When I was 16, I was homeless. By the time I was 18, I had an offer to study at Cambridge University. From Oik to Oxbridge: I told my story to this week’s Labour Party Conference, not to burnish my CV but to suggest some home truths to delegates.
My story is easily misread as unwavering proof that “The American Dream Exists!”. In fact, it is a success story of the welfare state: you can’t pull yourself up by your boot-straps if you don’t have any shoes in the first place.
I learned this the hard way. And when I heard George Osborne’s “Earn or Learn” rhetoric in his budget statement this year, it wasn’t the cynical undertones that had me reeling; it was how similar his language was to Labour’s own Shadow Welfare and Pensions Secretary last year, when she said she would ban young people from benefits if they didn’t accept the first job that they were offered.
When I first became homeless, I was given a £50 a week living allowance (then known as Income Support); a room in a hostel and a £30 Educational Maintenance Allowance. The room was paid for by Housing Benefit, which the Welfare Bill will now remove for people under the age of 21. The idea that receiving Housing Benefit could be a luxury decision for someone who didn’t fancy living with Mum and Dad still seems laughable to me now. Yes, living in a hostel was better than living at home- but that’s only because my home was no place for a young person to live. Housing Benefit gave me the right to live a decent life, to go to school and to get an education.
Other ideas that the Labour Party have trialled over welfare make sense on the surface, but they have lacked understanding of the lives of many teenagers who face the challenges that an enlightened welfare system helped me to overcome. Consider the plan to make the Youth Allowance conditional on criteria such as being in work or training. First of all, it means that we withdraw support to some of the most vulnerable people in society; like those who I lived with in hostels who were recovering from the trauma of losing their families and didn’t want to work right now. It seems to make sense to ask people to work for their benefits; but if I had to take a job to get Income Support, I wouldn’t have been able to keep on going to school. I don’t want to live in a country where young people can’t go to school because they have no home or the financial support to survive otherwise.
My experience tells me that welfare is both a pragmatic and a moral choice. When people aren’t supported by the state, their problems don’t go away. They end up back in the system, be it with health needs, the trauma of homelessness, or even addiction. I had the option to move on from social support, and contribute to a society that will help others – but only because I had the right support first. Above all, for me, setting up the welfare state was a moral decision made because the Labour Party believed that all people deserve the right to food, shelter and respect. Ours is the seventh richest country in the world: this should not be an impossible task.
My final message to the Labour Party was this: be proud of our welfare state, unconditionally. Don’t be the “Not-That-Proud-But-Sort-Of-Cos-We-Like-It-Slightly-More-Than-The-Tories-Do” kind of proud. And don’t be proud only when it turns out Oxbridge graduates like me. Be proud of the welfare state because it provides a vital source of support for the most vulnerable in our society, and because we respect their right to be human.