As the Budget approaches we await the details of deep cuts in welfare spending, but the fact that they are coming is beyond doubt. Every sinew is being strained in the cause of deficit reduction. Or is it? Largely absent from public debate to date is the more than £100billion that goes each year into tax reliefs - lower taxes for particular groups or activities.
Amid the flurry of pre-election pledges made by each party, the Conservatives' 'Tax-Free Minimum Wage' attracted a curious mix of attention... Rather than a trivial tweak, the implications of this policy are potentially substantial and could lead to additional tax cuts, which could be announced as early as at next week's Budget.
The General Election is just 10 months away. But the focus of its debate is a generational challenge to share the benefits of growth, in an environment of ongoing reductions in public spending. The good news is that the current squeeze in living standards is not inevitable and there are choices we make to reach a different outcome.
While low pay and in-work poverty have risen up the economic agenda in recent years, our policy debate has been stuck in a loop. Ask most Labour politicians about low pay and you can expect a well-intentioned but passive mixture of pride in the minimum wage and warm words on the living wage before the topic is changed to the importance of protecting support like working tax credits.
Amidst this week's economic gloom were two bright spots of the jobs market. First, new stats from the ONS led to widespread reports that employment had again reached record levels, with the number of people in work rising 131,000 in the quarter to 29.7 million. Then the OBR upgraded its forecasts for employment over the next few years.
As the prime minister and leading commentators have been fond of pointing out - and rightly so - employment is now back to pre-crisis levels, making this one of the few economic indicators not keeping the Chancellor up at night. Yet step back from a narrow focus on the number of people in work and the challenge we face on employment is daunting.
There's a real policy challenge in how we support people who, despite being in work, aren't working enough hours. This is a notoriously tricky thing to get right.
It's good to see senior politicians acknowledge the central role that female employment must play in raising living standards in the next decade. And it's true that improvements can be made by, in the DPM's words, "shaking up rules and arrangements". But just as the coalition is finding on childcare, shuffling the pack can only get you so far. In the long-run, we have to invest more as a country in supporting parents to work, particularly mothers who often find that work doesn't pay. That means putting our money where our mouth is.
If the government wants to realise its agenda of extending working lives, it must make working past retirement age a realistic option for people across the labour market. Too many older unemployed are not given the support and training they need to find re-employment - one out of two is long-tem unemployed, higher than for any other age group.