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15 March 2013

Labour should make the economic case against welfare cuts

Welfare cuts aren't just bad for the poor, they're bad for growth too. Miliband and Balls should say so.

By George Eaton

Labour and other opponents of the government’s welfare cuts have so far focused on their unfairness. How can ministers charge social housing tenants for their “spare rooms” (the notorious “bedroom tax“), cut council tax support by 10 per cent (forcing thousands of families to pay the tax for the first time) and cap benefit increases at just 1 per cent while simultaneously handing 13,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £100,000 a year? But in doing so they are in danger of ignoring another important argument against the measures: welfare cuts aren’t just bad for the poor, they’re bad for growth too. 

When George Osborne announced most of the government’s welfare reforms in his first Budget and in the 2010 Spending Review (the bedroom tax was described as “limiting social tenants’ entitlement to appropriately sized homes”) it was on the assumption that the economy would be growing at nearly 3 per cent a year (the OBR originally forecast growth of 2.8 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in 2013). It is now expected to grow by just 0.6 per cent. Rather than cutting into an expanding economy, Osborne will be cutting into a stagnant one. And austerity, as the OBR reminded David Cameron last week, has  consequences. For every £100 of welfare cuts, GDP is reduced by around £60 a year. 

To anyone with an elementary understanding of economics, this will come as no surprise. If the government reduces someone’s benefits by £728 a year (the average annual cost of the “bedroom tax”), that’s £728 less for that person to spend on goods and services. And since, as Paul Krugman sagely observes, “your spending is my income” (and “my spending is your income”), it’s not just the claimant who loses out, it’s shops and businesses too.

In addition, since the poor are more likely to spend, rather than save, what little they receive, welfare cuts are around twice as economically harmful as tax increases (the OBR estimates that output is reduced by £60 for every £100 of welfare cuts, compared to £35 for increases in VAT and £30 for increases in income tax). It’s for this reason that wise governments allow welfare spending to rise in times of stagnation. While borrowing temporarily increases as a result, higher benefits (known as the  “automatic stabilisers“) are an essential means of maintaining consumer demand. In October 2012, George Osborne remarked: “We have never argued that you stop what economists call the automatic stabilisers operating – the lower tax receipts and extra government payments [such as higher benefits] that follow if, for example, the global economy turns down.” In his recent New Statesman essay, Vince Cable similarly claimed: “Unlike the Treasury in the interwar period, which insisted on balanced budgets, the coalition government has been Keynesian in approaching fiscal policy in a broadly counter-cyclical manner by letting stabilisers operate.”

But Osborne’s decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent (alongside other pro-cyclical measures) runs entirely against such logic. Welfare payments will now fall, rather than rise, in line with inflation, reducing real-terms incomes. As a result, Britain’s anaemic economy will be even more prone to recession. Welfare cuts, in short, aren’t just bad for the poor, they’re bad for all of us. And it’s time Labour and the left said so.

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