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Household incomes up but rich-poor gap widens

THANKS to a booming economy and rising salaries, the average family in Singapore saw its household income rise by 9.6 per cent last year, the biggest increase in at least a decade.

But the rich again got richer in 2007. Higher-income households generally enjoyed bigger pay hikes than lower-income ones, widening the income gap between the rich and poor.

Data published yesterday by the Department of Statistics (DOS) showed that average monthly household income from work last year rose to $6,280, up from $5,730 the previous year.

Much of this was due to strong economic growth and a tight labour market, which drove up just about all salaries last year.

The data comes on the heels of a set of rosy numbers for Singapore’s workers. The unemployment rate is at a 10-year low, while average bonuses paid out are at their highest since 1990.

Even after accounting for inflation, income still grew 7.4 per cent, beating a previous high of 6.2 per cent in 2001 at the height of the dot.com boom.

Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin said: ‘It’s very encouraging that workers are finally seeing big gains from the economic boom of the past few years.

‘The earlier part of the recovery from Sars in 2003 had benefited companies more, with wage gains being relatively modest in previous years.’

But yesterday’s figures from the DOS also showed that the wages boom was clearly skewed in favour of richer families.

Income per family member in the top 10 per cent income bracket surged 11.1 per cent.

This is compared to 3.3 per cent for the lowest 10 per cent income bracket.

The result is that the Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income inequality in a country, has gone up to 0.485 from 0.472 – one of the biggest increases in the past seven years.

The DOS acknowledged this yesterday, saying that it reflected ‘higher wage increases for skilled and knowledge workers’.

Economists agreed, positing that the unusually large jump could be due to more top global business executives relocating here.

But they also noted yesterday that a widening income gap is to be expected in a globalised economy. This is because low-skilled workers may not have as much bargaining power even in a tight labour market as companies can easily turn to cheaper foreign labour.

This means the Government will have to help poorer families more as the spoils of globalisation are not equally distributed, they added.

Indeed, economists said that with economic conditions turning south, more help should be announced at tomorrow’s Budget statement as lower-income, lower-skilled workers may be more vulnerable.

Said DBS Bank economist Irvin Seah: ‘I would not be surprised to see many measures at this Budget to alleviate the lower-income families from the escalating costs of living.’

In this vein, the DOS noted yesterday that Government benefits targeting the lower-income, such as the Goods and Services Tax offset package offered at last year’s Budget, helped to narrow the income gap.

If those were taken into account, the Gini coefficient would come down to 0.46, it said.


Source: Business Times 13 Feb 08


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