Family breakdown and the riots: Owen Jones

Unrest is being used to push a reactionary agenda.

The August riots have left an ugly mood. Communities across England felt besieged and even terrorised by the arson, vandalism and looting. There are worrying signs that right-wingers intend to manipulate people's understandable fury by pushing a reactionary social agenda, repackaged as "family values" - just as they transformed the crisis of the banks into one of public spending. This time, the left needs to be prepared. Above all, we need to take on the one-dimensional view of what a family is.

The consensus among right-wing commentators seems to be that fatherless families are to blame for the violent disorder. The Daily Express, for example, appears to find no contradiction in claiming both that "we have bred feckless, lawless males who pass on to their own children the same mistakes" and that "fatherlessness is the single most destructive factor in modern society".

Bizarre inconsistencies aside, we are witnessing the unwelcome return of the theories of the US political scientist Charles Murray, who rose to prominence in the late 1980s when he claimed that family breakdown was behind the rise of an "underclass". He argued: "The family in the dominant economic class - call it the upper middle class - is in better shape than most people think and is likely to get better. Meanwhile, deterioration is likely to continue in the lower classes." Rising illegitimacy had created a "new rabble"; one of Murray's solutions was that childbearing should entail "economic penalties for a single woman. It is all horribly sexist, I know. It also happens to be true."

As the post-riot backlash gathers pace, the left should respond with the facts. As studies by the Children's Society have shown, conflict in a family has ten times more of an impact than family structure. Keeping together a couple who are constantly at each other's throats is more likely to damage a child than being raised in stable circumstances by one parent. Although there are poorer outcomes for a significant minority of single parents, there is a strong correlation with both conflict and poverty. Indeed, the same kinds of outcomes are found in children raised by couples in similar circumstances.

For many, the feckless Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is as good a symbol of a single parent as any. The truth is that six out of ten work and, as research by the single-parent charity Gingerbread has found, the vast majority want to, despite the difficulties involved in juggling a job and raising kids. If the left doesn't take on the demonisation of single parents, nobody will.

The left's position on families should be based on the realities of modern Britain: supporting stable, happy families, whether that means the family of a gay couple, or a single parent, or a conventional nuclear family. It means making the case that poverty and unemployment put a huge degree of stress on all families and are responsible for a raft of other social problems.

The right wants to take us back to a fictional golden age - somewhere in the 1950s, when the proportion of teenage pregnancies was similar to today's, according to a study by Claire Alexander at the London School of Economics. After the riots, our job is certainly harder - but more necessary than ever.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class" (Verso, £14.99)

Previous: Ruth Lister: Two-parent households aren't always best.

Next: Diane Abbott: Single mothers need support, not lectures.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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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 a non-compulsory aspiration of campaigners) 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.