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The beauty of roadkill

John Burnside's nature column.

In 1989, Barry Lopez wrote a short book called Apologia, in which he described the ritual he had gradually developed of stopping for animals he found dead on the road and removing them, gently and with great care, to the safety of the verge.

To each dead creature he encountered, Lopez offered a few words of apology, something akin to a prayer, not only as “a mark of respect”, but also as “a technique of awareness” – and, as any serious practitioner of religion will readily confirm, the end purpose of ritual is exactly this heightened awareness, in which the imagination is freed to reconnect with something larger than its usual concerns and, by so doing, to remember its moral and aesthetic responsibilities to the creaturely. There are those who will dismiss Lopez’s ritual as a futile or romantic gesture but, to me, it is meaningful in several ways.

First, on a practical level, to remove new roadkill from the path of future traffic is to help prevent further deaths: all too often, roadkill leads to roadkill as scavengers are struck down by high-speed vehicles while working the remains of the original victim. More importantly, however, it reminds us that, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked in a letter to his friend Sidney Colvin: “It is the proof of intelligence, the proof of not being a barbarian, to be able to enter into something outside of oneself, something that does not touch one’s next neighbour in the city omnibus.”

To handle another animal in this way is to reassert one’s own, usually concealed bond with the creaturely. Because such handling demands tact and real tenderness, it becomes a highly charged event, an assumption of responsibility and a declaration not of guilt, which is something else, but penitence.

Compare Lopez’s Apologia with the Roadkill Bingo game, in which, as the name suggests, players score by spotting dead animals on the road and ticking them off on a bingo card, the winner being the first to get five different animals in one row or column. North Americans have known about Roadkill Bingo for years, but it only became a news item after US troops described playing a modified form of the game during the Desert Storm campaign. Yet the mere fact that the game exists is an indication not only of the vast numbers of animals struck down on the roads worldwide (in the US alone, more than one and a half million deer are killed by motor vehicles every year), but also of our growing desensitisation to the mayhem.

In his moving and unsettling long essay “The Star Thrower”, Loren Eiseley paints a picture of a solitary man on a beach, rescuing starfish washed up by the tide and returning them to the sea, even though he knows they will only wash up again in the powerful waves further along the beach. It’s another futile gesture, no doubt, yet one that moves Eiseley and, in turn, his readers to wonder at the depth of our creaturely fellow feeling.

A taxi driver once told me that, in his own variation of Lopez’s ritual, he sometimes goes out in the early morning, in secret, to gather dead birds from under the wind turbines near his home and lay them out in clusters on a grass verge some yards away. He doesn’t know why he does this, but I suspect that, like Eiseley’s star thrower, or like my sons, who can spend hours on beach walks searching for stranded crabs to carry back to the sea “so the gulls don’t get them”, he feels a need to remember – and to reassert – his own, nearly extinguished creatureliness in whatever tentative marks of respect and awareness he finds himself able to contrive.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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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.