Being unemployed in the US after the Obama presidency

Obama was elected in 2008 during the height of the crisis with much expectations that he would improve the conditions of the least well-off in American society. As his term nears its end, I use the latest OECD data to assess how unemployed individuals fare now compared to both other developed countries and to when he started his term.

In a nutshell, I show that in all plausible scenarios, individuals in the initial phase of unemployment are worse off in the US than in a median OECD or EU country and their relative situation has gotten worse since 2007, especially if they are in the middle class.

OECD data

The OECD has data on the net replacement rates for six family types in the initial phase of unemployment. The latest data available is 2014 so it is in principle plausible – though unlikely – that the situation has improved massively in the last two years and that this is not captured by my data. Note further the emphasis on the initial phase of unemployment: after a certain time in unemployment – which varies by country – unemployed lose eligibility to certain benefits (or experience falls in the replacement rate).

The OECD tax-benefit Model allows you to specify the marital situation of the family (single, one earner married couple, and two earners married couple) and whether they have children (in this case no children versus two children) for different levels of the average wage.

For simplicity I show the replacement rate for a case when the family does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance in either the in-work or out-of-work situation. I also do not consider the case of earners with 150% of average wage.

The situation in 2014

Figure 1 shows the difference between the US and the EU/OECD average replacement rates in 2014. As an example consider the case of a single person with no children earning 67% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed. In the US, the person would get 61% out of work income as a percentage of previous earnings equal to 67% of the average wage. The equivalent OECD median is 65% while the EU median is 68% so the gap between the US and the OECD median is 4 percentage points while it is 7 percentage points between the US and the EU.

Comparing different family and income situations reveals that the US is least generous compared to the OECD and EU median for ‘middle class’ (100% of average wages) families that are composed of lone parents with 2 children. The next biggest gap between the US and the OECD/EU median is for low income families with either one earner couple or a lone parent.

By contrast, low income families (67% of average wage) with two earners with or without two children would fare almost exactly the same in terms of replacement rate in the median OECD and EU country as in the US.

Figure 1: The difference between the US and the EU/OECD average replacement rates in 2014

EU US gap in 2014

Cross-national variation

In Figure 2, I show the 2014 cross-national variation in the replacement rate for a single earner with no children that does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance and had previous earnings of 67% of average wage. This reveals that the US is not the worse country among developed countries (the worse is not surprisingly the UK – though note that the situation does not quite look as dire for the UK if the family qualifies for cash housing assistance). But it is located in the bottom half of the ranking.

Figure 2: 2014 replacement rate for a single earner with no children that does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance and had previous earnings of 67% AW

Figure 3

Changes since 2007

In 2014, the average across all family types and both income situations for the US is 59% compared to 70% for the OECD median and 71% for the EU median. This represents a fall from 2007 where the average was 62% for the US, 60% for the OECD and 71% for the EU median.

Figure 3 shows how the gap between the US and the EU has evolved between 2007 and 2014 for different family-income scenarios. Positive values indicate that there has been an increase in the gap between what a person would get in a median EU country and what they would get in the US. Thus for instance, we see that the biggest increases in the gap has been for one  earner married couple with no children that earned 100% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed and a single person with no children also earning 100% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed. The next biggest increase has occurred for a lone parent with two children.

Thus, over the Obama presidency, the welfare of vulnerable middle class families in the US relative to their counterpart in the Europe has gotten worse. This is a striking result given the significant retrenchment of European welfare states that has taken place in Europe between 2008 and 2014 (the period under consideration here).

Figure 3: The difference between the EU-US gap in 2007 and in 2014

Change between 2014 and 2007.jpgDisappointing but not surprising

While disappointing, the falling welfare of the unemployed in the US is not entirely surprising from a theoretical perspective. The welfare state literature makes clear that liberal welfare regimes’ structure (e.g. targeted means tested benefits) limit the popular support for generous welfare state benefits for the unemployed that are seen as particularly undeserving.

As Rehm brillantly discusses in his latest book “Risk inequality and Welfare state“, countries with concentrated risks of unemployment among low income workers are less likely to exhibit pro-welfare state cross-class coalitions. At the same time, the US type of capitalism limits the power of the unions while making it unlikely that employers will consent – in the words of Korpi – to more generous social policies (see Varieties of Capitalism literature).

