IDS and the skivers from Mars

Why cutting money from benefits might not save anything in the long run.

It might not be a bad idea to send Iain Duncan Smith to Mars. We’d soon see what turns a striver into a skiver. Last month, scientists released the results of a study into what happens when people are kept indolent for more than a year. They sleep more, play more video games and lose all normal motivation. Being stripped of normal routines makes it hard to revert to being a striver. The study wasn’t intended to be a critique of social policy; it was about space exploration.

The pioneering Dutch organisation Mars One has more than 1,000 volunteers lined up to take its one-way trips to the Red Planet starting in 2023. Be careful what you wish for, though: if you commit to any of the missions, you will be cooped up with your fellow astronauts in tightly fitting accommodation for nearly 18 months. The study makes it clear that, unless you’re careful, some of you may lose your mind.

The Mars500 project, which took place just outside Moscow, replicated the conditions of a trip to Mars. A multinational mix of engineers, astronaut trainers and doctors spent 520 days in a mock-up of a spaceship composed of narrow tunnels and rooms. Cut off from the rest of the world, crew members were monitored by video cameras and activity monitors worn like wristwatches, enabling scientists to record their behaviour. The mock astronauts were given various things to do but it was what they didn’t do that was most telling.

They didn’t bother with physical activity in the way they might have done when going about their normal existence. As their lethargy grew, they largely avoided the better-lit parts of their accommodation. By the time the mission drew to a close, half of them were sleeping an hour more per night than at the start. For some, playing video games became a coping strategy to deal with the endless tedium.

Nasa and the European Space Agency will be using the data to inform future astronaut training but there is a lesson for lesser mortals, too. If you strip people of normal human purpose, even those who have had the drive to become doctors and engineers struggle to get it back.

In more mundane contexts, long-term poverty leads to some very dark situations. A study published just after Christmas reported on interviews with low-income urban women. They described themselves as living with high stress, long-term exposure to violence, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and intense isolation and loneliness. The researchers who carried out the study noted that no one knows how to get the women out of this place.

Such situations lead to increased health-care burdens, too. A study of 200 breast cancer survivors, also published in December, has shown that loneliness and social isolation lead to pain, depression, fatigue and illness. It’s not all in their heads: blood samples showed that the women’s ability to fight disease and deal with pain were altered. As the researchers put it, “Loneliness enhances [the] risk for immune dysregulation.”

The message is clear, whether the news comes from space agencies, social policy researchers or cancer survivors: if you cut people off from the norms of society, they will collapse in on themselves. Unless you’re superhuman, failing to find work for an extended period will end with you giving up on everything, including staying healthy. So, the money saved from benefit cuts may end up being spent on health-care interventions for the terminally disadvantaged – unless you send them with IDS on that one-way trip to Mars.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Mars: Iain Duncan Smith's new home? Photograph: NASA

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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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.