Over ten per cent of Britain's possible labour is wasted

Combining underemployment and unemployment shows the output gap is much bigger than previously estimated.

Our own economics editor, David Blanchflower, has a new paper out today co-authored with David Bell of the University of Stirling, taking a deeper look at underemployment.

Increasingly, the issue is being understood as one of the major crises in the UK today. It explains how our unemployment rates have recovered far more quickly than GDP growth would lead us to expect, as well as providing a hypothesis about the UK's falling productivity levels (if full-time permanent workers have are more productive than part-time and temporary workers, then high underemployment would hinder the UK's productivity).

While it's usually better to be under-employed than unemployed (because the number of people who are actually better off on benefits is vanishingly small), it's no walk in the park. At best, underemployment results in wasted potential in the same way as unemployment, with people who could work more not having the choice. And working for one day a week is much less than a fifth as good as working for all five: you can't buy a weekly travelcard, meaning commuting costs more; you can't build up expertise or connections at work; and you spend the vast proportion of your income on essentials, leaving little left over after the bills are paid (a problem that also afflicts people in full-time employment, of course).

On top of that, as Jonathan Portes points out, underemployment is an issue which overwhelmingly affects young people (of whom 1 in 5 are already unemployed):

In 2012, 30 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 that did have jobs wished to work longer hours. This means that the labour market for the young is even more difficult than the raw unemployment rates imply. Even if there was an upturn in demand, employers would likely extend the hours of existing workers before taking the risk of hiring new young employees.

But the thing is, despite underemployment being such an important issue, we don't have any great way to measure it. The unemployment figures include statistics asking people in part-time and temporary positions whether they'd rather be in full-time permanent jobs, which is a good start, but it's an overly simplistic measure (what about part-timers who want to stay part time but have more hours?), and it fails to properly capture the interplay between un- and under-employment.

Separately, the annual Labour Force Survey asks respondents whether they are looking for more hours of work at the same pay, and how many hours they are actually working; but those measures are even harder to compare to the unemployment data, and are far too infrequent to be of much use.

That's where Blanchflower and Bell step in. By combining those two measures with the general unemployment rate, they have put together an "underemployment" index. They write:

Like the unemployment rate, it is expressed as a percentage. It can be thought of as measuring the ratio of net unemployed hours to total available hours assuming that the hours preferences of the employed at current wages are met.

If everyone who was employed was working exactly the number of hours they wanted to be, then the index would be the same as the unemployment rate. In fact, it can fall below the unemployment rate, in times when the majority of employed workers would rather reduce their hours – and that's how it was in the boom years. But once the great recession hit, the index diverged markedly:

It's an important measure, because it reflects not only the "external" labour market that most of us see – unemployed people hunting for jobs – but also the "internal" labour market: people with work, negotiating with their employers for more or less work. As a result, the authors write:

This index gives perhaps a broader estimate of the extent of underused capacity in the economy – the output gap – than a simple measure based on the unemployment rate.

The policy implications, they write, are clear. Taking a narrow view, the ONS needs to pick up the ball on this, and start publishing the data alongside the broad unemployment index. But in the broader sense:

There is very substantial spare capacity in the labour market; the implication being that if demand were higher, output could easily be higher, and it could be higher without exerting any significant upward pressure on real wages. So any further stimulus, whether fiscal or monetary, would not be inflationary. People want to work.

Looking at underemployment as well as unemployment confirms that the stagnation Britain has experienced is unlikely to be purely, or even mainly, structural. Stimulus is likely to lead to more employment, not more inflation; and so it should be done as soon as possible.

Staff in a dispatch centre package goods to ship. Shift workers are frequently underemployed. 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.