As a result, where there is no clear efficiency imperative (e.g. Obamacare in the context of objective inefficiencies in the health care sector in the US), it is therefore difficult even for a left leaning government to undertake an expansion of welfare state policies.

Regulations in ‘rigid’ labour markets are less likely to be enforced

How difficult is it to fire a worker in different countries?

To answer this question, most social scientists have created many indicators that capture the conditions, costs and uncertainty associated with firing an employee.

For instance the OECD Employment Protection Legislation (EPL) index measures “the procedures and costs involved in dismissing individuals or groups of workers and the procedures involved in hiring workers on fixed-term or temporary work agency contracts”

The determinants and consequences of EPL

This index is then used in statistical analysis to assess the impact of EPL on economic outcomes, such as unemployment, or to identify the determinants of EPL reforms, for instance partisanship.

The conventional wisdom is that EPL has adverse economic consequences (studies by IMF and OECD, Layard, Botero and others), but the stability of the findings to different specification has been contested (for instance see work by Baker, Avdagic and others).

Employment Protection Legislation: rules versus enforcement

For a long time a more obvious problem has been that legal restrictions on firing can only be expected to have any effects on labour market performance if the legislation is actually enforced on the ground.

The issue here is not so much that employment protection legislation might not enforced (which is likely) but more importantly that it might be enforced to varying degrees in different countries in ways that we cannot observed.

New database on enforcement

This shortcoming is now being partly addressed in recent research by Kanbur and Ronconi published in the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

In a shorter version of the paper they have published in VoX they explain how they created a new indicator of enforcement that combines both inspections and penalties.

Their results are interesting in at least two respects

  1. First, once they control for their measure of enforcement in a statistical analysis of the determinant of labour market performance, EPL no longer has a statistically significant adverse effect for most measures of performance. In other words, labour market regulations do not in fact seem to have a consistent effect on labour market outcomes.
  2. Second, they show that countries with more stringent EPL have lower enforcement levels, which then makes it difficult to know which country’s labour market really is more ‘rigid’. This is shown in the figure below that plots a de jure employment index on the horizontal axis and their enforcement index on the vertical axis.

Interpreting the figure: some country examples

The ranking should be interpreted as follows: countries which are lower on the scale have higher ranking and hence more protective institutions or more enforcement. Thus for instance, while Canada and Denmark have among the lowest ranking in de jure employment protection (they are not in the top 150 countries), they rank really high in terms of enforcement (in top 25). By contrast, France and Spain score high on EPL but do not rank well in terms of enforcement: their stringent regulations are not well-enforced compared to many other countries.

Figure: Enforcement and labour law


The Impact of the Elderly on Inflation Rates in Developed Countries

My latest working paper on the relationship between ageing and inflation has just come out as an LSE working paper. You can access it here.

And here is the abstract:

What explains the cross-national variation in inflation rates in developed countries? Previous literature has emphasised the role of ideas and institutions, and to a lesser extent interest groups, while leaving the role of electoral politics comparatively unexplored. This paper seeks to redress this neglect by focusing on one case where electoral politics matters for inflation: the share of the population above 65 years old in a country. I argue that countries with a larger share of elderly have lower inflation because older people are both more inflation averse and politically powerful, forcing governments to pursue lower inflation. I test my argument in three steps. First, logistic regression analysis of survey data confirms older people are more inflation averse. Second, panel data regression analysis of party manifesto data reveals that European countries with more old people have more economically orthodox political parties. Third, time series cross-section regression analyses demonstrate that the share of the elderly is negatively correlated with inflation in both a sample of 21 advanced OECD economies and a larger sample of 175 countries. Ageing may therefore push governments to adopt a low inflation regime.

Evolution of GDP per capita in USSR versus over developed countries

Every now and then I will get in a debate with colleagues and others about economic performance in USSR versus other developed ‘liberal’ economies. From my development economics training, I am well aware that the USSR was not a particularly sustainable nor desirable development model, but also that on GDP alone it performed pretty well. This latter point has been challenged in discussions so many times that I started to doubt it myself, so I thought I would check it again and post it so as to direct people to this post in the future!

