2020 job market projected to push poverty even higher

Tackling poverty means tackling the weak job market

Research we publish today looks at the impact of the projected job market in 2020 on poverty in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s more bad news. The implication is that we should target jobs and training assistance on the basis of household, not just individual, need and focus unerringly on the creation of more and better jobs.

The research uses a forecast of the type of job market we expect to have in 2020 and combines this with a model of household incomes that includes announced tax and benefit changes. The central forecast for 2020 is for many long-term trends to continue, including shifts towards a knowledge- and service-based economy and increases in high- and low-paid jobs. We already know that cuts to benefits and Tax Credits are likely to undermine the beneficial effects of Universal Credit. This will lead to (in combination with demographic and earnings change) rising poverty rates over the rest of the decade. Adding in an estimate of changes in the job market increases inequality further, although it does offset some of the rise in absolute child poverty.

(Click for a larger version)

So, changes to taxes, benefits, demography and earnings (the blue bars) increase absolute child poverty in 2020 by just over 6 per cent but job market changes (the red bar) offset this a tad. Turning to the relative measure, tax and benefit changes raise poverty by around 5 per cent and the projected job market adds another 1 per cent by 2020. All groups except households headed by someone aged over 65 see rising absolute and relative poverty from tax and benefit changes, with lone parents hit particularly hard. Employment change makes things worse for everyone except for absolute poverty among families with children.

We weren’t naive enough to expect the central forecast to eradicate poverty, so the plan was then to try out some different scenarios that JRF, the research team and our advisory group thought might have a positive impact. These variations were all based on changing the distribution (but not increasing the number) of jobs, and we didn’t vary the tax and benefit system. The second chart shows the impact of some of these scenarios on relative child poverty rates (the long bar shows the predicted 2020 rate of 25.7 per cent).

None of the alternative scenarios (the short bars) have any meaningful impact on that central child poverty projection. Keeping the employment structure as it is now would decrease poverty by a tiny 1.2 per cent. This is the biggest difference. A general rise in qualification levels across the workforce and reduced pay for the highest qualified, for example, actually increases child poverty more than in the central forecast (by 1.0 per cent). Most other scenarios have virtually zero effect by 2020.

(Click for a larger version)

There are two core reasons for this disappointing lack of impact. The first is that low paid and poorly qualified workers, along with women and part time workers, are spread across the whole household income distribution. This means targeting these workers is not an especially effective way of targeting poverty. The second is the huge ‘drag’ on poverty rates of the large number of workless households in the UK.

What do we do about these worrying findings? It is clear that interventions such as training and skills development need to be targeted on the basis of household need, not just individual need if we are to have a serious impact on poverty. It is also clear that we need more jobs. A lot more, because the 1.5 million new jobs included in these forecasts is going to be nowhere near enough when 6 million people in the UK are currently seeking more work.

A child in the Gorton estate in Manchester, where 27% of children live under the poverty line. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Goulden is the poverty programme manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Show Hide image

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.