As George Osborne and the sniggering millionaires of the Coalition front bench delivered their autumn statement last Wednesday, it was impossible not to feel a sense of déjà vu. Here we are again, with the chancellor admitting that he had failed to meet the deficit target, failed to meet the debt target and failed to restore significant growth to the economy. Here we are again with the continuation of austerity despite its failure to even succeed on its own terms, to say nothing of its terrible social legacy. No matter how high unemployment remains, no matter how many disabled people die after being declared fit for work and no matter how sluggish the recovery remains, Osborne is determined to stay the course. As one senior treasury official put it, “We do have a plan B: it’s to keep doing plan A for longer”. So what will the consequences of the relentless pursuit of plan A be for young people in Britain?
The major headline from Osborne’s statement was his real-terms cut to the welfare budget, amounting to £10 billion by 2018. The effect this will have on young people will be painful, particularly through the corrosive effects it will have on families. Camden Council began to research the effects of austerity on families earlier this year via a series of interviews, and the findings were grim; the researchers noted rising tensions among families, more arguments, panic about the future and even a rise in domestic violence. This is a toxic environment for young people to grow up in, and will only aggravated as yet another raid on the welfare budget is carried out.
But in fact, the effect of the autumn statement on young people is best measured by what it left out rather than any new headline proposals. In large part, the attacks have already begun; the significance of the autumn statement is in its belligerent refusal to recognise their deleterious effects and its insistence they must continue for many years. In fact, the Tories have made it clear many times that even after the deficit is ‘under control’, there will be no restoration of funding to public services. Unless challenged, the cuts will be permanent. With this in mind, let us consider what has happened to young people under the Coalition government, none of which is scaled back or reversed in Osborne’s statement.
A significant plank of the austerity programme as applied to young people has been the workfare programmes. Casting our minds back one year ago, to the Autumn statement of 2011, we find Osborne telling young people that if they do not ‘engage with the offer’ of workfare (mandatory unpaid work placements) then they face losing their benefits. Opponents of this scheme were accused of wanting to keep young people out of valuable work experience in the service of outmoded left-wing ideology. Its advocates claimed that this would go some way to solving the problem of record youth unemployment which had sprung up during the rule of the coalition government. As usual, the unspoken assumption of the policy was that the main thing holding young people back was their own lack of initiative – workfare and the threatened loss of benefit was the only thing that would overcome it. Fast-forward to the present. How has this victim-blaming policy fared? The reality is that it’s been a catastrophic failure for young people. The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion estimates that a mere 2.1% of those on the Work Programme have been able to find paid work as a consequence, which is to say that the figures are actually worse than the government’s own assessment of what would happen if Jobseekers were simply left to find their own work. The existence of workfare also destabilises the job security of the paid staff of the ‘providers’. Why would an employer pay staff to do a job that can be done for free by a benefit claimant? The autumn statement contained no recognition of the failure of this policy, and no attempt to combat the high levels of youth unemployment in Britain with anything but more of the same.
Another cut which hit young people hard was the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which provided an economic lifeline of £10 to £30 per week to students from poor backgrounds, provided that attendance is near-perfect. Both my partner and I were recipients of this grant while we were studying for our A-Levels, narrowly escaping the cut. My personal experience was that my family would have been able to support me in terms of putting a roof over my head, but would not have been able to cover the costs of travel or books for study. My partner had left home for personal reasons at the beginning of her A-Level studies, and received no family support – she was just barely able to make ends meet on a combination of EMA and income support, frequently needing to walk a two hour journey to college to save on bus fare. I can say with certainty that we could not have studied without EMA unless we were able to find part-time work for the duration of our courses. Finding work in the present economic climate is very far from guaranteed, and would have compromised our study time if we had found it. Campaigns which fought to save EMA compiled convincing evidence that many other people have found themselves in the same situation, and now colleges have unsurprisingly witnessed a drop-off in applications. The tripling of tuition fees for university students has caused a similar drop-off in applications, although this has been less severe; this may well be down to the poor prospects for jobseekers at present. Between the cutting of EMA and the tripling of fees, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are being pushed out of education. Osborne’s response, in this statement as in all his previous ones, is to bury his head in the sand and carry on.
If we want to see these changes reversed, we’ll need to struggle. The student movement in 2010, despite demonization in the media and heavy police repression, came close to stopping the government in its tracks. A similar movement in Quebec succeeded this year by linking effectively and inspiringly with the wider struggle against austerity. If they can do it, so can we.