Benefits: It's not true that half get more than they pay

30 June 2015

"New ONS data shows that 51.5% of households receive more in benefits than they pay in tax"—Centre for Policy Studies, 30 June 2015

No one would deny that there's an art to introductions. It's difficult to find the balance of accuracy, brevity and readability that they require.

Throughout their report, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) were careful to make it clear that 'benefits' in this context means 'cash benefits and benefits in-kind'. The one sentence about benefits without a disclaimer or context conveying this information was the first line on the first page.

Unfortunately, the media did not by and large pick up on this distinction in either the CPS report or the Office for National Statistics release.

"More than half of UK households receive more from in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax, according to a report by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank"—BBC Politics Live, 30 June 2015

"More than half of UK households receive more from the state than they pay in taxes, according to official figures. Around 13.7 million — or 52 per cent — are given welfare payments and pensions in excess of what they contribute in tax, up from 41 per cent in 1977 when records began, and 47 per cent in 2007"—The Mail Online, 29 June 2015, in an article citing the CPS report

Other organisations reached this interpretation under their own steam.

"The ONS figures also revealed that more than half of households received more from the state in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax last year — equivalent to 13.7 million families"—The Independent, 29 June 2015

And one or two got it right off the bat.

"More than half of households in Britain receive more in benefits and benefits-in-kind than they pay in taxes"—The Telegraph, 29 June 2015

Although the Telegraph's headline wasn't so clear.

When 'welfare payments' includes using the NHS

The Mail's headline presents a pretty good overview of the misunderstanding.

"Half get more state money than they pay in taxes: More than 13 million given welfare payments in excess of what they contribute"—Mail Online, 29 June 2015

Stating that a family gets more 'state money' than it paid in invites an image of family finances dependent on a stream of benefit payments.

It's certainly not immediately clear that this 'state money' includes, for example, appointments with the family doctor and a child's place in a state school.

Not backed up by the official source

The ONS makes clear that the "benefits" referred to here include "in-kind benefits such as education".

Its figures don't state what proportion of households receive more in cash payments than they pay in direct taxes (like National Insurance Contributions and income tax) and indirect taxes (like VAT).

There's no way of pulling a figure for this out of the ONS release because of the way the data is grouped together. The release does show average benefits received and taxes paid for different groups of households, but that's not enough to draw this conclusion.

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