This week the Conservatives launched a manifesto pledge to cut housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Delivered under the mission banner of ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture, the pledge is the latest in a long line of age-related welfare reform proposals – premised on the idea of getting young people to live under mum and dad’s roof again. They echo Labour’s plans to end job seekers allowance for young people and replace it with a new “youth allowance” means tested on parental income.
Currently, there are around 7 million young people in the UK. Of these, 85,000 are care leavers, at least 300,000 are young parents, one in five will have witnessed domestic violence, and one in four will have lived with a binge-drinking parent. Very few of the young people above will have a happy parental home to shelter in, and many will need to rely on benefits at least in the short term for their wellbeing; a fact that politicians are well aware of as they’ve delivered each new age-related benefit cut with an assurance that the ‘most vulnerable’ will be protected.
Even a cursory glance at the recent political scorecard, however, reveals that these assurances are not always true. In fact, far from living in a ‘something for nothing’ culture, young people have for decades now been prevented from claiming support that older citizens are entitled to.
Age-specific benefits are not a new concept; pensioner benefits, aimed at protecting the health & wellbeing of older people, have been around since 1908 & long preceded the modern welfare state. In 1996, however, age restrictions were applied for the first time downwards, as the ‘single rate rent rule’ prevented single people under the age of 25 from claiming benefits for any accommodation other than a single room in a shared house. In 2012 this rule was extended to people under the age of 35 years old – leaving thousands of people to compete for roughly 2% of the housing stock.
Young lone mums, who are often the primary carers for children, were exempted from the rule, and they are still able to claim housing benefit for a house or flat. Lone dads, however, are not meaning that they too have to share a house regardless of how often their child comes to stay. The young fathers that Barnardo’s works with tell us that this can have a massive impact on their relationship with their children. As one young dad put it: “Every time I want my daughter to stay over, she has to share a bathroom and kitchen with anyone who happens to be living in – or even just visiting – the house. You worry.”
People who have been in care are another group who are formally exempt from the single room rate and can still claim for a self-contained flat. Recently, however, young care-leavers have found themselves penalized for this ‘privilege’ as many of their self contained flats fall foul of the new ‘bedroom tax’. Twenty one year old Jenny, who rents a two bedroom council house in Wales, has seen her benefits cut because they no longer cover the cost of her spare room. She told me that she’s desperate to move, yet the council simply don’t have any single bedroom flats available. During the wait, she’s accrued crippling debt and is worried she will become homeless.
Barnardo’s staff in the North West tell me that they can no longer get very young care leavers into transitional ‘supported’ accommodation, where they’ll be taught crucial life skills like cooking and budgeting. This is because spaces are being taken up by older care leavers who the council can’t move on because there’s no benefit-compliant housing to move into.
In general, however, it’s the mundane and unanticipated administrative ‘fallout’ from welfare reform that often deals the most debilitating financial blows to the vulnerable – regardless of whether they’ve been identified as ‘protected’ or not. A 24 year old working mum of two told us that she had got into unsustainable debt when she suddenly became liable to pay council tax. Unable to find advice on the correct rate, she had paid double the amount she needed to, fallen behind in her payments, got taken to court, and now has £112 in fines withdrawn from her account every month. This young woman now skips nine meals out of ten, and uses a food bank to feed her son.
Young people, meanwhile, are increasingly having their benefits ‘sanctioned’ (stopped), because they can’t meet or even just misunderstood new rules placed on them by changes to the system. In fact Barnardo’s workers have seen cases of young people with literacy issues having their benefits withdrawn because they can’t read letters notifying them of job centre appointments.
Vulnerable young people are just that; young. Inexperienced and at the bottom of the income scale, they are the group who are most likely to fall foul of fiddly administrative rules and to need extra financial support.
The truth is that a dangerous myth currently dominates political thinking, that welfare-reform can be ‘safe’ – precision-targeted even – if it’s levelled at the young people. For the thousands of youngsters driven to food-bank queues by the unintended consequences of benefit changes, this myth has very real and dangerous results.
I want to see the political establishment urgently re-embrace its role as a good parent, which protects and nurtures the millions of young people who can’t rely on the support of their own family. More, that it is ambitious for every youngster to fulfil their potential in life.
This means ensuring that crucial benefits are available to vulnerable citizens regardless of age, and that the youngest recipients are fully supported to get the state help they need.
As it stands, on election day, the young people who have been rejected throughout their lives will find that they yet again have no one to turn to.