Meet the first-time voters of Hicksville, Ohio

"Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded."

Hicksville's high school is housed in a state-of-the-art red-brick building, opened in 2009, on the east side of town. Students spill corridors filled with lockers in classic American high school style. On the day I visit, government teacher Dave Blue is taking two senior-year classes, most of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time tomorrow.

Among them, some are simply not interested. “I don't really pay attention to [politics],” says one 18-year-old student, Chad Klema, while another, Dean Conley simply says “I'm not voting.” When this gets an anguished response from the more politically active of his peers, he defends himself. “I just hate hearing about it. I don't think any president can fix this.”

Many are entirely disillusioned with the political process as a whole. “Neither candidate is great” is a common factor among many – though not all – students in both classes. “There are negative ads before every video on YouTube,” says 18-year-old Morgan Hahn. “It's not cool.”

Many of them, however, are more politically aware. Each lesson has a clearly dominant voice; obviously old rivals, they tell me they often spar with each other on political issues. Andrew Willis, the most powerful voice in the morning lesson, is a staunch and vocal Democrat. “I'm pro-choice, and gay marriage. I don't like that the rich get the tax cuts – Bush's tax cuts added to the deficit.” What does he think of the Republican challenger? “I think Romney is really, really untrustworthy. I think he changes his opinions to get elected.”

“He's a political rat!” he says with venom.

The afternoon class, by comparison, is all about Austin Laney – whose conservatism Willis tells me he likes to goad. “[Romney's] not just for one part of the country, he's for all of it,” Laney tells me. Even for the middle class? “Yeah.”

“Obama doesn't know what he's talking about,” he continues. “I don't like Obama. Romney's not that great – but he's better.”

Their teacher, Dave Blue, is one of those teachers that all his former pupils remember with a grin. I first meet him in the Brickhouse, Hicksville's local sports bar – I'm introduced by several former pupils. “You have to meet Dave,” they tell me. He makes quite an entrance, wearing a long leather trenchcoat and a battered stetson, and orders a whisky.

Blue has been helping his pupils negotiate the minefields of American politics for 28 years. I ask him if the students he sees generally lean one way or another. “I'd say [they're] more Republican than Democrat,” he tells me, “but Obama's got a good chance among these kids. They're young, they're willing to listen. Their minds are reasonably flexible. Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded. Some are probably going to rebel from mum and dad.”

When I ask the afternoon class if their political beliefs have been affected by their parents, there is a chorus of “yes” – except from Laney, who tells me scornfully that his parents are Democrats.

“I could go either way,” says another pupil, Charlie Guto. What would sway him? “I dunno.” He stops to think. “I'm against abortion. I don't think it's right.” Does that mean Romney's on his side on that one? “Yeah. But I feel like whoever wins, no one's going to fix it right away.”

Some of them have been under pressure from their classmates – but Shane Bostik is not giving in. “I'm on the border still,” he says, looking at Laney with a grin. “I've had Austin trying to persuade me to go for Romney... but I think I'm sticking with Obama. I think things are getting better each year.”

“They are starting to realise,” says Dave Blue proudly after the bell has gone and the students have joined the throng in the corridors heading to their next class, “that the real world is not that far away.”

He gestures expansively around his classroom. “And this is a part of it.”

A Democrat volunteer encourages people to turn out in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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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.