Now I’m not an apologist for Soviet communism as a political nor economic system, but I’m often puzzled to find such a systematic reluctance among a wide variety of people to acknowledge that on GDP figures alone (and there are many shortcomings to these figures – which may or may not make them useful to compare economic performance across very different systems in long time periods) the USSR did perform fairly well, especially when compared to Western European countries.

Comparative economic performance over time is not among my main research interests (and hence I make no claims to particular expertise on this issue) but a cursory look at GDP per capita (in 1990 dollars – from Maddison’s database) from 1920 (ie a couple of years after the end of WWI) to 1988 (a few years before the USSR dissolved), reveals the USSR’s GDP per capita was multiplied by 12 compared to 4 in the USA, 5.2 in France, 5.78 in Germany, about the  same in Sweden, and Central and North Italy by 7.19 (see the table below).

One can (perhaps even should) argue that the soviet system was cruel, inefficient in many respects, unjust, etc, and it might that by cherry picking other time periods the results are different, but over the whole – relevant in my opinion – time period the USSR’s GDP per capita prima facie has increased much more than in its capitalist competitors. Of course this is the rate of growht in GDP per capita, but in terms of levels the USSR was still massively behind the US. But the difference between the USSR and US in terms of GDP per capita was about 1 to 10 in 1920 and had fallen to less than 1 to 4 in 1988.

Selected years and countries from the Maddison-Project,, 2013 version.

GDP per capita (1990 Int. GK$)
Country 1920 1988 1988/1920
Austria 2,412 15,754 6.53
Belgium 3,962 16,252 4.10
Denmark 3,992 18,224 4.57
France 3,227 16,790 5.20
Germany 2,796 16,160 5.78
(Centre-   North) Italy 2,153 15,485 7.19
Holland/     Netherlands 4,220 16,044 3.80
Norway 2,739 18,059 6.59
Sweden 3,004 17,232 5.74
Switzerland 6,568 20,243 3.08
England/GB/UK 4,548 16,110 3.54
12 W. Europe 3,333 16,307 4.89
USA 5,552 22,499 4.05
F. USSR 575 7,043 12.25

Addendum 1

Of course in terms of basic growth theory, this faster growth rate of the USSR makes sense: with higher returns to capital and a lower capital base, the USSR was able to grow by building its capital base much faster and drawing on reserve labour (ie extensive growth). In some ways, communist was more efficient at containing consumption than capitalist systems and hence at mobilising the resources for investment. But as it caught up and had to rely on innovations and technological progress (intensive growth), growth started slowing down in the USSR as its economic system was not conducive to innovation.

P.s. Janos Kornai has written extensively on this topic.

Addendum 2

If one focuses purely on the post-WW2 experience, the picture is more mixed with the USSR performing less well than Austria, Germany, north Italy and Norway but about the same as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and better than the US and the UK. I suspect this difference is partly the result of Addendum 1 and partly the different experience with the recession of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Country 1946 1988 1988/1946
Austria 1,956 15,754 8.05
Belgium 4,574 16,252 3.55
Denmark 5,777 18,224 3.15
France 3,855 16,790 4.36
Germany 2,217 16,160 7.29
(Centre-     North) Italy 2,162 15,485 7.16
Holland/Netherlands 4,457 16,044 3.60
Norway 4,335 18,059 4.17
Sweden 5,646 17,232 3.05
Switzerland 8,997 20,243 2.25
England/GB/UK 6,745 16,110 2.39
12 W. Europe 3,925 16,307 4.15
USA 9,197 22,499 2.45
F. USSR 1,913 7,043 3.68

Austerity brings extremism: why the welfare state is the key to understanding the rise of Europe’s far right

This post was originally published in the Huffington post.

The recent Greek election has resulted, once again, in a coalition government between the far left Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the far right Independent Greeks (ANEL). What has attracted less media attention so far, however, is the striking result for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn which increased its share of the vote from 6.28 to 6.99%, gaining 18 seats in a parliament of 300, and remaining third strongest party. This indicates that the Golden Dawn remains a considerable presence in Greek politics since its first entry in the Greek parliament in 2012. And, it is a striking result for a party that is not only extreme, violent, and espouses Nazi ideology, but is also currently on trial for maintaining a criminal organization. Only a couple of days prior to the election, the party’s leader publicly accepted “political responsibility” for the murder of left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas.

