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Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Why the social security system is vital to low paid workers

As we await the the assault on working people in the first Tory budget next week, new data points to better ways of supporting the low paid and reducing inequality.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its annual research on the The Minimum Income Standards (MIS), which asks members of the public what goods and services they think different types of households need to live to an adequate level. They turn this into a useful calculator that lets you compare your income to MIS.

The pause in inflation helped people on low incomes to become slightly better off relative to their needs in 2015, despite working-age benefits and tax credits rising by only 1 per cent. However, households on low incomes remain much further behind what they need than before the recession. The gap between family incomes and what the public think people need for an acceptable living standard has grown sharply.

The earnings required to achieve the MIS for a single person stayed stable at £17,100 a year. Earnings requirements fell for families with children, helped by a small increase in Child Benefit and tax credits. A working couple with two children must each earn £20,000 to reach MIS.

A predicted return of modest inflation combined with a planned freeze in benefits, tax credits and Universal Credit will create a less favourable environment for households reliant on help from the state. The July 2015 special Budget is likely to make matters much worse.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies(IFS) has published a short analysis of the annual DWP statistics on the distribution of household income.

After inflation, median (middle) income grew by just under 1% in 2013–14, following a similarly small rise in 2012–13. This represents a slow recovery in average incomes, which follows the sharp decline between 2009–10 and 2011–12 when workers’ real earnings fell rapidly. It did mean that real median income had crept back to within about 1% of its pre-recession (2007–08) level, though it was still almost 3% below its 2009–10 peak.

In 2013–14 incomes grew at a similar rate across almost all of the income distribution, resulting in little change in income inequality. At 0.34, the Gini in 2013–14 remains at around the same level as in the early 1990s, but lower than before the Great Recession. This is largely explained by the fact that while real earnings fell sharply between 2009–10 and 2011–12, benefit incomes were more stable. Since poorer households get a greater share of their income from benefits, their incomes have risen relative to higher-income households. However, once you take account of falling mortgage payments, overall inequality fell less than those numbers suggest since it is largely better off households who benefited from this reduced cost.

The latest data show little or no change in poverty rates, for the population as a whole and for the major demographic groups (pensioners, working-age adults and children). However, as IFS warns, we need to look at trends over several years.

We also need to look at how geographical is the wealth gap. The richest place in Scotland is a third better off than the poorest. ONS data shows that gross disposable income averages just over £20,000 a year in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire and in Edinburgh, compared to just under £15,000 a year in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

As we approach the special budget and the likely attack on social security for working people, the TUC and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have urged ministers to improve Universal Credit rather than raising the income tax threshold to £12,500. In a study of 13 options, the tax threshold proposal cost the most and came bottom for reducing child poverty. A package of improvements to Universal Credit including increasing work allowances, would reduce child poverty by 460,000.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the CPAG, said: "This comprehensive analysis shows the Chancellor must be careful not to back the wrong horse when it comes to the Government's flagship policies. Rather than committing billions on the costly and poorly targeted policy of raising the personal tax allowance, the Treasury should stop starving universal credit of the investment it needs to fulfil its poverty-reducing potential and justify the massive upheaval surrounding it. The evidence is clear that investment in tax credits is incredibly effective in lifting children out of poverty."

While increasing wages remains hugely important, these reports highlight the importance of in work benefits to families in particular. Despite the 'strivers' rhetoric, these are likely to be the biggest losers next week.



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