Are benefits a subsidy to workers or employers? Yes


There's an interesting claim out there that benefits are just a subsidy to low wage employers. They can get away with paying low wages because we taxpayers then top that up. Alternatively, we might think of benefits as being subsidies to those people who, for whatever reason, have incomes lower than we think they ought to be. There's an answer to which of these is true, that answer being: yes. Jeremy Warner is one this subject here:

Much the same process is evident today in the growth of Britain’s low-wage, low-productivity economy. There is little incentive for employers to improve their productivity, and therefore their wage levels, when labour is subsidised to the degree it now is from general taxation.

By the by, the tax credit system – enormously expanded and enhanced under Gordon Brown – has created a kind of client state of those partially or entirely dependent on the government for their way of life. It has locked in votes as well as disrupted the normal market process by which the general standard of living is raised.

We would make a slightly different point. Whether benefits subsidises the employer or the employee depends upon which benefit. More specifically, a benefit that is paid because of low income, regardless of whether someone is in or out of work, is a subsidy to the recipient. And it's also an anti-subsidy to the potential employer. It raises the reservation wage (the amount that must be offered to get someone to come into work). However, a benefit that is paid conditional upon being in work will end up as being a subsidy to that employer: for it lowers again that reservation wage.

Here in the UK we really only have one major work conditional benefit, working tax credits. Those really are a subsidy to low wage employers. The impact of the rest of the benefit system is to raise wages.

The interesting out come of this is that if you want wages for the low paid to rise then you should almost certainly be arguing for the abolition of working tax credits. Not that this would increase the incomes of the poor but it would stop that subsidy of low wage employers.