Debt ceiling, round two

The USA is once again on course for financial disaster through no fault but their own.

Remember the debt ceiling debacle, when the broken American political system led to the country losing its triple-A credit rating, and nearly resulted in the largest economy in the world defaulting on its debt? Well, joy of joys, in nine months, it's all going to happen again.

The problem is the basic disagreement was never actually resolved, but merely postponed until after the election so that the Republicans could get back to the important business of tearing their party apart with excruciating primaries and loony-fringe candidates. The deal that raised the ceiling required a spending bill to be passed in both houses of congress that substantially removes the deficit. If no such bill is passed, then on January 1st 2013, a whole raft of automatic spending cuts are introduced at once, bringing in what American commentators breathlessly describe as "European levels of austerity".

Not only that, but on the same day those cuts come in, the the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts both expire, increasing the tax burden on millions of Americans. Oh, and emergency unemployment benefits also time out.

Congress has had ample warning to sort out the mess (almost as much warning as it had before the initial face-off), but yesterday the House of Representatives rejected two possible solutions. The first, a bipartisan bill which has the most chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was defeated 382-38; the second, the White House's preferred option, was unanimously rejected 414 to 0. Instead, it seems likely that the House will pass, along strict party lines, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's bill, which has no hope of passing getting through any Democrats, calling as it does for "draconian reductions in the federal government's commitment to financing health care for the disabled, the elderly, and the poor", in the words of Slate's Matt Yglesias. So the Senate will reject the bill, and the whole damn thing will start again.

Faced with the unappealing task of repeating last summer, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has weighed in, telling the House Financial Services Committee:

Under current law, on Jan. 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date.

All those things are hitting on the same day, basically. It’s quite a big event.

Barclays Capital has calculated that the combined effect of all these cuts hitting at once would wipe 2.8 per cent off the annualised growth rate for the first quarter of 2013, bringing them from 3 per cent to 0.2 per cent growth. For comparison, the UK – which is voluntarily enacting "European levels of austerity" – is currently forecast by the OBR to have 2.0 per cent growth over the year, and the OECD forecast yesterday had us on minus 0.4 per cent over the first quarter of 2012, with the USA already at growing at 3 per cent annualised.

The worst case scenario is unlikely to happen; just as an actual default was unlikely to happen when the debt ceiling needed to be raised. The most likely outcome is that Congress will simply postpone everything once again, renewing the tax cuts and shrinking, but not removing, the automatic spending cuts. But all of this has led Bloomberg's Clive Cook to declare:

But there’s a much bigger threat to U.S. power [than the growth of China]: the increasingly abject failure of the country’s own political class.

Congressman Paul Ryan. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.