Memo to Duncan Smith: unlike the UK, the US has recovered from recession

The Work and Pensions Secretary is wrong to criticise the performance of the US economy.

It took some chutzpah for Mitt Romney supporter Iain Duncan Smith to declare on BBC Radio 5 Live last night that it was "very worrying" that the United States hadn't "bounced back from this recession". Unlike the UK, the US has more than recovered from the downturn of 2008-09.

As the graph below shows, while the US has grown consistently since leaving recession in the third quarter of 2009 (with the exception of Q1 2011 when output was flat), Britain has only recently returned to growth after three quarters of contraction. Indeed, by one definition at least, we're still in recession. Unlike the US economy, which is now 2.3 per cent above its pre-recession peak, the UK economy is still 3.1 per cent smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2008. Over the last year, while UK output has remained flat, the US has grown by 2.3 per cent.

The divergence in performance is due in no small part to the decision of the US government to pursue stimulus and the decision of the UK to pursue austerity. Barack Obama's $787bn fiscal stimulus, a mixture of tax cuts, infrastructure projects and increased unemployment benefits, is estimated to have increased real US GDP by around 3.4 per cent and to have created or saved 2.7 million jobs (see this study by Mark Zandi, a former economic adviser to John McCain, and Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve). By contrast, the coalition's (non-expansionary) fiscal contraction is thought to have reduced GDP by 4.3 per cent this year.

Duncan Smith is welcome to invite comparison of the two economies (not least because it aids the case against the government's policies), but he should know that there can only be one winner.

Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.