Lost year, or lost decade?

Growth will flatline over the next year, but already things are back where they were in 2002.

I wrote yesterday that it doesn't really matter that the UK is in a technical recession. The zero boundary is unimportant in many aspects of economics, and growth is one – the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0.1 per cent is the same as the difference between 0.1 per cent and 0.3 per cent.

But when economics feeds into politics and the media, the difference does matter. Headlines of "UK not in recession" are far more likely in the event of 0.1 per cent growth than headlines of "UK remains in crippling stagnation"; similarly, the news yesterday was always going to be about the two consectutive quarters of negative growth, not the seven consecutive quarters in which the UK economy has barely changed. Headlines affect how people think, how people think affects how they act, and how they act feeds back into the economy.

All of which is to say that if it didn't matter that we were in a technical recession when the stats were released at 9:30am yesterday, it probably did by the time the front pages were fixed at 9:30pm.

Gerard Lyons, Standard Chartered's chief economist, said:

The likelihood is that the data will further dent confidence and push the recovery back.

The second quarter of 2012 was always going to be a weak one. The OBR, which overestimated Q4 2011 growth by 0.1 per cent and Q1 2012 by 0.5 per cent, predicts a flatlining Q2 2012, with 0.0 per cent growth. If their past pattern continues, we should expect a third quarter of contraction - especially as consumer confidence, hit by the news of recession, will depress that quarter still furter.

Little wonder that Philip Aldrick, the Telegraph's economics editor, is calling this a "lost year", fearing that the overall contraction in 2012 could be 0.1 per cent. But even there, talk of a lost year glosses over the longer term weaknesses. Nominally positive growth below the rate of population growth results in GDP per capita contracting. Even if we find out, after the final GDP figures come out in two months, that we weren't in a national recession, we've been in a per capita recession for a while. And under OBR and ONS predictions for the rate of GDP and population growth, it won't be until 2016 that GDP per capita is back to where it was in 2007. That isn't a lost year; it's a lost decade.

And even talk of a lost decade is understating the problem. Pay rises have been near at or below inflation for so long that the average weekly wage now is worth the same as it was in September of 2002 – and because price inflation remains higher than wage inflation, this is getting worse, not better. In terms of what you can buy for your wage, we've already lost a decade. The trick will be to not lose two.

Buckingham Palace during the Golden Jubiliee, the last time real wages were this low.

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.