Are we catching the US disease?

The average American household has failed to benefit from the recent era of economic growth and risi

In the 1970s, the policy and political elite obsessed about the 'British disease' -- the failure of our system of industrial relations, and its impact on UK prosperity relative to our competitors, above all the US. Forty years on, their concern should be whether we have caught the 'US disease': the failure of the broad mass of US households on low to middle incomes, the middle-class in American parlance, to benefit from the recent era of economic growth and rising productivity. Typical US family incomes today are at the same level as they were in the late 1980s, and median wages have flat-lined for an even longer period.

As the chart shows, the US has long had a problem with sharing -- that is, sharing out the proceeds of growth.

Source: Machin, Centre for Economic Performance

The question is: are we catching their bug? Over the last decade the UK (as well as other countries like Germany) has started to show more US-like tendencies, as the relationship between economic growth and the pay rises going to the ordinary worker has weakened.


Source: Resolution Foundation

There's no consensus as to what explains this great American stagnation. The easy bit is to point the finger at US policy mistakes that have certainly made matters much worse. Regressive tax policy, motivated by trickle-down theories; together with weak regulation motivated by a belief in the infallibility of markets, undermined their fiscal position, fuelled inequality and magnified economic instability. And the nature of the US political system itself poses a barrier to economic progress, with the efforts of President Obama -- like those of other Presidents -- being thwarted by deep and intractable political gridlock.

But to appreciate the deeper causes of the problem, we also need to consider the longer term hollowing out of the US jobs market. Leading US economist Jared Bernstein, who is in the UK this week to speak to a major conference on how the UK can avoid the US fate, puts it this way:

The developments that have hurt the US middle class -- and they are related -- are high levels of inequality and weak employment growth. Together, they have created a wedge between growth and broadly shared prosperity. UK policy makers take note: pushback on these forces or be prepared for a prolonged middle income squeeze.

The chart below demonstrates Bernstein's point. Each decade since World War II has seen fast employment growth (usually consisting of a dip during a downturn followed by strong growth as the economic cycle picks up). But prior to the recent recession, there was almost no employment growth: the jobs market was already flat-lining before it went into freefall.

graph 3

There are plenty of potential reasons for this decline -- the rise of an ever sharper focus on shareholder value, and more intense competition from China and India are both regularly blamed.

But the most likely villain is the changing relationship between technology and the jobs market. A leading view is that the rate of technological change has slowed down since the 1970s, and the new innovations which have occurred, particularly in ICT, are far less job-rich than was the case in previous waves of technological change (an argument advocated by US economist Tyler Cowen in his Great Stagnation). Another argument, set out in the latest zeitgeist e-book from the US, Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfees, is that digital technology is changing faster than many workers can keep up with, rapidly encroaching into new sectors of the economy, leaving many workers economically displaced and disadvantaged (read this to see where these two perspectives converge and diverge).

If either of these are an accurate diagnosis, it's more than a bit worrying for the UK. We are of course exposed to precisely the same technological trends as the US; and prior to the recession we were already exhibiting many of the symptoms of a polarising labour market. Worse still, these long-term and underlying challenges are being made worse by short-term policy mistakes.

For now, our focus is rightly on injecting life into an economy with chronically weak domestic demand, whose main export market is in crisis. Beyond this, we need to contemplate how to avoid the US disease which, if caught, could mean that living standards for much of the country could be divorced from any future growth for a generation to come.


Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

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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.