Wealth: Rise in income masks poverty of bottom 20%: The Government's statistical survey depicts prosperous and well-educated Britons deserting 'traditional' lifestyles. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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THE BRITISH had more money left after tax in 1992 than before, according to Social Trends.

Real disposable income - what is left after tax, insurance and pension contributions - reached a record, to stand at 80 per cent above the 1971 level. But the figures conceal growing income disparities.

The increase in disposable income came after a year (1990-91) in which it fell. According to the Central Statistical Office, the rise was partly a result of low inflation. The survey also confirms the new-found thrift of the British, following the high-spending years of the 1980s. In 1992, 4.8 per cent of household income was saved, the biggest proportion since records began in 1970.

However, the wealth has not been distributed evenly. Only the top fifth of the population had a larger share of total income in 1990-91 than a decade earlier. Between 1979 and 1990-91, this group saw its net income, after housing costs, grow from 35 to 43 per cent of the total.

By contrast, the bottom 20 per cent has seen its share decline from 10 to 6 per cent. The other three-fifths (or quintiles) have seen their share decline or remain static. And although the four highest quintiles all saw their real income - as opposed to their share of the total - increase in the 1980s, the bottom fifth missed out. Their real income, after housing costs, fell by 3 per cent in the 11 years from 1979.

In a special essay on the 20 per cent at the bottom of the income ladder, Social Trends attempts a portrait of modern poverty. Children and old people are over-represented in this group, which contains almost four times as many single parents as the rest of the population. Half of its income goes on food and housing, compared with only 32 per cent for the rest of the population; 70 per cent of its income comes from social security and only 20 per cent from employment, against 11 and 75 per cent respectively for the other four quintiles; and 61 per cent have been out of work more than a year.

However, the survey indicates that contemporary poverty is not incompatible with possession of a television, fridge, video, washing machine and even a computer. The poorest households are almost as likely to own a television and a fridge as the rest of the population, and do not lag too far behind in ownership of other consumer durables. The biggest contrasts come with cars and telephones: less than half the poorest 20 per cent have access to a car and more than a quarter have no phone.