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
- What is the poverty trap? Which factors make it worse?
- Why does the poverty trap act as a labour supply disincentive for those on benefits?
- 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.
- Why is it that working may not pay?
- 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?
- What is a marginal-tax-plus-lost-benefit rate? How do you calculate it?
- Are there any other policies that could also reduce the poverty trap? How effective are they likely to be?
On November 11, the government published a White Paper on welfare reform. Central to the proposals is the replacing of the range of out-of-work benefits, housing benefit and tax credits with a single universal benefit. The system will be introduced for new claimants in 2013 and for those currently on benefits sometime after 2015.
When the unemployed find work, the benefit will be withdrawn at a rate of 65p of each £1 earned. At present, because of the complexity of the system, some claimants on multiple benefits can find that the withdrawal rate is almost 100%. When income tax is added in, the tax-plus-lost-benefit rate does sometimes exceed 100%. Thus some people find themselves in a poverty trap, whereby it’s not worth getting a job. It’s financially benefical to stay on benefits.
The other crucial element of the proposal is to deny people benefits who turn down a legitimate job.
a. Failure to meet a requirement to prepare for work (applicable to jobseekers and those in the Employment and Support Allowance Work-Related Activity Group) will lead to 100 per cent of payments ceasing until the recipient re-complies with requirements and for a fixed period after re-compliance (fixed period sanctions start at one week, rising to two, then four weeks with each subsequent failure to comply).
b. Failure to actively seek employment or be available for work will lead to payment ceasing for four weeks for a first failure and up to three months for a second.
c. The most serious failures that apply only to jobseekers will lead to Jobseeker’s Allowance payment ceasing for a fixed period of at least three months (longer for repeat offences). Actions that could trigger this level of penalty include failure to accept a reasonable job offer, failure to apply for a job or failure to attend Mandatory Work Activity.
The following podcasts and articles look at the details of the proposals and discuss their merits and drawbacks,
Podcasts and webcasts
Not going to work if you can is ‘not an option’ ITV, part of speech by Iain Duncan Smith (11/11/10)
IDS: Staying on benefits ‘irrational choice’ BBC Today Programme, Chris Buckler, Iain Duncan Smith Smith (11/11/10)
Iain Duncan Smith unveils new benefits system BBC News (11/11/10)
Welfare reform success ‘far from certain’ BBC Today Programme, Norman Smith (11/11/10)
Benefits system overhaul ‘to make work pay’ BBC News (11/11/10)
At-a-glance: Benefits overhaul BBC News (11/11/10)
Benefits explained: A basic guide to entitlements BBC News (11/11/10)
Is welfare reform doomed to fail? BBC News, Norman Smith (11/11/10)
A bold and principled approach to benefits Telegraph (11/11/10)
Reshaping the benefits system The Economist, Blighty blog (11/11/10)
Unemployment benefits shake-up ‘a fair deal’ Independent (11/11/10)
Tougher welfare sanctions spark ‘destitution’ warnings Independent (11/11/10)
Iain Duncan Smith: it’s a sin that people fail to take up work Guardian, Patrick Wintour, Randeep Ramesh and Hélène Mulholland (11/11/10)
Preacher Duncan Smith aims for holy grail of welfare policy Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (11/11/10)
Documents, official information and data
Universal Credit: welfare that works Department for Work and Pensions, Links to White Paper (11/11/10)
Benefits and financial support Directgov
Economic and Labour Market Review (see tables in Chapters 2 and 6), National Statistics
- Explain what is meant by the ‘poverty trap’ (or ‘welfare trap’).
- Summarise the reforms to benefits proposed in the White Paper.
- Examine whether the Coalition government’s proposal for a universal benefit will lead to greater fairness.
- Will a withdrawal rate of 65% provide a strong incentive for people out of work to take a job?
- Why may some be paying a combined tax-plus-lost-benefit rate of 76%?
- Why is there an inherent trade-off between making work pay (and thus eliminating the poverty trap) and keeping the cost of welfare benefits down? Would reducing the level of benefit be an appropriate answer to this trade-off?
- One aim of the benefits reform is to reduce unemployment. What type of unemployment is likely to be affected?
- Find out the current level of unemployment and the level of job vacancies and, in the light of this, comment on the likely effectiveness of the policy in reducing unemployment (a) shortly after the new system is introduced; (b) over the longer term.