With his deficit reduction plan increasingly off-track, George Osborne is reportedly considering breaking the link between benefit levels and inflation and freezing payments to claimants. It's a move the government discussed last year, although it ended up raising benefits by 5.2%, in line with September inflation (the figures traditionally used to calculate payments). But in his speech on welfare earlier this year, Cameron suggested that benefits could be linked to wages instead. He said:
This year we increased benefits by 5.2 per cent.
That was in line with the inflation rate last September.
But it was almost twice as much as the average wage increase.
Given that so many working people are struggling to make ends meet we have to ask whether this is the right approach.
It might be better to link benefits to prices unless wages have slowed – in which case they could be linked to wages.
Although pensions, which go up annually by either inflation, earnings, or 2.5% (whichever is higher), would be exempt from the move, it's thought that 90% of benefits would be frozen. Having already cut welfare payments by uprating benefits in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than the (generally higher) Retail Price Index (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut"), Osborne is preparing to squeeze the poor again. And, while the move would have saved an estimated £14bn since 2008/09, it makes little economic sense.
At a time of high unemployment (forecasters expect the jobless total to rise to 8.7% next year), freezing benefits will only further depress consumer demand. Unlike the rich, most benefit claimants can't afford to save, so they spend whatever they receive and stimulate growth as a result. In this regard, it's heartening to learn that, according to the BBC's Nick Robinson, Iain Duncan Smith believes the policy would be "bad economics" since the poor "spend not save". There's also, of course, a moral objection. Cutting support to the poorest means even more families having to choose between heating and eating.
But the poor, to their cost, can't employ armies of lobbyists to plead their case. There is no easier target for a right-wing government - and no less deserving one.