The state can't afford to cut back family support

Children are not a private luxury but the future workers and taxpayers of this country. Labour should pledge to reverse the fall in the value of child benefit.

The dog days are upon us and like most parents, I’m scrabbling around for childcare and searching for affordable activities for my child. The summer holidays cost – but as new research published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows, an ice cream here and play scheme there is just the beginning of it.

Cost of a Child in 2013 documents the minimum income required to bring up a child in the UK today. It draws on JRF’s on-going work, which regularly asks members of the public which items they think we should all be able to afford. What emerges from this exercise is a consensus that families need enough to cover the bare essentials such as food and shelter, but also require a modest amount to enable them to participate in normal social activities too.

The numbers are enough to make anyone sit up and think: the research estimates the minimum acceptable cost of a child over 18 years is £81,722 for couple, and £90,980 for a single parent. (The figure for single parents is higher due to the fact that there is only one adult in the family to offset some of the children’s costs by reducing their own). Add in childcare costs and the numbers increase still further - to £148,105 for couples and a staggering £161,260 for single parents, over the 18-year period.

The figures illuminate why families with children are generally at a higher risk of poverty than other groups in society: costs sky-rocket when we have children yet our earning power is compromised by childcare responsibilities. In recognition of this, the state helps us smooth our incomes over the course of our lifetime through the provision of child benefit and, for lower-income families, child tax credits too.

But as the report documents, both these sources of support have diminished considerably in recent years. Child benefit was frozen in 2010 and has consequently lost one-seventh of its value; tax credits look set to wither away in a similar manner as they are uprated at a mere 1% over the next three years.

With earnings lagging behind costs as well, it’s not surprising that a couple with two children working full-time on the minimum wage today net only 83 per cent of the minimum income they require. While the same couple can just about reach an adequate standard of living on the median wage – our national mid-point - a single parent family in the same situation is still almost 10 per cent shy of a decent standard of living.

There’s a question, of course, as to how much the state should help parents with the costs of their children. But children are not a private luxury as some current political debates like to suggest. Instead, they are the future workers and taxpayers of this country and supporting families with their children’s costs is more accurately seen as an investment, not the deadweight cost it is often presented as.

Labour has indicated that restoring child benefit to higher earners would not be a priority if it were in power but has remained silent on whether it would seek to restore the benefit’s real value to its 2010 level. Meanwhile, the coalition is proposing to pay childcare costs to families earning up to £300,000 between them, while through universal credit it will compensate only those earning more than £10,000. And the Conservatives are set to unveil plans later this year to introduce a married couple's tax allowance. But as far as I know, once the wedding is over, married couples don’t have any additional costs, so it is hard to see any rationale for it.

Meanwhile, think tanks such as IPPR have gone on record numerous times to suggest that child benefit be frozen for a decade and the money redeployed to pay for additional childcare support. The Cost of a Child report shows what a self-defeating strategy that would be: subsidising childcare by cutting child benefit is giving with one hand while taking away with the other. As we move towards the 'living standards election' of 2015, all parties need to think harder about how we re-commit to all our children - as we did after the Second World War through universal family allowances – we need to find more funds and better ways to help families at all income levels, working or not working, with the costs of a child.   

Washing hangs out to dry above children's bikes on the balcony of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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The global shipping slowdown hints at a recession around the corner

Instability in China and tumbling commodity prices have devastated the world’s freight providers – a strong indicator of trouble to come.

This is beginning to have the feel of 2008 all over again. Policy makers around the world are in denial once again as global stock markets dive. In 2008, the slowing of the world's biggest economy – the US – sent the global economy into a tailspin. The concern now is that the slowing of the second-largest economy, China, may well have similar global effects. Chinese growth, which averaged 10 per cent for three decades through to 2010, has decelerated for five straight years and in 2015 slowed to 6.9 per cent, its lowest rate in a quarter of a century. The IMF is forecasting that Chinese growth will slow further to 6.3 per cent in 2016 and 6 per cent in 2017, which may well be overly optimistic. There is already speculation that China’s banking system may see losses even larger than those suffered by US banks during the last crisis.

