The rise in housing benefit is driven by a rise in need. No more, no less

It's not greed, it's not fraud, it's just more people needing help to live their lives, writes Declan Gaffney.

It’s safe to say that housing benefit has few defenders on any side of the political debate.

All parties agree that spending is out of control and needs to be reined in. The right has ruthlessly promoted the claim that housing subsidises the underserving poor to live in accommodation ordinary workers couldn’t afford. The left responds by saying that it is landlords rather than tenants who are milking the system. Thus Owen Jones writes:

Greedy landlords are fully aware that most cannot afford to pay their extortionate rents. But they also know that the taxpayer will step in and subsidise them with housing benefits… Instead of wasting billions on housing benefit, we could spend it on building housing, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

What the left and right criticisms have in common is more important than what distinguishes them. Housing benefit exemplifies the gruesome two-step of current welfare debate.

  • Step one: claim that expenditure is at unprecedented and unsustainable levels.
  • Step two: blame this on some unpopular group milking the system—greedy landlords or irresponsible tenants—thus suggesting that expenditure can be cut or redirected to other purposes without pain.

Step two is wishful thinking, as I’ll argue below. Step one is easily dealt with. Look at this chart:


The green curve shows expenditure on housing benefit as a share of GDP, indexed to 1978/9, from that year to 2011/12. (It’s the share of GDP that counts when the sustainability of expenditure is at issue.) Spending now, four years after the onset of recession, is at almost exactly the same level as it was in 1995/6 four years after the last recession. In the intervening period it first fell dramatically as the impact of the early 90’s recession receded, then rose sharply when the global financial system collapsed in 2008/9. There has been no long-term upward trend since the early 1990's, so the rhetoric of unsustainability is completely misplaced.

The red curve on the chart, which takes out the effect on expenditure of changes in the number of claimants, shows that the recent rise in expenditure is overwhelmingly driven by the caseload (the dotted blue curve). It also allows us to see the impact of the switch from supply-side to demand-side funding during the late 1980s — that is, the switch from directly subsidising social rents and building homes to giving tenants the money to pay higher rents.

This doesn’t represent a change in overall expenditure but a redirection of subsidy to a different channel.1 The impacts of that switch, particularly on work incentives and poverty traps for lower income groups, have been hotly debated, but the point here is that this step change in housing benefit spending doesn’t represent an additional cost to taxpayers (except in the form of any negative impacts on employment). So even in this long-term perspective the notion that housing benefit represents an increasing burden on the Exchequer is wrong.

What about the other item on the charge sheet—that housing benefit expenditure is wasteful because either landlords or tenants are milking the system on a grand scale? Both these claims, if we are to make sense of them, involve similar economic assumptions.

To see this, consider how landlords might be able to raise rents above market level to capture the subsidy—bearing in mind that if rents aren’t above market level, there is no subsidy (left critics have been surprisingly uninterested in demonstrating this). The private rented market is dominated by small-scale, uncoordinated cottage industry operations, so we can rule out the notion that landlords are using market power to drive up rents. (An exception, but a small element in total spending, may be the market in temporary accommodation for people meeting local authority homelessness criteria).

The other possibility would be if tenants were to some extent indifferent to rent levels. That could allow landlords to use price discrimination (charging more to housing benefit claimants) to extract above-market rents from taxpayers. Alternatively, even if landlords didn’t use price discrimination, tenants might choose more desirable (expensive) properties if they weren’t worried about the rent—the government’s main argument for cutting entitlements. Thus the greedy landlord and irresponsible tenant stories turn on the same explanatory mechanism of tenants failing to respond to prices: they differ only in who is said to be extracting the unfair advantage.

Which raises the question: why would tenants be indifferent to rents? The higher the rent level, the more earned income will be subject to punitive marginal tax rates as housing benefit is withdrawn. You would have to suffer from extreme myopia or have minimal expectations of your future earning capacity not to take this into account in choosing accommodation. Add to this that about half of private rented sector claimants were living in their current accommodation before they made their claim, so they would have been making the same tradeoffs as anybody else when they chose where to live.2

Fortunately, all this can tested empirically.

London has the largest private rented sector in the country, a highly mobile population, substantial variations in rents between areas and (although Londoners hate to admit it) an excellent public transport system.

If housing benefit tenants care about rent levels, we would expect them to be in lower rent areas, subject of course to the availability of accommodation. If they didn’t care, we would expect them to be distributed across areas in accordance with the rental stock.

When a model in which the number of private sector claimants in each borough in 2010-11 is measured against (a) the size of the local private rented sector and (b) the lower 25 per cent of local rents, we find the latter "explains" 66 per cent of the variation in caseload between areas. Overall, a 1 per cent increase in rents implies a 1.7 per cent decrease in the number of claimants.3

Given this strong negative relationship between rent levels and private sector HB claims, the notion that landlords are capturing a large part of the subsidy by charging above market rents looks implausible.

This is even more the case when we look at what’s happened in London since the cuts to housing benefit in April 2011. Using the same model with post-reform data, there is no statistically significant change in the relationship between rents and caseload: even quite dramatic cuts to entitlements don’t seem to have made that much difference to the already very strong propensity for higher rents to drive down the number of claimants.

(This isn’t to say there has been no effect from the changes, but that if there has been, it’s small by comparison with what was already happening before they took place.)

At the same time, between 2011 and 2012, rents rose by 8 per cent in London, and they rose most for the type of larger property where the cuts had the most impact on tenants’ ability to pay—rents for three- and four-bed flats have risen by more than 10 per cent. So much for the government’s claims that rents are falling in response to the cuts

Given how much we spend on housing benefit in the private rented sector it would be surprising if there were no landlords taking advantage. But the hard lesson is that this probably has little impact on overall spending levels. Claims from the left that billions are being wasted "subsidising" private landlords are about as convincing as claims from the right that billions are being wasted subsidising irresponsible tenants to live in mansions.

There’s a longstanding debate about the merits of funding housing through demand rather than supply-side subsidy. (For a fair statement of the argument, see Shelter’s report). But suggesting that there’s a free pot of money available for housing investment in the form of subsidy captured by greedy landlords adds nothing to that debate.

If we want more housing investment, we’re going to have to pay for it some other way: perhaps by borrowing as Jonathan Portes has suggested. Taking that route would also have positive impacts on employment, thus reducing expenditure on housing benefit without hitting the incomes of struggling workers. But the welfare reform two-step is a distraction from the real issues, whether you lead with the right or the left.

1 See page 55 here.

2 See section 6.2 here.

3 Geek note: all variables in logarithms, all p-values <.01. The results are not driven by multi-collinearity between the independent variables.

A housing estate in Lambeth. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.