But the rise and resilience of far right parties is not confined to Greece. While neo-Nazism is indeed a more isolated phenomenon, the far right more broadly- i.e. parties that centre their attention on nationalism and xenophobia – is becoming increasingly popular across Europe. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, four far right parties received more than 20% of the votes cast: Austria’s FPÖ, Denmark’s DF, Britain’s UKIP and the French FN. Several others received over 10% of the votes cast including the Dutch PVV, the True Finns, and Hungary’s Jobbik. A number of these parties are also faring quite well in their domestic electoral arenas, for instance the French FN in 2012, the Austrian FPÖ in 2013, and the DF in Denmark as well as UKIP in the UK in 2015.

The most popular explanation for the rise of the far right in Europe is the on-going economic crisis. This answer has both historical and theoretical appeal. Historically, the rise of Nazism in interwar Europe followed the 1929 major financial crash. Theoretically, economic crises are associated with the rise of the far right because the dispossessed are more likely to punish the mainstream and opt for extreme or anti-establishment parties.

But the crisis is, at best, only part of the story. Unemployment rates do not correlate with levels of far right support. While Greece, which does have high levels of unemployment and suffered greatly from the crisis, did experience the rise of the Golden Dawn, other countries that have suffered from the crisis including Spain, Portugal and Ireland have not experienced a similar rise: Spain 2000 and National Democracy (DN) have remained marginal in Spain, the same is the case for the Portuguese National Renovator Party (PNR), and there is no far right party in Ireland. On the other hand, countries that have not experienced the worst of the crisis and generally have lower levels of unemployment, such as Britain, France, and Denmark, are experiencing a rise in far right party support.

The problem with this explanation is therefore that it is not consistent with patterns of far right party performance across Europe. This is because it is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: welfare state policies mitigating the risks and costs that an economic crisis imposes on individuals. Ironically, it seems that welfare cuts, employed to tackle Europe’s economic crisis, are to blame for a broader political crisis, where the far right is flourishing.

In other words, austerity breeds right-wing extremism and this why: The link between an economic crisis and far right support is the labour market insecurity experienced by the middle class. When a crisis hits, those who have a job fear that they will lose it. Those who don’t have a job (or those who do lose it) fear that they will have no safety net or alternative means of subsistence. The greater the risks and costs of unemployment arising from the crisis the greater the insecurity. And in turn, the greater the insecurity, the greater the likelihood for people to punish the mainstream and reward far right parties.

One reason is that these parties pledge to limit foreigners’ access to jobs, thus appearing to be responding to increasing insecurity. Another is that these parties’ authoritarian vision of order is appealing in a context where economic malaise is having a disorderly effect on people’s lives. Finally, far right populist rhetoric is appealing because mainstream parties take the bulk of the blame both for the crisis itself and for inadequate policy responses to it.

The welfare state, therefore, is the key to understanding the rise of the far right as well as its varied performance across Europe: The extent of insecurity that people experience as a result of the crisis is largely determined by how protective welfare state institutions are. People fear losing their jobs less when job dismissal regulations protect them from redundancy. And those who do lose their jobs suffer less from this loss when unemployment benefits are more generous. A rise in unemployment, therefore, is morel likely to lead to far right party support when job dismissal regulations are low and unemployment benefits not generous.

This helps explain what happened in Spain and Portugal where unemployment has increased but the far right has not emerged. Both countries have high unemployment benefit replacement rates, and job dismissal regulations for those in permanent contracts are also comparatively high. By contrast, Greece and the UK, which have seen their far right party support increase, have much lower replacement rates. The UK also has one of the lowest employment protection legislations in Western Europe.

Welfare state policies are the link between economic crisis, unemployment and far right party support. Welfare cuts have increased the insecurity of the European middle classes that are being hit by the economic crisis. This matters because of the implications it has for policy. By reversing austerity, which results in welfare cuts and increases insecurity, we can limit the appeal of right-wing extremism.