The bad news from China appears to have already spread to the US, which has seen GDP growth slowing sharply in the last quarter of 2015. US industrial production and core retail sales are both falling, and there have been marked contractions in core capital goods shipments and private non-residential construction. Business fixed investment declined nearly 2 per cent last quarter. Despite the bad news, last week Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen astonishingly claimed that “the US economy is in many ways close to normal”. By contrast, Ruslan Bikbov from Bank of America Merrill Lynch calculates that there is a 64 per cent probability the US is already in recession. My expectation is the next move by the Fed will be to cut rates.

Company profits are tumbling as commodity and oil prices decline. BP reported a $3.3bn fourth-quarter loss last year while Exxon Mobil reported a 58 per cent fall in its quarterly profit. It isn’t just oil companies. Last week, Rio Tinto – the world's second biggest mining company – reported profits down 51 per cent after commodity prices collapsed amid slowing growth from China. Company profits are also suffering due to a big decline in the amount of freight being moved, especially to and from China. Moeller-Maersk, the Danish conglomerate and the world’s biggest container-ship operator by capacity, last week reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $2.51bn.  

DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, also says that global volume has slowed sharply. It reported that volumes at its ports rose by 2.4 per cent last year, compared with 8 per cent growth in 2014. Data provider Container Trades Statistics said this week that Asia-to-Europe trade fell nearly 4 per cent last year. Freight rates in 2015 averaged $620 per container on the Asia-to-Europe trade route. Typically, ship operators need more than $1,000 to break even. In February, the cost of moving a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam fell to $431, barely covering fuel costs. Figures released by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange show that the country’s 20 largest container ports grew by 3.7 per cent over 2014, compared to 5.5 per cent the previous year. The Hong Kong Port Development Council reported that throughput at the port of Hong Kong fell by 9.5 per cent in 2015.  

The Baltic Dry Index (BDIY) – an index of the price for shipping dry goods such as iron ore and coal (oil is wet) as shown in the chart below – is at a record low of 290. It is down 75 per cent since its recent peak in 2015 and down 98 per cent from its peak of 11,793 points in May 2008. The collapse to 772 by 5 September 2008 (a week before Lehman Brothers failed) presaged the global recession and it is falling again. Capesize vessels, which are too big to get through the Suez or Panama canals, had an average daily hire last week of $1,484, compared with a peak of $233,988 in June 2008. Even though there is an oversupply of ships, global demand is collapsing.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released figures for global air freight, showing cargo volumes expanded 2.2 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014. This was a slower pace of growth than the 5 per cent recorded in 2014. This weakness apparently reflects sluggish trade growth in Europe and Asia-Pacific. “2015 was another very difficult year for air cargo,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Growth has slowed and revenue is falling. In 2011 air cargo revenue peaked at $67bn. In 2016 we are not expecting revenue to exceed $51bn.”

The current contraction in rail freight is apparently reminiscent of the drop that started at the end of 2008 and carried on into 2009. China's rail freight volumes fell by a significant amount last year. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), volumes fell by 11.9 per cent, a further increase on the 2014 slowdown, when traffic declined by 3.9 per cent.

In the western US farm belt, grain trains are so abundant you can’t give one away. Since the middle of last March, carloads of agricultural products, chemicals, coal, metals, autos and other goods have declined every week. Shipments of US coal, the biggest commodity moved by rail, declined 12 per cent in 2015, according to the Association of American Railroads. The cost of carrying spring wheat from North Dakota to the Pacific coast has dropped by a third in the past two years. In early 2014, grain companies with a train to spare could command $6,000 per car above the official railway tariff, traders say. Today, to avoid hefty contract cancellation fees, they are paying others to use their unwanted trains.

Manufacturing output in the UK fell for each of the last three months and is down 1.7 per cent over the year. The overly optimistic Monetary Policy Committee is forecasting GDP growth of 2.2 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2016; 2.4 per cent (2.5 per cent) in 2017 and 2.5 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2018 (the latest, broadly similar, OBR forecasts in parentheses).

So all is well then? Probably not. Mark Carney has run out of ammunition with the Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent in 2008, and has little room to manoeuvre. Negative rates and more quantitative easing, here we come. George Osborne has never explained what he would have done differently in 2008 – his plans for a budget surplus are already in disarray as the economy slows. I am not saying a recession is going to happen any time soon, but it well might.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire