Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion

Research findings - Social Situation Monitor - How does the importance vary across the income distribution?

The composition of income differs for those with high and low levels of income across countries, because taxes tend to be progressive and benefits are more targeted at those with fewer financial resources. This targeting by income takes place both directly (in the case of means-tested benefits) and indirectly (in the case of non-means-tested benefits, which tend to replace earnings or compensate for higher living costs - e.g. due to disability or child dependants). But the extent to which low-income households are targeted varies from country to country. Figure 2 shows the same information as Figure 1, but for the households in the bottom decile of the equivalised disposable income distributions. [1]

Figure 2: Composition of household disposable income: bottom decile (2016 policies)


As expected, all types of benefits are much more important for low-income households, while the importance of original income is correspondingly reduced. Net cash support (benefits less taxes and SICs) to the bottom decile is positive in all countries. It varies from 81% in Denmark,77% in Ireland and 75% in Finland to only 10% in Greece. Social benefits and pensions as a whole represent a share of disposable income that varies from over 129% in Denmark to 44% in Italy. In most countries, benefits including pensions represent over 60% of household disposable income. Entitlement to means-tested benefits plays a major role in Ireland, where these benefits represent 60% of household disposable income, as well as in Denmark (56%), the Netherlands (49%), and the UK (43%). Generally speaking, in most countries, means-tested benefits are more important to the bottom decile than non-means-tested benefits. The main exception is by far Hungary, where non-means tested benefits exceed means tested benefits by 32% of average household disposable income, and, to a much lower extent, Belgium and Sweden, where the difference is driven likely by the generous unemployment benefits system.

Although most income-tax systems are progressive, people with low income still pay some taxes, particularly in Denmark, where many benefits are taxable, Hungary, Poland and the UK, where most of the taxes for the poorest decile consist in the Council Tax. In most countries where deductions are high, or where SICs are payable on benefits, social insurance contributions are more important. This is particularly the case of the Netherlands, where compulsory contributions are payable on social benefits and on the other hand income taxes for the very poor are quite low; in Slovakia, where income taxes are very low for the poorest decile; and Greece, where both farmers and self-employed workers pay lump-sum contributions.  

Figure 3: Composition of household disposable income: top decile (2016 policies)


At the top of the income distribution, the relative impact of taxes and benefits on disposable income is reversed (see Figure 3). In nearly all countries, the taxes and contributions paid in the top decile group are much greater than the benefits received. The biggest differences are observed by far in Denmark (69%), Belgium (54%), Ireland (53%), the Netherlands (51%), and the UK (44%).The only exception is Cyprus, where, even for the top decile, the sum of benefits received exceeds taxes and contributions paid by11%, mostly because of the generous public pensions compared to household disposable income and because of the relatively low levels of taxes and SICs. The share of social benefits - mostly public pensions - is still important at the top end of the distribution in a few countries: in Portugal social benefits including public pensions account for 37% of household disposable income, and in Cyprus, Italy, Austria, France, Luxembourg and Denmark the share of social benefits ranges between 34% and 24% of household disposable income. On the other hand, benefits and public pensions account for less than 6% of disposable income for the richest decile in the countries where social transfers are more targeted at those with low levels of financial resources or where private and occupational pensions are predominant (e.g. the UK, Ireland, and the Netherlands). For households in the top decile, income taxes represent up to 70% of disposable income in Denmark, 52% and 50% of disposable income in Belgium and Sweden, respectively, and over 40% of disposable income in Ireland, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal. When social insurance contributions are taken into account, the highest incidence of all taxes over disposable income is found by far in Denmark (83%), followed by Belgium (72%), Ireland (59%) and the Netherlands (57%). Conversely, the lowest incidence of income taxes for the top decile is found in Bulgaria (9%), Slovakia (15%), Croatia and Lithuania (17%), Czech Republic and Cyprus (18%). When both taxes and social contributions are considered, the lowest incidence on disposable income is found in Bulgaria (20%), Cyprus (23%), Estonia (24%), Malta and Lithuania (28%).


[1] Decile groups are formed within each country by ranking according to equivalised household disposable income, using the modified OECD equivalence scale, weighted by household size.


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