This piece is co-authored with Daphne Halikiopoulou. Daphne Halikiopoulou is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at University of Reading. Tim Vlandas is Lecturer of Politics at University of Reading.  This piece builds on their argument in their co-authored piece Risks, Costs and Labour Markets: Explaining Far Right-Wing Party Success in European Parliament Elections forthcoming in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

Buiter on the “triad of Teutonic fallacies”

Excellent recent speech by Willem Buiter on “Unemployment and inflation in the Eurozone: why has demand management failed so badly?”. As always he makes many insightfull points, but I just highlight two which I found particularly important.

The first concerns the issue independence and the scope of the mandate of the ECB:

“The notion that central banks should focus exclusively on their mandates and not be active participants in wider public policy debates, let alone be active players in the negotiations and bargaining processes that produce the political compromises that will help shape the economic, social and political evolution of our societies is, I believe, sound. Alan Blinder described this need for modesty and restraint for central bankers as “sticking to their knitting”. Both fiscal policy and structural reform have clear and often significant distributional consequences. They are, therefore, deeply political. As regards fiscal policy, this is so obvious it does not require elaboration. But structural reform too, including labour market liberalization, opening up the professions, and opening up product market to greater domestic or external competition, is not just about efficiency gains or the size of the pie, but about the distribution of the pie. What looks as an artificial barrier to entry to an economist is a source of rents to the protected worker, professional or firm. When central bankers take part in the often very partisan political debates on fiscal policy and structural reform, they compromise and undermine their independence.”

“The President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, like his predecessor Jean‐Claude Trichet, is actively trying to influence and shape euro area (EA) policies in the areas of fiscal policy and structural reform, using a range of possible monetary policy interventions as sticks or carrots to get national governments and the European Commission to do what he considers to be ‘the right things’. His recent address at the Jackson Hole Conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas demonstrates how broad the range of economic issues is on which the President of the ECB feels comfortable to lecture, some might saybadger, the political leadership of the EA (Draghi (2014)). Regardless of the economic merits of Draghinomics, there is something worrying, from a constitutional/legal/political/legitimacy perspective, if unelected central bank technocrats become key movers and shakers in the design and implementation of reforms and policies in areas well beyond their mandate and competence.”

The second concerns the current fallacies that hinder an appropriate policy response:

“In the Euro area, demand stimulus through fiscal policy has been severely handicapped by the widespread acceptance of the Triad of Teutonic Fallacies. The first of these is that there are reckless and/or stupid borrowers/debtors but no reckless and/or stupid lenders/creditors. As we are talking about the same transactions, that position is rather difficult to defend. It is, however, firmly believed by many living north of the Rhine, and it gives the creditors a sense of moral superiority or even outrage that diminishes their cognitive capabilities. The second fallacy is that expansionary fiscal policy is contractionary. There are indeed models in which this is the case. Provided any fiscal deficit expansion resulting from a fiscal stimulus is monetised, however, this will never be the case in a world with excess capacity and inflation below target. The third fallacy is that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank will inevitably get monetised and lead to an undesirable increase in the rate of inflation. The fact that this is analytical nonsense does not mean it is not an influential view.”

Changing welfare states in the post-crisis period

The OECD has published their latest social expenditure update covering 2014. It’s a very interesting small report well worth reading. Here are 8 points that caught my eye in the latest data which I organise in three themes: surprising changes in ranking, the articulation of short term and long term dynamics and the importance of paying attention to the allocation and composition of social spending, not just the aggregate spending.

Surprising changes in ranking (Figure 1)

  1. Scandinavian countries are no longer always the top social spenders. In 2014, France (1st) spent more than Finland (2nd), Belgium (3rd) more than Denmark (4th), Italy (5th) and Austria (6th) more than Sweden (7th). For a very long time, Scandinavia had much large welfare states than other countries, which was attributed to particularly strong left wing parties and unions, as well as production models that required such a welfare state. This seems to be changing (though see point 5 below).
  1. Spain (8th) and Italy (5th) now spend more on social expenditures than Germany (8th), while Portugal (9th) spends more than the Netherlands (10th). But they do so in a way which is particularly inegalitarian (see point 6 below) and inefficient (consistent with older research by, among others, Andre Sapir).

