Housing benefit can be the route to social mobility

Without housing benefit mine and my family's life chances would have been obliterated.

For four weeks in 2008, aged 24 and an unemployed graduate, I tried to claim housing benefit. I had just moved to London with my then partner from Yorkshire via a postgraduate training course in Essex, and a stint living back with my dad and temping in a bid to clear multifarious student debts. Both my partner and I were interning, me for a national magazine, he for a think tank. Neither of us was paid bar minimal expenses. But since his internship was longer-term, DFSS somehow decided that constituted a job, a job that meant he could or should support me (despite the fact he was living on hand-outs from his parents) and which invalidated my claim for housing benefit after just three weeks. In the end his family (who lived in Cyprus) offered to lend me some money, and soon after I landed a minimum wage media database job.

I was relatively privileged. There was some housing benefit available to me, for however short a time. At the eleventh hour, there was someone to help out. If I’d gone back home to West Yorkshire I could have kissed goodbye to a media career in the capital and my autonomy, but I’d still have had bare means. Certainly more than my younger cousin, a carpenter by trade, married with two small children and who had lost his job twice in 12 months since the recession gauged a chunk out of the northern economy, relying on benefits to keep him and his family going until he finally found work again. Brought up in a two-up two-down terrace, moving back into his childhood home with his partner and two small children wouldn’t exactly have made for comfortable living. That my aunt had serious health problems and one of her daughters (admittedly over the age of 25), her partner and two small children living with them for a while too due to similar economic constraints would have made it untenable.

Give or take a couple of years and Cameron’s proposed policy would have seen my cousin and I, two prime examples of the ‘feckless’, ‘entitled’ under-25-year-old benefit scroungers he wishes to obliterate, pretty much obliterated before we’d had a chance to make adult lives for ourselves. 

Where should my cousin have moved back to, exactly, Mr Cameron when there was no work for him, though he was desperate to graft, and when his family home was already overstretched? And shouldn’t I, along with thousands of other have been paid for working in the first place, so that there was no need to claim housing benefit? For me, housing benefit was a means of realising my ambitions and enabling social mobility; for my cousin, it was a matter of basic sustenance and pride.  Neither of us wanted state support, but to be able to support ourselves. And that’s not even to mention the situations, needs, or desires of our parents, whom Cameron would similarly see encumbered by banishing us back home in his bid not to overburden the state.

In Cameronland, it’s either spare bedrooms and free use of the second car, or gutless work-shysters who dream of a shabby, free flat on a sink estate. There may well be some 18-year-olds that plot a trajectory from their parents’ council house to their own, but for the majority of the 380,000 under-25-year-olds currently claiming house benefit, their circumstances will be as nuanced and complex as Cameron’s proposed policy is crude. You might want to look at some of those case studies, Mr Cameron, before being dazzled by the immediate cost savings. The sanctity – and sanity – of your so-called big society is at stake.

A block of flats in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution