Wonga are blinding critics with science

The payday loan company shows off about its algorithm, but lends to the same vulnerable people.

I read Michael Brooks' article, Doing Science the Wonga Way, with great interest.

I have had the algorithm Wonga uses to distinguish between applicants explained to me, and it is fascinating. It makes the most of the fact that the internet is replete with thousands of pieces of information about us that, in aggregate, paint a reasonable picture of who we are. More importantly for Wonga, they also paint a picture of how creditworthy we might be. It doesn't take this lightly: I've been told it uses 6-8000 data points about the each of the people it checks.

The problem was that I only had the algorithm explained to me after its accuracy was seriously put in to question.

Wonga has a weekly survey of people who they consider to be good customers, and they brag about them to journalists. When the Guardian's Amelia Gentleman interviewed Errol Damelin, the chief executive of Wonga, he and his team had a chance to show that their model worked. When they put names of potential customers through their high-tech filters, the system ought to tell them whether they would be good customers. They would then only lend if it would be responsible to. After all, Wonga says that it turns away two-thirds of applicants.

Rather than the "web-savvy young professionals" that the company says that it lends to, one of the "good customers" on their weekly survey was Susan, an unemployed former nurse dependent on disability benefits. She uses the loans she receives from Wonga to buy food when she is short of cash. In fact, at the time of the Guardian interview, she had taken out 6 loans with Wonga, nearly double the amount of payday loans the average customer takes out (3.5).

We have two options here. Either we can assume Wonga purposefully targets people who are not median income, employed and web-savvy, unlike what they say, or their algorithm doesn't work as well as they say.

In the same interview with the Guardian, John Morwood, Wonga's communications director, said:

Sometimes we will make loans to people on significant benefits, but it is not something we do very frequently. It is very infrequent. I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen.

Dr Brooks is correct to say that the company has enjoyed some fantastic and enviable funding from several organisations. Last time I looked, Wonga were the beneficiaries of £3.7m from Balderton Capital in 2007, £14m from Accel Partners (also investors in Facebook) in 2009, then £73m from Oak Investment Partners, Meritech Partners and the Wellcome Trust.

I can't be certain, but my assumption is that at least some of these backers are interested in Wonga as an example of good science put into action by business, and aren't particularly interested in funding legal loansharking.

But Wonga's algorithm clearly doesn't alter the fundamentals of their business as much as they claim. Even with their flashy, investor-attracting scientific background, they still lend to people whose custom they admit they ought not to take.

Wonga itself is either misusing its own system to justify lending to people who should be served by less expensive lenders such as credit unions (which I think payday lenders should be obliged to advertise to low-income customers), or its algorithm needs a lot more work than it says.

As it stands, if the system confuses repeat borrowers who are unemployed and on benefits to buy food for people who are middle class, have bank accounts, are in full time employment and need the cash for minor financial shocks here and there, then there is a major issue.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.

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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.