Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
13 July 2013

Without childcare support, low-paid workers will lose out under Universal Credit

The decision to only provide help with childcare costs to those paying income tax means work will not pay for 900,000 families.

By Katie Schmuecker

As the first pathfinder for the new Universal Credit system began in April, David Cameron tweeted: “Another major step forward on welfare reform today with the introduction of Universal Credit – this Govt is determined to make work pay”.

But this goal risks being undermined by the high cost of childcare in the UK. For some families this is the difference between work paying and paying to work. New research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that when the cost of childcare is factored in, for some parents in low-paid jobs it no longer pays to work full-time, while for others the incentive to work more hours is blunted significantly.

Take for example a couple with two young children, where the father is already working full-time on the minimum wage. If the mother takes up a minimum wage job of one and a half days a week, the family would be £23 a week better off. If she increased her hours to three days a week, they would only be £8 a week better off than when worked half the hours. And if she worked full-time the family would actually be worse off than when she worked fewer hours. In this scenario, the family’s disposable income does not increase significantly for three reasons.

First, the amount of Universal Credit received by the family is sharply withdrawn as the mothers earnings increase; second, by working more than 30 hours she is brought into income tax; and third, the more hours she works the more childcare the family needs. The cost of childcare has risen at twice the rate of inflation over the last five years, while at the same time the help with childcare costs offered to low income working families through the welfare system has been sharply reduced by this government.

But there is some relief on the horizon. In the 2013 Budget, the government announced something of a reversal, proposing to provide more help with childcare costs to working families receiving Universal Credit. But – and it’s a big but – to be eligible all adults in the household would have to be paying income tax. This would exclude those households where someone is working part-time earning the minimum wage. Looking at the working patterns of low income households at present, this policy would deliver a welcome boost to some 600,000 working families on low incomes – but 900,000 in low paid work would miss out.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The government has said it will publish a consultation on its childcare plans before parliament breaks up for its summer recess (next week). To ensure Universal Credit delivers on its goal of making sure it always pays to work, the policy needs to include something for those families that are working hard and ‘doing the right thing’ but not yet earning enough to pay tax. Otherwise a large number of families will remain trapped in a situation where it barely pays to work.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Katie Schmuecker is policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation