IT SHOULDN’T come as any surprise by now, should it, that David Cameron has no idea what life is like outside his own tiny bubble of privilege?
The Prime Minister doesn’t know how much a loaf costs on account of his bread machine and wouldn’t touch the cheap, white stuff anyway because, you know, granary is so much better for you.
Even so, fresh evidence about how far removed from the realities of austerity Britain he is can still take your breath away, particularly as he’s so damn glib about problems such as disability, unemployment and poverty, presenting them as minor hurdles which would be easily surmountable if you’d just try harder.
To mark last week’s party conference, Cameron came up with a pithy new aphorism that will have struck dread into the hearts of young people across the country. “Earners or learners” – that’s what under-25s will have to be if they want to keep their housing benefit and Jobseekers’ allowance, in the event of a Tory victory at the 2015 election. This, apparently, is the best Cameron’s party has to offer the one million-plus Neets (young people not in employment, education or training): a lecture about how they should be doing something productive; and the severing of their financial support.
Of course, it would be better if all young people could be given something useful to do, preferably an adequately paid job to match their qualifications. But if Cameron wanted to make it easy for young people to access higher education, then he shouldn’t have scrapped the educational maintenance allowance in England or allowed English universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees. And if he wanted to create employment opportunities, he shouldn’t have scrapped the £1 billion Future Jobs Fund.
If there were enough jobs, traineeships and college courses to go round, wouldn’t all young people be in one, instead of sending off application form after application form without success? This latest policy announcement places yet another pressure on the under-25s already bearing the brunt of austerity. More than that, it seems to be laying the blame for the downturn at their feet; as if it suits them to sit around while their dreams atrophy.
It will be hard enough for those with supportive families – already under pressure to pass exams to get into university – to cope with the prospect of a cut in benefits should they be unable to find work when they finish their degree. It seems unfair they should be forced to live at home years after young people from my generation had struck out on their own.
Such households may struggle, but they’ll survive. But what about those less fortunate young people who seem to test Cameron’s imaginative capacity: the ones who are couch-surfing because they’ve been thrown out of or have run away from abusive homes; the ones who’ve got pregnant; or who spent their childhoods in care and have now been cast adrift? Who is going to support them if the state opts out? And what of the single mothers who make up 40 per cent of housing benefit claims for the under-25s? Are they going to be forced to take any job, no matter how impractical?
When Cameron last mooted cutting housing benefits for the under-25s, charities warned it would increase homelessness. How much worse would it be if all support were removed? And how could this stark threat possibly give young people a “shove” to put their lives to productive use? It’s hard enough to keep your chin up in the face of repeated rejection when your domestic situation is secure, nigh-on impossible when you don’t know where you’ll spend the night.
If Cameron finds it impossible to understand real poverty and its causes, he could always dip into A Girl Called Jack, a blog by single mum Jack Monroe, who was pushed to the brink by her straitened circumstances but is now campaigning against poverty (including addressing a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference on food banks). Although she worked from 14, she found herself unemployed in her 20s when the birth of her son left her unable to cover shifts in her job at Essex County Fire and Rescue Service and she was refused flexible working. Having resigned, and unable to find another post, she became caught in the spiral of poverty, where your very shabbiness makes you eminently less employable (until her blog with its ultra-cheap recipes was discovered and she was asked to write for national newspapers).
You don’t need to get pregnant to find yourself in this position; all you need is a run of bad luck, a bout of ill-health or a row with your parents, to be sucked into a big black hole. It is people like Monroe that Cameron – who is untouched by deprivation – wants to punish in the name of stopping the next generation “choosing” a life on benefits. Far from giving Neets the shove they need to forge a stable future, his policy seems likely to trap them in a cycle of erratic, low-paid work; far from improving their prospects, it is destined to deepen their poverty and desperation. «