Is Universal Credit the wrong approach?

“Work doesn’t pay” is the oft cited justification for Universal Credit (UC). It’s not clear that rolling up six separate benefits into one single payment will address this  problem, aka the unemployment trap. Wages in the UK are at best static and may have been falling in real terms over the last decade. Coupled with declining real wages has been the almost complete elimination of affordable council housing. Wages nowadays are insufficient to meet private housing rental costs which have soared due to shortages. So yes, it may pay claimants to remain on benefits, particularly Housing Benefit.

An alternative to UC is to integrate the tax system with benefits. Low earners, instead of paying income tax, would instead receive a generous negative tax payment. The incomes of low earners would be enhanced to the extent that they would no longer need benefits just to survive; in short, integrating tax and benefits could give low earners independence. But how can this be achieved? One framework to achieve this is a system of cumulative hourly averaging combined with comprehensive realised income (CRI) subject to a single rate of tax

Cumulative Hourly Averaging – the advantages

  • It rewards work – those who work will pay less tax on their comprehensive realised incomes

  • It can integrate benefits with tax – a generous negative income tax is facilitated

  • It supports flexible labour markets – the incomes of zero hours contract workers will be enhanced and less variable. There should be no need of a minimum wage.

  • It restores or strengthens the contributory principle.

Comprehensive Realised Income – the advantages

  • It addresses inequalities in wealth distribution – wealth transfers and other windfall gains are taxed at the same rate as earned income

  • It overcomes equitable objections to Inheritance Tax – legacies would be taxed according to the recipient’s circumstances and at the same rate as earned income

  • It reduces incentives to avoid tax – a single rate of tax can be applied to all sources of income

Cumulative Hourly Averaging – the Generalised Model

 The tax charge in period n would be calculated with the following formula:

T(n) = m∑Y(n) – c∑H(n) – ∑T(n-1)

where

T(n) = tax charge in period n

∑Y(n) = Cumulative comprehensive realised income received by the end of period n

∑H(n) =Cumulative hours worked by the end of period n

∑T(n-1) = Cumulative tax paid at the start of period n, and so ∑T(n) = T(n) + ∑T(n-1)

m = the marginal tax rate. I have used a single marginal rate of 50% applied to all components of CRI  without preference

c = the value of an hour of work. I have set this to £20 so as to produce a generous negative tax component which encourages work

 The Mechanics

Before illustrating how the tax calculation works, I have set out some parameters which I have used in the examples below. These are:

  • The standard working week has been set to 40 hours per week

  • The standard wage rate (or the value of an hour of work) is £20. Note this is an administrative value and has nothing to do with a minimum wage.

  • There is no minimum wage

  • A flat rate income tax of 50% applies to all components of comprehensive realised income without preferment. This is a limiting rate, meaning no one in work will pay tax at this rate however high their income.

  • Tax free personal allowances depend on cumulative hours worked and are valued at £20 per hour worked.

  • Tax free personal allowances are carried over to succeeding years, unlike the current “use or lose” system

  • No individual’s personal allowance can exceed 48 hours in a week

  • HMRC operates RTI (Real Time Information) so that incomes and changes in circumstances are reported as and when they occur.

 

Example 1

Freda starts work for 30 hours per week at £7 per hour (£210 per week). She has no other sources of income.

T(1) = = 0.5 x £210 – £20 x 30 = – £495

Freda will pay no income tax and instead will receive £495 under the negative tax mechanism. Her disposable income will thus be £210 + £495 = £705.  Not bad for a week’s work !

In the second week, Freda’s tax calculation is as follows:

T(2) = 0.5 x £420 – £20 x 60 – (-£495) = -£495

So again, Freda’s disposable income (take home pay) will be £210 +£495 = £705. Enjoy yourself, Freda. you deserve it! And so it will continue until Freda’s circumstances change.

Example 2

George starts work as a director of a large company. His monthly remuneration package comes to £60,000. His monthly hours of work are restricted to 208. He has no other sources of income

T(1) = 0.5 x £60,000 – £20 x 208 = £25,840

So George’s disposable income will be £60,000 – £25,840 = £34,160.

T(2) = 0.5 x £120,000 – £20 x 416 – £25,840 = £25,840

So long as George’s circumstances don’t change his monthly disposable income will remain at £34,160.

