Does work pay?

One of the key areas discussed in the election was welfare and in particular what to do about those who remain long term dependent on welfare. How can the UK government encourage people back to work? A key issue is the poverty trap: some people are simply better off living on benefits than they are getting a job. Here, we’re talking about the marginal-tax-plus-lost-benefit rate. When you start earning, you get taxed, pay national insurance contributions and lose some of your benefits. All this leads to a situation where work doesn’t pay.

In a paper ‘Escaping the Poverty Trap’ by Lawrence Kay, he considered how much better off people are moving from different benefits into work, taking into account the high costs of actually finding a job and then starting work. He found that after 16 hours of work, someone on Job-seekers’ allowance would be £15.07 poorer and someone on Employment and Support Allowance would be £39.35 worse off. In many cases, people were facing a marginal effective tax rate in excess of 100%. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that Lawrence Kay found that ‘Long term welfare claims have been Britain’s blight for many years’.

However, the Coalition has plans to change this and make sure that those in work are paid more and are better off than those on benefits. By making working life a more attractive option, this should encourage those for whom work doesn’t pay to enter the labour force. This will obviously benefit them, increase the potential output of the economy (hence growth) and improve net taxes, as tax revenue rises and benefits expenditure falls. While this may not lead to tax cuts for those in work (as benefits spending falls), it may mean that more tax revenue is devoted to areas such as health and education or that the government can close the budget deficit.

The ‘universal credit’ aims to simplify the current system and make work pay, by re-introducing a culture of work in households. There is also a plan to place sanctions on those turning down work and place a cap on benefits to any single family. There was also be tax changes aimed at helping those moving into work keep more of their money, thereby removing, or at least reducing, the poverty trap. However, some families will lose out – as the IFS noted, any reform ‘creates winners and losers’. However, the reforms are a step in the right direction. As David Cameron said:

“I think that will, over time, solve the whole poverty trap issue that has bedeviled governments of all colours.”

The Labour party does back some of the changes, but questions whether there is enough help for people finding work. Another issue that must be considered is while it is undoubtedly a good plan to encourage more people to move into work and off benefits, which jobs will they move into? With unemployment still high, now is not exactly the best time to be looking for a job. However, whatever the state of the economy, providing incentives for people to move from benefits into work is definitely a good plan, but of course the methods used will be under constant scrutiny.


Iain Duncan Smith sets out Welfare Reform Bill plans BBC News (17/2/11)
Bill ditches housing benefit cut The Press Association (17/2/11)
Life on benefits is no longer an option Mail Online, James Chapman (17/2/11)
Universal Credit welfare switch ‘to hit 1.4m homes’ BBC News (12/1/11)
Nick Clegg blocks housing benefit cut for jobless Guardian, Patrick Wintour (17/2/11)
It’s time to end this addiction to benefits Telegraph (17/2/11)

Escaping the Poverty Trap Policy Exchange, Lawrence Kay 2010


  1. What is the poverty trap? Which factors make it worse?
  2. Why does the poverty trap act as a labour supply disincentive for those on benefits?
  3. If taxes of those in work have to be increased, what happens to their incentive to work more hours? Think about the income and substitution effects of a real wage change.
  4. Why is it that working may not pay?
  5. How does the Universal Credit aim to alleviate the poverty trap? Who are likely to be the winners and losers from the government’s proposed welfare reforms?
  6. What is a marginal-tax-plus-lost-benefit rate? How do you calculate it?
  7. Are there any other policies that could also reduce the poverty trap? How effective are they likely to be?