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It's true to say the UK has become worse off. But some have felt the brunt more than others

It's true to say the UK has become worse off. But some have felt the brunt more than others

Saying the country as a whole is poorer is not the same as saying everyone is feeling the squeeze in quite the same way.
When Huw Pill said, in a recent Columbia University podcast, that British people need "to accept that they're worse off" the comments understandably hit a raw nerve.

With the country going through a once-in-a-generation cost of living crisis, it's hardly palatable to be lectured by a very well-paid former Goldman Sachs banker that we all need to live a little less extravagantly.

But while Mr Pill's comments were delivered with his foot firmly lodged in his mouth, there is an important truth lurking beneath them.

That truth is that the country as a whole is undoubtedly worse off as a result of the sharp increase in energy prices recently. Simply put, these days we import a lot of our energy, mostly in the form of natural gas.

And since those energy prices have risen so sharply, we are all having to pay more for our goods and services without earning more money in return. We - by which I mean the country as a whole - are all poorer.

You get a sense of this when you look at Britain's national income - the amount of cash we're generating here in the country - and subtract the amount of cash we consumers tend to spend each year.

The chart you end up with looks somewhat terrifying: a cliff-edge line of the likes we've never seen before. This is a pretty good illustration of how dramatically our collective net worth has fallen in the past year or so.

Yet saying the country as a whole is poorer is not the same as saying everyone is feeling the squeeze in quite the same way.

Indeed, look at the impact of this loss of collective worth and you see big differences. A few companies (and their employees and shareholders), notably energy producers, have done very well out of the price spike. Most have not.

In much the same way, the pain of higher prices is felt differently at different income levels. Inflation, remember, is the rate at which prices are going up each year.

But the extent to which different income groups have leeway, either through their earnings or their savings, to shoulder that increase, differs greatly.

Study after study has shown that lower income groups are feeling the impact of higher energy and food prices considerably more than higher income groups.

Broadly speaking, those in the upper end of the income distribution (which, for what it's worth, includes pretty much all Bank of England economists) have seen significantly smaller falls in their spending potential than those at the lower end. The country has become worse off, but some have felt the brunt of it more than others.

These are what economists would tend to call "distributional" issues: how the benefits (or in this case pain) of an economic phenomenon are distributed out among the population.

Typically, the Bank of England tends to focus less on such issues than the big picture - that nationwide story about how we are, in aggregate, all worse off.

Not, it's worth saying, because they're heartless and don't care, but because they view such challenges as something democratically elected politicians should be addressing rather than ivory tower academics in Threadneedle Street. Which is fair enough.

However, the cost of living crisis is two things at once: a big, macroeconomic phenomenon (the country has become poorer) and a distributional phenomenon (some people are feeling the pain more than others).

Mr Pill's main mistake was not to be clearer that he was talking about the former issue, without being clearer that he wasn't trying to pass judgement on the latter.

Still, it's not the first time someone from the Bank of England has said something indelicate and insensitive at a time of nationwide economic insecurity - and it's unlikely to be the last.
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