logic and hard to fault. But life is messy, and even if you don’t change your own life deliberately, sometimes the culture around you changes. It’s all a moving target, and the control we have over our circumstances can be quite small.

    So I LOVE child benefit, because of the practical needs it meets, but also because of the philosophy behind it, which says “you have children, children are expensive, we – the state – are going to help you with that – not for your sake, but for the children’s sake”. I love that. And yes, also because it acknowledges that parenthood is a job.

    Great post, and thanks for visiting my blog too.

    • mrsw October 11, 2010 at 12:49 am #

      They are also proposing to cut the total benefits a family can claim in a year to £26,000 – apparently to stop the breed and claim epidemic that’s sweeping the country. Fact is there are only around 50,000 households in the UK who even receive that amount and only 900 families claiming benefit who have 8 or more children. It’s hardly an epidemic! Education and Child Benefit are always the Tory soft targets to get it in the neck first – I don’t think the Tories are capable of taking a long term view… the little people they target might not be voters now, but they have this annoying habit of growing up… I predict into radical left-wingers! Yay!

  9. Heather - Notes From Lapland October 7, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    holy cow. That makes no sense at all. none. not a jot. and if you were to lose your child benefit and as you say, reason on paper for not paying NI, do you then lose your right to national health service and state pensions etc?

    • mrsw October 11, 2010 at 12:50 am #

      I swear the wrote it down on the back of a beer mat and spilled a pint on it. Twats

  10. Pants With Names October 7, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    What worries me is that child benefit is paid to those who look after the children – often those without other forms of financial income. Many of these parents are dependent upon their partners for their income. Child Benefit provides a degree of financial independence, a moment when the carer does not have to rely upon the earner for some money and can make their own decisions about how the money should best be spent. This is money that doesn’t have to be handed over by the earner, but goes automatically and by right to the carer. I hate the thought of some people losing that small degree of financial independence, making them entirely dependent on what their partner chooses to give them.

    • mrsw October 11, 2010 at 12:44 am #

      My head is still not quite round the fact that I am expected under these proposals to go ask my OH for extra money to support two children that aren’t even his – not that we live in a “I have to ask” relationship – but y’know – we might do – and I’m sure many many mothers do.

      I’m lucky, I have a solution, my ex-husband can claim Child Benefit for our two children and add it to the maintenance he pays. Fact is we could have been doing this for the past 5 years, have both father’s claim instead of me, that way they would each have a “first born” child and we’d get even more Child Benefit than we do now – but I’m not that unethical.

  11. Dad Who Writes October 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Yes, basically. Yes and again yes. Cameron and Osbourne live in a Daily Mail fantasy land where happy nuclear familiars live happily forever after and anyone who doesn’#t fit the mould…

    …well, in some obscure way basically structured by the dead hand of protestant dogma, they ‘deserve’ everything they (don’t) get.


    Great post.


  1. Tweets that mention Take your place in line | clinically fed up -- Topsy.com - October 5, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Winton, Ben Fulton, Jon Harman, Karyn Romeis, NikkiiH and others. NikkiiH said: @MrsTeepot Well maybe not sympathising – I'm all for the redistribution of wealth – go read my post tell me wht u think http://bit.ly/aIGQF0 […]

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