 

Example 3

Mark Anthony is a notorious playboy who has never done a day’s work in his life. His very rich father bequeaths Mark Anthony £500,000 in his  will. Mark’s tax liability will be:

T(1) = 0.5 x £500,000 – £20 x 0 = £250,000

In the second  period, Mark Anthony decides to do some voluntary work. He registers 30 hours with HMRC.

T(2) = 0.5 x £500,000 – £20 x 30 – £250,000 = – £600

Mark Anthony is rewarded for his voluntary work to the tune of £600 via the negative income tax mechanism. Work pays! Even unpaid work.

 

Example 4

Lois has a severe disability that limits the amount of work she can do in a week to 10 hours. She is paid £3 per hour (there is no minimum wage). HMRC credits Lois with 30 additional hours per week to compensate her for the hours she is unable to work through no fault of her own. She has no other sources of income. In week 1 her tax will be calculated thus:

T(1) = 0.5 x £30 – £20 x 40 = – 785

So Lois’s disposable income in week 1 will be £30 + £785 = £815. This is an example of how institutions can be used to compensate disadvantage.

In week 2, Lois receives a pay rise of £2 per hour to £5 per hour. Her tax calculation in week 2 will be

T(2) = 0.5 x £80 – £20 x 80 – (-785) = -£775

Lois’s disposable income in week 2 has risen to £50 + £775 = £825.  A pay rise of £20 per week has resulted in Lois’s disposable income increasing by £10 and the state subsidy falling by an equivalent amount.

Example 5

Tony is a homeless alcoholic, without work or income. He is offered 40 hourly work credits per week which will trigger weekly payments of £800 via the negative income tax mechanism provided he undergoes treatment for his alcoholism at a residential clinic. In Tony’s case, the  weekly payments are paid directly to the clinic instead of to Tony, Tony will need to price himself into employment when his treatment is completed, a task made easier absent a minimum wage.

Information requirements

HMRC will need to keep an up-to-date record of every taxpayer/claimant and changes in their circumstances. This is not as onerous or as intrusive as might at first appear; RTI, which requires employers to submit details of employee  hours and pay in “real time”,  has already been introduced. The road has already been dug.

 Here is a logical record of the information and processing that HMRC would need to collect and process for an employee. The particular employee shown in the record has had a particularly turbulent time, starting as a highly paid director, becoming unemployed, suffering disability, inheriting a sizeable estate, etc, all in six weeks!. The record is not intended to be of a typical employee but is illustrative of how income tax would work under cumulative hourly averaging with CRI .

Table of events

Conclusion

One thing writing this post has taught me is how difficult it is to design a safety net which both protects and incentivises.  A safety net  which is too generous removes incentives to return to, or to get into, work. A safety net built around stick and no carrot is cruel and damaging to individuals. I fear that Universal Credit, with its vicious sanctions regime and its heartless treatment of the sick and disabled, falls into this latter category. I venture to suggest that the negative income system outlined above, albeit with its fault lines, would be more effective than the proposed UC project should the latter ever go live. The system outlined above is certainly kinder than UC. Having said this, it may be that the proponents of Unconditional Basic Income win the day – UBI sidesteps the tension between incentive and protection. Perhaps this is the way to go.

Acknowledgement

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the brilliant work of Douglas Bamford in the field of taxation and philosophy. Douglas very kindly gave me sight of his then forthcoming book in advance of its publication. His ideas on cumulative hourly averaging have very obviously informed this piece, as has his idea of using comprehensive income as a tax base. His book is entitled Rethinking Taxation – An Introduction to Hourly Averaging. ISBN 9781907720918.

Any errors or sub-standard work contained in this piece are mine, and mine alone.

Addendum 2 September 2014

1. Quite rightly, it has been pointed out to me that the negative tax proposal outlined above does not say much about unemployment support. To answer this, I suggest work placements should be available for all jobless people, which they can choose to take up. There should be no compulsion as to participation or as to the type of placement. If a jobless person can arrange a placement of their choice, say in a museum, then so be it. The only requirement would be the readiness and agreement  for the placement provider to submit the hours worked to the HMRC as registered hours. The registration of hours worked each week under RTI reporting would then trigger a payment via the negative income tax mechanism to the worker in the same way as for other employees.

