Fairness and the welfare bill


Today's row over benefits was optional: the government, by all accounts, did not need to have a parliamentary vote on the decision to raise most benefits by only 1% a year between now and 2015. But if you want to squeeze public spending as much as the government does, most economists would say that debates about welfare are not optional at all.

The debate has been portrayed as an argument over "skivers versus strivers". But others might say it was a debate about the nature of the welfare state.

The welfare budget is 30% of government spending; if you're trying to squeeze public spending, it's inevitable that you will end up trying to squeeze welfare.

And if you've ruled out most of the cuts which would directly affect retired households, as David Cameron did, during the 2010 election, there are only two potential targets for welfare cuts left: working age households that work, and those that don't.

The policy being debated today will affect both, though workless households will lose most. The policy will also leave them relatively more exposed to inflationary shocks.

According to the IFS, about 9.5 million households will be affected by the new policy on uprating - or about half of the working age households in Britain. About seven million of these "losers" will contain someone in work, and could lose, on average, around £165 a year by 2015-16.

But that hides a very wide variation. The loss for about three million of those working households will be more like £75 a year and will come only from the real cut in the value of child benefit. The roughly 2.5 million non-working households who also lose out will be worse affected, as a general rule: their average loss will be about £215 a year.

Is this fair? As ever, it depends on your definition of fairness. It might also depend partly on how you view the role of the benefit system.

When benefits started, they were thought of as insurance, to protect you from certain big events in life for which you might or might not be well prepared. Some, like retirement, were entirely predictable. Others, like unemployment, were not. The contributory principle said you got more or less what you paid in, if and when these life-changing events occurred.

Two things have happened since then: the first is that the benefit system has become much less contributory, meaning that benefits are increasingly tied, not to your contribution, but to your situation. The second, only partly related to the first, is that the system has come to involve a much larger share of working age households.

The latest figures from the ONS show that, on average, the bottom 60% of UK households by income get more out of the system in benefits, tax credits and public services than they put back in the form of taxes in 2010-11.

Obviously, a significant chunk of those households are retired people, who pay less tax. If you exclude them from the calculation, the bottom 40% are clear winners, and the 20% in the middle pay almost exactly what they get back.

In 2010-11, the average gross (before tax) income at this part of the income distribution, was £33,186. If you subtract direct and indirect taxes from that income, then add back what families get from the state in cash and in-kind benefits, the ONS reckons you get a "final income", net of taxes and benefits, of £32,305 - just slightly less than they earned in the first place.

It is these kinds of statistics that prompt critics, such as the Reform think-tank, to talk about the "money-go-round" of welfare. Their point is that the middle classes may get more now from the state than they got 20 years ago, but they have usually had to shell out more taxes to pay for those extra benefits.

Gordon Brown reckoned that the more you gave the middle classes in tax credits and other benefits, the more they will support the welfare system as a whole. Some of the welfare cuts being implemented by the coalition are putting that belief to the test. But the change in uprating for the next few years is a reform which asks most working age households to contribute, regardless of circumstance.

If you think fairness is about treating different households equally, then you will think it's fair. If you think, rather, that fairness means "asking those with the broadest shoulders to carry the heaviest burden", then you might not think this particular change is fair. But ministers are right to point out that households dependent on benefits have seen faster growth in their incomes recently than many in work.

If the forecasters are right in their predictions for inflation over the next few years, today's uprating move will mean that the benefits fall by 4% in real terms between 2013 and 2015. As it happens, average weekly earnings have fallen by almost exactly that amount, in real terms, since the coalition came to power (see my last blog), while benefits have consistently been uprated in line with inflation.

Iain Duncan Smith says the gap is even wider if you go back five years: people on out of work benefits have seen their incomes rise by 20% over that period, while average earnings have risen by 12%.

As I pointed out a while ago, one consequence of uprating benefits with inflation at a time of flat or falling real wages has been to help narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is one big reason why 2011 saw the largest one-year decline in income inequality in a generation.

This cut in the real value of benefits between 2013 and 2015 may undo some of that. But probably a better objection to this policy is that it leaves the poorest households very exposed to inflationary shocks.

We don't actually know what inflation will be over the next few years. The majority of forecasters expect it to continue to be weak - because they don't think there's much chance of a rapid economic recovery which pushes up domestic prices or wages, and because they think the new sources of energy coming on stream in the US and elsewhere will help keep a lid on the world price of oil and gas.

If those forecasts are right, inflation in the UK will be lower in the next few years than it has been since 2009, and the real value of benefits will fall by not much more than 1% a year, between now and 2015, as a result of this policy.

But quite a lot of economists think that, sooner or later, the hundreds of billions that the Bank of England and other central banks have been pumping into the global economy will come back to bite us, in the form of runaway inflation. That is unlikely to happen right away, but others think there could be another surge in global commodity prices this year, which the Bank of England will not able to prevent filtering into inflation.

If either or both of those things happens, this policy would mean that households who depend on benefits for all or most of their income could see their real incomes fall by a lot more than 4% between now and the next election. But right now, ministers would probably say that runaway inflation was not their number one concern.

