On average I'm comfortable

Richard Garside
Tuesday, 26 January 2010

What to make of news that the UK might finally be emerging from recession. According to Office for National Statistics Gross domestic product grew by 0.1 percent in the final quarter of 2009. It’s a recovery of sorts, but one so small that Newsnight’s economics editor Paul Mason was left wondering whether he might have singlehandedly sabotaged it had he eaten fewer mars bars in December.

The ONS figure is only an estimate. It is also averaged out across all sectors of the economy. The problem with averages is that they tend to hide some of the most important differences. After all, if my head is in the oven and my feet are in the freezer, on average I’m comfortable.

Recessions tend to have uneven impacts, hitting poor areas harder than more affluent areas, as a briefing published last October by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) reminded us. In both the early nineties recession and the current one, it was the areas of high unemployment that were worst hit by further job losses.

Then there is the increase in poverty levels that was apparent before the recession took hold. In its annual poverty report, published in December 2009, JRF found that poverty, unemployment and house repossessions all started to rise in 2004/05, well before the recession hit.

And let us not forget the long term rise in income inequality. Research conducted for the National Equality Panel pointed out that the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically in the past forty years. It is ‘now at its highest level’ since at least 1968, the authors observed.

This is all worth remembering when our politicians start talking about the green shoots of recovery. For many millions of people it certainly won’t feel that way.