Diversity in short term changes, but in the long run social spending increases

  1. The biggest absolute increase in social spending since 2007 can be seen in Finland, Spain, Belgium, Japan and Ireland. Nine countries have managed to reduce spending below their post-2007 peak: Sweden, Greece, Hungary, UK, Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Estonia and Chile (Figure 1).
  1. Every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in the OECD’s average public social expenditures. This average hides an important difference between the US and the EU which start diverging in the mid-1970s. By 2012, the OECD average spending has stabilised around 22%, EU21 around 25%, US under 20%, while Japan spends more than the OECD average for the first time (Figure 2).

It’s not what you spend, it’s how you spend it

  1. But Scandinavia does continue to spend much more on all social services (excluding health), whereas pension commitments are much larger in continental European countries than Scandinavia (Figure 4). And indeed the challenge for most welfare states is going to be to foster efficiency and equality in a context where health and pensions are absorbing an ever rising amount of resources.
  1. What characterises southern Europe is not high social spending, it’s a high percentage of spending targeted at the better off (highest income quintile) and very little targeted at the poor (the bottom quintile). Scandinavia and liberal countries do well in terms of targeting spending toward bottom quintile (Figure 5).
  1. Liberal countries (Australia, Canada, US, UK, New Zealand) are the biggest ‘means testers’: They have among the highest share of cash benefits with eligibility and entitlements requirements that are conditional on the recipient’s current income and assets (Figure 6). While it means they do not fare badly in terms of targeting spending to the bottom quintile (point 6), reducing universality of benefits undermines public support for generous benefits, hence the low social spending figures. Countries must strike a balance between allocating sufficient amounts to the bottom quintile to promote effectiveness of spending in reducing poverty and inequality, and distributing parts of spending to other income quintiles to ensure legitimacy.
  1. We should not confuse what countries spend overall and the public-private distribution of that social spending. So far I’ve only discussed gross public spending: when looking at net social spending (i.e. including private social spending and the effect of tax), the US comes out second (from 23rd) after France! UK jumps from 15th to 5th, Japan from 14th to 7th and Netherlands from 13th to 6th. Others fall in ranking: Sweden from 7th to 11th, Italy from 6th to 8th, and Spain from 8th to 10th position (2011 figures, Figure 7). The combined drive by governments such as the UK to reduce public social spending and privatise parts of the provision may mean they end up in the worst of both worlds: spending as much as before, but with a higher share going through an often less efficient (for the case of health care) and less egalitarian provider.

The conservative victory and the welfare state: Here comes the pain

The Conservatives have won an unexpected majority. Now must come the cuts. Even Ian Duncan Smith is worried about the scale of the cuts promised. In this post I review the good, the bad, the ugly and unknown proposals that the conservatives have in stock for the welfare state. It’s an open question which ones they end up implementing and more crucially where they impose the pain of the non-specified cuts they promised in their manifesto.

The good

There may be some attempts to raise the purchasing power of low income workers. They want to raise the threshold beyond which workers start paying income tax to 12,500£. But whether this will on the net make low income workers better off depends crucially on where they cut welfare state spending further (see below). A downside is of course that this further erodes the government’s tax raising capacity. On minimum wages, they declared they would follow the recommendations from the Low Pay Commission to raise minimum wage to over $8 by the end of 2020. Again whether this will actually represent an improvement depends on the inflation rate over the next five years.

In addition to these uncertain improvements to the conditions of low income workers are two big spending promises. The first one concerns giving working parents 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 years old, which they estimate will cost about £350 million. The second one is to protect the NHS by keeping it free at the point of use and increasing the NHS funding by an additional £8 billion by 2020. For the latter increase in spending to make the NHS sustainable will require additional ‘efficiency savings’ of 2% to 3% a year which are likely to be very difficult to achieve. So in all likelihood, the Conservatives will have to choose between a deterioration of quality or allocating extra spending.

Finally, two ambiguously positive proposals. First, they have promised that they would introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. This will not resolve much of the issues of university funding and access to undergraduate degrees, but fills a gap for postgraduate studies where access was hampered. Second, the benefit cap, which I discuss below in more detail, will not include the Disability Living Allowance.