Stephanie Flanders Article written by Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders Former economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    There will be a 1% rise on these weekly benefits
    1 person - 2 adults
    JSA £71 - £111.45
    ESA £71 - £111.45
    ESA wrag 99.15 - £111.45
    SSP £85.85
    Maternity allowanace £135.45
    Child Tax credits per year £545

    You mention the holidays benefit claimants have - have none of you heard of credit - doorstep creditors chaege 1000% APR & thats how they get the holidays TV's etc
    I hope you stay in work

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    'As there hasnt been, and doesnt look like there're going to be any inflationary shocks, the impact wont be as harsh as intimated'

    Where were you last year then ?????
    Gas 18%
    Rail 5.8%
    Water 4.5%
    Bus 3.5%
    Petrol/diesel 8.5%
    Food 7%
    House/contents insurance 7%
    Car insurance 11%
    Etc, Etc.... That's not inflation???

    Get back under your stone!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    If the next target is pensioners, remember that rates on savings are now rock bottom so all pensioners relying on savings are losing out year on year, while all those with mortgages, presumably the 'squeezed middle' we hear so much about, are benefiting from low interest rates year on year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Interesting that the parents interviewed on the news tonight focus on how they will lose a few pounds with the benefit changes, rather than on reducing the debt they (and the rest of us) are merrily leaving for their/our children to pay off. I wonder if BBC journalists in 25 years time will be asking why this point was missed so often by equally short sighted journalists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.


    "Govt once provided welfare as a safety net-now the Govt seems to exist solely to function as the safety net."

    I am sure the banks would agree with your statement. It was and still is one hell of a safety net they are being provided with and, a very, very expensive one (for some)

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    They need to look at how many Foreign Nationals there are living in the UK and how many that are on benefits and send them back. It won't completely solve the problem but it will help. And no i'm not against migration but it has to be done correctly!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    "The welfare budget is 30% of government spending"
    Yes indeed it is Steph when you include the >15% that is Pensioner benefits (state pensions, public sector pensions in payment, bus passes, tax credits etc).

    If I was an old person I would open my blinds/curtains pretty soon to get a good view of Osborne/IDS tut tut tutting at them while scheming up some DailyMailesque label to back them up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    As there hasnt been, and doesnt look like there're going to be any inflationary shocks, the impact wont be as harsh as intimated. The fact is welfare is becoming unsupportable and unaffordable. Govt once provided welfare as a safety net-now the Govt seems to exist solely to function as the safety net.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Not everyone who claims benefits is a skiver. Has it not occured to some people that they are entitled to these benefits. By all means go after the skivers but, don't tar everyone with the same brush.
    After all, if you have wasted £1.3 trillion bailing out banks who would you ask for your money back first? Auntie Doris and her fuel allowance pittance, or the banks?
    A bully would choose Doris!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    The key-word there is 'families', which is an alternative to the normal term; households. The IFS does not have figures for claimants individually.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    But that's not true, £70 pw. As Stephanie points out above, the average benefit for the 2.5 non working families is 100 times £215 pa, which is £413 pw.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I'm sure most people are happy to pay some tax to help those in need. What we object to is paying tax to be squandered. People on 100K wanting child benefit? Countries with a space program wanting aid for their poor? Perhaps there would be more for those in need of benefits if we didn't throw so much at those who just choose them. The PM lost his own child benefit remember.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "others might say it was a debate about the nature of the welfare state"

    Precisely! The Welfare State is being portrayed as a safety net for the most needy and vulnerable rather than a social system whereby the state facilitates the welfare of ALL its citizens in matters of health care, education, employment & social security. The attack on benefits is just picking off the most vulnerable first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The basic action needed is to stop this ridiculous money-go-round of people getting what is essentially their own money back. If the government want to help "strivers", cut taxes !! Remember, taxes paid have a filter applied before going out again as benefits in the form of the vast overpaid bureaucracy needed to check the money in and the money out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    In the long term, a society can only enjoy the welfare it can afford by it's productive efforts. We have enjoyed the spending spree on tick, now we must pick up the tab. I do not want to quit this life leaving debts for my grandchildren to pay. This government must be supported in their efforts to reduce the deficit, and eventually, the debt. Welfare for the needy, not those on median incomes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The government are also looking at ways they can recalculate inflation so it doesn't look as bad as the actuality in a few years time. I'm working now but was made redundant 2 years ago and struggled to find work for ages. These people who are arguing for this policy should be wary of what they wish for. I know from grim experience it is a miserable existence trying to survive on benefits today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    It's hard to talk of fairness when such a high proportion of households are receiving benifits. Unfortunately the number of recipients means that the amounts paid are small compared to the cost of paying them. This adds to the sense of a "Money go round" that so distorts our view. Plus it only serves to provide jobs in the public sector that contribute little to the economy or those in need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    One good thing to come out of all this, This will be the final nail in the coffin of those lying two faced, brown nosed lib dems!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    So inflation might go up or it might go down! Thanks for that insight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Either Ms Flanders has not bothered reading that ONS document or is intentionally misleading the BBC audience(she has repeated the claim about 60% taking more than they are contributing in benefits on television). FullFact.org have checked it; it's wrong and includes a great many things that are not at all part of the social security budget.


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