The UK tax credit system was designed to stimulate low-income workers and families with children to work and alleviate their financial hardship. However, in practice its governance technologies seem to be ill-equipped to engage with the ‘lived reality’ of its target public and drastically redefine the lives of claimants. This paper conducts a critical discourse analysis of the tax credit system by combining several theoretical and methodological approaches. First, it draws on the work of Foucault, Rose, and Miller on accounting as a technology of governance to understand the wider socio-political discourse of the tax credits system and the use of accounting rhetoric and calculative practices in it. Second, it adopts Bourdieu’s social theory to identify the influence of, and interactions between, participants in terms of a nexus of resources, power relations and control. Third, it uses ethnographic and grounded theory methods to explore the experiences and encounters of tax credits claimants and HMRC officials. Early findings suggest that tax credit claimants are not financially better off by working more hours and are perversely held accountable for overpayment problems created by the HMRC. These findings point out how a structural asymmetry in power relations underlies the targeting of tax credit claimants and sustains a neo-liberal discourse of private responsibility for financial hardship.