The bad

In a context of austerity, the Conservatives are wasting tax revenues on the better off while cutting benefits on the worst off. This makes no economic sense and will likely depress the economy given the different marginal propensity to consume of different income groups: the poor will reduce their spending in response to lower benefits more than the rich will increase their spending in reactions to lower taxes. The net effect on aggregate demand, even in the absence of additional consolidation, will be negative.

Regarding benefits, they will freeze working age benefits for two years from April 2016 (except for maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay, statutory adoption pay and statutory sick pay). Two groups are specifically targeted. First, EU immigrants: they plan to further restrict benefits (housing, JSA, etc) to EU jobseekers in the first four years. This may be consistent with EU law as long as the restriction applies to non-contributory benefits. However, studies have shown that immigrants bring more revenues than they cost so there seems to be little reasons to limit benefits on economic grounds. Second, 18-21 years old will be eligible to a less generous ‘Youth Allowance’ limited to six months and will also have less access to housing benefits.

The ugly

The three most problematicc proposals are the benefit cap, the undercutting of strikes and promotion of precarious contracts and sanctions for addicts. With respect to the first, they will lower the current benefit cap on the benefits that households can receive to £23,000 (from £26,000). In practice this will only hurt families that need it the most such as those with many children or those paying high rents.

Next, they want to rely on precarious contracts to break strikes by repealing the “nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes”. This fundamentally undermines the right to strike as precarious contracts are likely less costly than the workers that are striking. Since those who strike are not being paid by their employers, strikes will no longer have any impact on employers.

Finally, those who refuse the “medical help they need” will see their benefits reduced. This concern both those addicted to drugs and the clinically obese. Assuming that at least some of these recipients would change their behaviour in response to the change, this still implies that some very vulnerable recipients that are not able to change their behaviour will lose benefits.

The known unknowns

Given that they have promised to protect Schools and international development, and that they will be spending more on the NHS and childcare, unspecified cuts are going to be large. In total the IFS estimates that they will have to cut £22.5 billion from departmental spending in ‘unprotected’ areas including defence, law and order, social care, and others. How much of this will be frontloaded in the first couple of years remains to be seen, but this will no doubt necessitate very drastic cuts.

In a post-crisis context where there is a heightened need for the welfare state there are very few policy domains that be cut without imposing significant hardships. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the many new challenges related to ageing and changing labour market structures would also require more rather than less welfare state spending.

UK Election: What’s in it for the welfare state?

In this short post I would like to discuss what I see as the key issues for welfare and to briefly compare them to parts of the labour, conservative, liberal democrats, greens and UKIP manifestos. Though one could no doubt identify other issues, to keep this text short I have decided to focus on two big issues the manifestos should address if the welfare state is to remain fit for the 21st century.

Ageing: Parties lack an overall long term strategy

The first issue concerns the ability of the welfare state to cope with ageing societies. This is something we all know about but it’s worth mentioning a few numbers. There are currently about 10 million people that are over 65 years old.  And – if we believe the current projections – this number will increase to nearly 20 million by 2050 (8 million will be more than 80 years old). This will put pressure on at least two policy domains.

The most obvious is pensions. Indeed, well over half the benefit expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions goes to those over the working age. I think the UK is comparatively well placed to tackle this challenge but one worry is to ensure that the elderly are properly covered by future pensions. Most – though not all – pension spending is now means-tested and not particularly generous so it’s important that pensions are protected. The Greens probably have the most generous and most costly proposition (and I should note in passing this is the case for most policies!). The so-called triple lock – which protects the value of state pensions – is adhered to by the Liberals and Labour, while the Conservatives have said they will not freeze benefits for the old. This protected status is not surprising given that pensions remain the public’s favourite area for additional welfare spending (though there has been a recent drop in support).

The second policy domain where ageing puts pressure is Health. As an example, in 2007/08 the average value of NHS services for retired households was £5,200 compared with £2,800 for non-retired people. Health is already underfunded and a well quoted report estimates the shortfall to rise by 2020 to 30 billion in the absence of efficiency savings! Recent surveys also suggest 92% of the population thinks there’s a funding crisis. The Lib Dems promise an extra £8 billion a year into the NHS by 2020, and so do more or less the Conservatives, while Labour promises £2.5 billion more than the Conservatives.