2. People who have caring responsibilities, either for children or for aged parents, should receive hourly credits equal to the standard working week  (40 hours according to the parameters used in my examples).

3. Profits on the sale of houses, even if a house in question is a Principal Private Residence (PPR), should be brought into the Taxable Comprehensive Realised Income calculation. Currently, the gain on sale of a PPR is exempt from taxation.

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11 comments

  1. I agree that taking account of the hours people work makes it much easier to do what the UC is trying to do – planning to write a blog about it when I get a chance.

    Your hour-based tax proposals are interesting. They seem to create the required incentives, and in a consistent manner that the UC seems to be struggling to achieve.

    A big difference between our hour-based tax/credit proposals seems to be that yours is just one marginal rate applied to all–might this not be a bit inflexible when trying to match the revenue requirements to fund the credits against the tax received from taxpayers?

    • The government taking money with one hand only to give it back with another is f*cking stupid. It has one purpose, to convince people on low incomes that they *have* to rely on the government to give them extra money. If someone is paying income tax they should not be getting money back. If their income is so low that they would need to get a top-up from the government after they pay income tax… they shouldn’t be paying it! You pay income tax OR you are eligible for some kind of benefit, not both at the same time. It’s ludicruous.

      Imagine you had a young adult still living at home, working and paying towards their keep. Maybe paying you £100 a month. But that means they don’t really have enough left for everything else (including fuel/fares to get to work), so you give them an allowance of £50 a month to help out and maybe pay their £35/month mobile phone bill and the odd £10 here or there for “going out”. The only point to taking money off them and then giving it back in various ways is to keep them psychologically dependent on you.

      • Under my proposals (which are calculated in a different manner) people either have a negative tax rate or a positive one. A negative rate would imply that they work many hours for a very low wage. It does as you suggest.

  2. The assumption that the only worth someone has to society is in paid( often laughably low-paid) employment is what really needs tackling. It is that assumption that makes a caring parent (usually female but not always) into a “lazy, good for nothing, who has kids to scam off the hardworking taxpayer!” A single mother is always seen as a scrounger by those on the outside of her life, no matter how her circumstances came about, no matter whether she has a job and claims no benefits.

    It is that assumption that sees people in wheelchairs tipped out to see if they can walk – sadly many people who need to use a wheelchair *can* walk for short distances & they get castigated for “faking it for benefits!” A great number of disabled people who would find life much easier if they used a wheelchair for some activities are afraid to because of that reaction. Caring for family members is only seen as having worth if the carer does not claim any benefits – I’m not sure exactly how they are supposed to survive, perhaps they should get a job from the pool of imaginary suitable vadancies.

    The assumption that our only worth is in what a company can get from us in return for wages is easily one of the most divisive in 21 Century Britain (and, I would guess, many many other Western countries). And the corporations love that they can get away with paying poverty wages. Wages that a person simply cannot survive on without resorting to claiming benefits themselves (except these are not seen as benefits, but “credits”).

    I’d like to see the level of unemployment calculated on the amount of benefits paid out for those fully capable of work (as assessed by their own medical specialists where necessary) but not in work (include those on sanctions who are technically still claiming benefits) AND those in work but insufficiently paid & needing to claim “benefit credits” (pro-rata that figure) rather than on the fiddled figure currently used. You know, realism. Unlikely with ANY government.

    The only “universal credit” I want to see is where Osborne appears to have stolen the idea for the name from. The Universal Citizen’s Income. But I won’t hijack your comments section for this 😉

  3. Under my hourly tax proposals carers would receive hour credits, which would increase their income/reduce their lifetime tax rate. Providing hour credits allows redistribution to be focused on those who have a good reason to work less than others.

    Universal income proposals would divert available money towards people who could work but choose not. I don’t have a problem with people making that choice but its clearly not a sensible economic policy overall, and it means there will be less resources available to transfer to others.

  4. Pingback: Is Universal Credit the wrong approach? | John D Turner

  5. Pingback: #DWP Apologises for the Delay in Your Payment, #WOW #IDS Does Not Care … (#JSA and #ESA Payment Systems Going Into Meltdown for Existing Recipients) | John D Turner


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