One size does not fit all: why Universal Credit needs to work for older people

With its age-blind design, Universal Credit is a missed opportunity to tackle the UK’s demographic challenge.

The shape of our labour market has altered dramatically in recent decades. Among the starkest changes is the increase in the number of older workers – from five million in 1992 to 7.5 million in 2012. One in three people of working age in the UK is already over 50 and the growth of this group will continue to far outpace that of their younger counterparts.

For many of these baby boomers, their working lives have coincided with good times of rising employment and a boom in assets like house prices. But it is naïve to think that all the boomers are now sailing into affluent, easy retirements. The UK has four million inactive or unemployed older people, many of whom might still want to work but are prevented by a mix of caring responsibilities, poor health, poor skills and the fact that there’s often no real financial incentive for them to do so. As a result, many people retire or drift out of the labour market without having been able to save all they need for a comfortable old age.

This is bad news for those households left without the savings they need to maintain decent living standards into retirement. But it also spells trouble for the public finances, putting upward pressure on benefit spending and reducing tax revenues just as public spending constraints are at their tightest.

The ageing challenge provides the context for the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). The interaction between the welfare system and incentives is one of the main ways a government can shape labour market behaviour and UC is the government’s flagship welfare reform. The financial support it offers low earners is a potentially powerful tool to boost employment – indeed providing incentives (“work always pays”) is the principle at the heart of UC. And one in five families receiving UC will include at least one person aged 50 or over.

But how effective will UC be in increasing an older person’s incentive to work? This question has received almost no attention. Yet a report out today from the Resolution Foundation, Getting on: older workers and universal credit, shows that while UC offers some benefits to older workers, it also misses an opportunity to develop an age-specific approach to raise their incentives to stay in a job, or return to work.

In fact, while many older workers will be better off under UC, others will see their financial incentives to work sharply reduced. In the most severe case, someone aged over 60 and earning £7 an hour could see their annual income from work fall by £1,640 (from £9,120 to £7,480). This is because many older workers doing between 16 and 30 hours a week on low incomes receive an extra level of support under the current system of tax credits which will disappear under UC. The result is that an additional tranche of low-paid older people working more than 16 hours a week will be worse off.

The problem is that in its welcome attempt to simplify the current mishmash of working and workless benefits, UC has been designed on an age-blind basis. This passes up the opportunity to incorporate age-specific measures which would make work more appealing to older people, especially those over 55 who are nearing retirement. For example, UC could allow older workers to keep more of their earnings before support starts to be withdrawn (raising the ‘disregard’). A new, higher disregard for workers over 55 would leave low paid older workers better off by £150 a month. This would come at an overall public cost of £200 million; however this cost would fall if older people moved into in work as a result - the Treasury saves around £5,300 a year when a person moves from longer-term unemployment to work 25 hours a week.

The introduction of UC is by no means all bad news. Greater simplicity is to be welcomed. UC also makes support more flexible, helping those who wish to retire gradually and those who can’t work full-time because of caring duties or poor health. UC also provides more incentive to save into a pension than the current system, a very desirable change.

Despite the positives, there is a strong case for making UC more attractive for people to work past the age of 50 and on into their 60s. The UK would add another 1.5 million workers if it matched the older employment rates of other advanced economies, and efforts to boost employment among this group will be vital to living standards in the coming decades.

Our ageing population and relatively poor performance in this field makes this a crucial economic issue for the country. As things stand, UC with its present age-blind design is a missed opportunity to tackle the UK’s demographic challenge.

Giselle Cory is senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Giselle Cory is senior research and policy analyst at IPPR.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?