What’s lacking from all manifestos is a long term vision to address the ageing issue. For instance, except for the Greens, no one proposes sufficient funding for social care. Ring fencing or increasing pension and health care will also make it hard to balance the books[1] let alone address the next set big issue I will mention now.

New social risks in the labour market

This second big issue concerns the ability of the welfare state to tackle labour market risks, and in particular (in-work) poverty, unstable contracts and reconciling work and family. While pensioner poverty has been falling, the absolute (but not relative) poverty of children has increased in the last couple of years. In 2013, 8% of people in employment, aged 18 to 64, were identified as being in poverty (approximately 3 million people). The evidence suggest that both increasing hours and increasing hourly earnings are crucial to unable people to exit in work poverty.

With respect to the most extreme form of unstable work, ONS figures suggest that at the end of 2014 there were 1.8 million people with non-guaranteed hours, including Zero Hours Contracts (ZHC). Most parties promise some form of actions on ZHC: Liberals want to ‘stamp out abuse’; Conservatives want to eradicate ‘exclusivity’ in ZHC; UKIP will prevent the NHS from hiring ZHCs; Labour says it will (missing verb here) abolish ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts, and those who work regular hours for more than 12 weeks will have a right to a regular contract; Greens want to abolish it entirely.

With respect to wages most manifestos want to give some boost to wages. This is clearest in the case of minimum wages: the Greens suggest £10 an hour by 2020; Labour wants to increase it to more than £8 an hour by October 2019. They also want to incentivise employers to pay a living wage using tax rebates; Conservatives are more ambiguous, I quote: “they accept the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission that the National Minimum Wage should rise to £6.70 this autumn, on course for a Minimum Wage that will be over £8 by the end of the decade”; UKIP wants to end income tax on minimum wage; Lib Dems limit their demands to better enforcement and I quote “asking the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage, without damaging employment opportunities”.

But addressing new social risks and precarious work also requires better childcare provisions which are particularly unsatisfactory in the UK. With respect to childcare, the main parties are getting to grip with this but there’s too little too late, and funding is a question mark. Surprisingly, out of the three main parties, Labour has the least generous policy proposal. It wants to provide 25 hours of free childcare per week to all 3 and 4 year-olds with working parents (costing £500 million). Conservatives are slightly more generous and propose to give working parents of 3 and 4-year-olds 30 hours of free childcare a week. IFS suggests that the funding for the policy is more plausible for labour than for the conservative. The Lib Dems have, in their words, the most ‘ambitious aspiration’ to provide free childcare to all parents with children aged two to four, and all working parents with children aged from nine months to two years. They estimate that this could cost around £2 billion: it’s not clear where the money would come from, so cuts to ‘unprotected’ departmental spending would be required.

We also need a better policy to tackle unemployment without increasing poverty, which in 2013 was around 30% for those aged 18 to 64 and not working. As far as I can tell, no parties propose significant increases in the generosity of benefits for the unemployed, not surprisingly given the increasingly negative public attitudes towards these benefits, including among labour supporters. Conservatives go in opposite direction with two-year freeze on rates of various working age benefits, lowering the household benefits cap, and some changes to benefit entitlements for 18–21 year olds. The Lib Dems also want to retain overall cap on households’ benefits and believe this should continue to be set at around the average family income. We also have more workfare in both Labour and Conservative manifestos, particularly for the young, with the conditioning benefits on acceptance of jobs.

Overall, impact of ageing should in short term be manageable but we lack a long term vision. In a context where parties feel rightly or wrongly that they have to contain costs and given how expensive pensions and health care, this limits our capacity to tackle new social risks. This is partly because of the much greater electoral support for pensions and health care than benefits, and hence a normal electoral mechanism. But this victory of ‘politics over economics’ will undermine our long term potential and limit our ability to tackle inequality and poverty.


[1] Achieving budget balance while protecting pensions and healthcare suggest further drastic cuts in other policy domains that have already been hit hard. Indeed, spending outside of the NHS, education and aid has already been cut by 18.1% between 2010–11 and 2014–15.