Inflation is worst for the worse off

"Essentials" increased in price by far more than the CPI last year.

Money broker Tullett Prebon has created an index of price inflation in "essentials" in Britain, which it's calling (unsurprisingly) the Tullett Prebon UK Essentials Index. It defines "essential" goods as:

  • Food, alcohol and tobacco
  • Council tax, water charges and home insurance
  • The costs of domestic heating and power, principally gas and electricity
  • Fuel, road tax and vehicle insurance
  • Train, bus and other public transport fares

(Yes, alcohol and tobacco are essentials.) Between them, those components make up 40 per cent of the RPI, with the other sixty per cent being non-essentials.

Defining the difference lets us take a look at how bad inflation is hitting just the act of day-to-day living. Tullett Prebon estimates inflation in essentials was 3.7 per cent over 2012, well above the CPI, which increased by 2.8 per cent. And, since wages have been rising below even CPI, the price of essentials has soared in comparison to income:

Between 2007 and 2012, nominal incomes expanded by 10% whilst the cost of essentials soared by more than 33%, meaning that the average working person would have been 17% worse off if he or she had spent the whole of their income on essentials.

Of course, few people do spend their entire income on essentials. However, with real incomes under pressure, and with the prices of essentials now increasing at annual rates of close to 4%, the proportion of household incomes going into essentials is clearly rising, and is set to continue to do so.

As the chart below makes clear, this is entirely a post-recession phenomenon:

It's been known that inflation is worse for the worse off for quite some time now, but it's largely been a fact bandied around by the far left. The Communist Party of Britain — that's the one which publishes the Morning Star — produced a Working Class Price Index in 2010, which made much the same point. That pegged inflation for the working class (which included a broad mixture of non-essentials as well) at over 10 per cent for some years.

This isn't quite the same point as the one made by those at the intersection of compassionate conservatism and inflation hawkishness, which is that high inflation disproportionately hits the poor. That may or may not be true — I'm inclined to think it does, but not as much as high unemployment and low growth does, and insofar as inflation hawks call for that trade-off they're being disingenuous — but what is true is that whatever the headline rate of inflation is, if you're poor, life is getting more expensive much faster than that indicates.

One final point (I think made originally by Left Outside) is that a closer look at the categories which count as essentials reveals a far greater extent of government control over prices than is normal. Council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set (in aggregate) by the government; a massive proportion of the cost of alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power is similarly driven by taxation.

As a result, standard understanding of inflation goes out the window. There is no intrinsic link between monetary policy and the rate of inflation for "essentials", because the prices aren't set by the market. It's a rare situation where the government could have its cake and eat it; it could implement expansionary monetary policy to boost demand, while at the same time capping, temporarily, rises in those direct regressive taxes and fares to below inflation.

But for that to happen, there first needs to be wider understanding of the problem. That's why the essentials index is an important piece of research, and worth keeping an eye on.

Updated to replace the giant picture of some rice with the chart which was actually supposed to be there.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.