If there is one shaft of light, one crumb of comfort to be drawn from the budget, then it is that finally some serious media attention is being paid to the deal that young people are getting in our society. As I wrote in a previous blog, we’ve known for some time that our young people are getting a raw deal. It is young people more than any other group who are facing an increasingly fragmented labour market. Fewer jobs, higher unemployment, the biggest proportional decrease in wages, higher tuition fees, fewer college places and the increasing likelihood of full blown workfare on the horizon. We’ve known about these issues for some time – these are not going to be improved by the measures in the budget. Young people are paying a heavy toll for not turning up at the ballot box. A very heavy toll indeed.
So what happened at the budget? Let’s take one at a time.
As an article in the Guardian suggests, the change in tax credits looks like hitting young families on low incomes harder than most. They report that, according to the IFS, ‘thirteen million families will lose an average of £5 a week as a result of extending the freeze in working-age benefits, tax credits and the local housing allowance, until 2020.’ George Osborne’s sleight of phrase, his ‘national living wage’ (which falls below the ‘living wage’ as we all know it) will not apply to those under 25. From October, whilst those 25 and over will receive £6.70ph, 18-20 year olds will receive £5.30 and 16/17 year olds will get a princely £3.87. The high life indeed.
Housing Benefit is one of the headline changes – and 18-21 year olds will no longer be automatically entitled to this, a lifeline for many young people – particularly those unable to remain in the family home, for a variety of reasons. Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter stated, “the government has a duty to protect those young people who simply don’t have the option of living with their parents – like those escaping an abusive household or thrown out because of their sexuality…[housing benefit can be] the only thing that stands between them and the streets.” As Polly Toynbee writes, measures like this are potentially devastating for those young people who rely on hostels for shelter in times of extreme need. Toynbee notes that hostels such as Burton YMCA rely on this money to put a roof over the thirty-four under-21s in its care. Osborne couched this change in a cloak of morality, stating that “It is not acceptable that in an economy moving towards full employment some young people leave school and straight on to a life on benefits. So for those aged 18 to 21, we are introducing a new youth obligation that says they must earn or learn.” Research tells us that such rhetoric is not grounded in the reality of young people and the youth labour market. As I have covered elsewhere, many studies show that the notion of young shirkers deliberately eschewing work and happy to live the life of Riley on benefits just does not exist.
Instead, young people’s entry into the world of work is bounded by and hindered by many factors, including, amongst others, poverty, family disadvantage, localised unemployment, disability, discrimination and not least – a genuine shortage of opportunities which welcome young entrants into the labour market. Not to mention the evidence which shows that an increasingly common experience for many young people is moving in and out of temporary, part-time or zero hours ‘McJobs’ and/or moving in and out of training and employment schemes or short term educational courses. Bottom line, the evidence tells us young people *want* to work. What is needed is not a bigger stick, but genuine help for young people struggling in an increasingly fragmented and flexiblised employment market.
But instead, a big stick is coming – Osborne terms this a ‘youth obligation’ – as young people will be subject to an “intensive regime of support from day one” of their benefit claim. After six months they will be expected to apply for an apprenticeship or traineeship, gain work-based skills, or go on a mandatory work placement, otherwise they will lose their benefits. For youth scholars this refrain is wearily familiar – that it looks like coming to fruition is nothing short of appalling. Workfare makes little sense as I noted in a previous blog – we’re taking punitive action against young people for a structural issue. We’re blaming them for their unemployment when the world of work is becoming increasingly hostile to the presence of young people. We’re turning what is a public issue into a private trouble and then making a public spectacle of it by forcing them to labour for ‘benefits’.
The other headline change is the maintenance grant for English and Welsh students from low income families is to be scrapped and replaced with loans. These are currently paid at £3,387 per year and provide a lifeline for poorer students. From 2016-17 students will be entitled to an increased amount of cash (£8,200) but on condition that this money will be repaid once the individual is earning above £21,000 per annum. It is feared that such a measure is likely to dissuade working-class young people further from applying to university. And as others have pointed out, the loan schemes are already failing with graduates not earning enough in a squeezed labour market to cross the threshold at which point they pay back loans. It doesn’t, at the moment, seem to make economic sense, never mind social. And I won’t even begin to address the social justice issues here – that’s for another blog, I think.
Back in March I wrote an article for the Scottish Left Project stating that due to the coming changes in social security for young people, it was time to ‘get angry’. Little did I know the full extent of what was coming. The budget is nothing short of a whirlwind for young people – particularly and especially for young people from poorer backgrounds. It is an ugly budget and a deeply regressive budget. What message does it send to young people? For me, it sends the message that their value to society is less than their older contemporaries, that their suffering is lesser, that they cannot be trusted to take their place in society and therefore require the discipline of the state to ensure their participation. I hope that out of this dreadful moment a light is finally being shone on the requirements of this group of young people. It’s been needed for some time.