Let’s liberate youth from the grip of welfare

Cutting housing benefit to under-25s is actually not a bad idea – but let’s do it for the right reasons rather than to save the state cash.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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The most striking thing about the UK Conservative Party’s proposal to cut housing benefit for the under-25s was the reaction to it. The proposal itself, floated last week, amounts to just another desperate stab by the Tories to reverse recessionary trends by trimming state handouts. But the handwringing response, the panic about men and women in their 20s having to move back to the family home if their benefits are slashed, revealed a great deal about the pity and fatalism that underpin today’s pro-welfare arguments. You would think that the only choice young people have these days is between being mollycoddled by mum and being sustained by the state.

Number 10, as part of the government’s determination to reform welfare, suggested last week that unemployed under-25s should no longer have their rent paid by the state. Its reasoning, unfortunately, was pretty naff. It pointed out that, since many under-25s these days continue to live in the family nest (as part of what some commentators refer to as ‘Peter Pan syndrome’), then it isn’t fair that other under-25s are subsidised by the state to ‘live independently supported by housing benefits’.

In short, the government is toying with the idea of exploiting today’s powerful sense of stasis and risk-aversion among young adults, their preference for staying put with their parents rather than leaping into the unpredictable world of adult responsibility, as a means of saving the state cash. It is effectively saying to those under-25s who have moved out but who claim housing benefit: ‘Why don’t you move back to the boxroom you grew up in, like other under-25s have done?’ This is a rubbish case for cutting housing benefits. There is an argument for removing that benefit from under-25s, but it should be done in the name of encouraging them to fend for themselves, and giving them the space to develop the independence required to become an adult, not as a sly way of coaxing them to go crawling back to mother.

Currently, 380,000 under-25s claim housing benefit. Around 57 per cent of these have children, and of course it would be unwise simply to slash the housing benefit given to low-paid young mums and dads. But the other 43 per cent, many of whom get a reduced version of housing benefit called the ‘shared room rate’, are a different matter. It is worth seriously asking whether these people should get housing benefit. Yet as soon as the government asked that question (badly), its critics went mad. Removing the benefit would leave ‘thousands of vulnerable young people… with nowhere else to go’, said the homeless charity Shelter. Apparently, many under-25s ‘simply don’t have family’ to fall back on and therefore ‘rely on housing support to keep a roof over their head’.

This view was echoed by commentators, one of whom asked of the government’s proposals: ‘What if [housing benefit] claimants don’t have a family to return to?’ But hold on – since when has the only choice facing hard-up young people been to live with their families or be subsidised by the state? The assumption in much of the criticism of the government’s proposal – that if job-hunting youth don’t get their rent paid by the authorities then they will have to move back home – is treated as commonsensical. But it is no such thing. It is underpinned by its own prejudices, and by an extraordinarily degraded view of people in their 20s as dependants, as overgrown children who must be cared for.

There is another choice for young people, and it is one that was enthusiastically embraced by earlier generations of working-class and even poor youth – that is, to live independently of both the parental home and the state’s purse by working when you can, looking to friends for help, and developing a social network that you could call on for tips, jobs, assistance. Millions upon millions of young adults pursued that life route in recent decades, sometimes struggling to pay the rent, yes, but at the same time recognising that that struggle had an almost unquantifiable pay-off – the freedom to live in independence, away from your parents’ petty rules and out of sight of the authorities. The idea that work-seeking under-25s must either live at home or in state-paid accommodation is an entirely new one, and it reflects the liberal elite’s deeply prejudicial view of working-class youth as effectively ‘incapable’.

Shelter’s phrase – ‘vulnerable young people’ – sums up how many men and women in their 20s are now viewed. In effect, there has been an extension of childhood, right through to the age of 25, so that it is now seen as perfectly normal to say either that these people should move back home (as the government suggests) or that they must have their needs catered for by the state (as the government’s critics say). What gets lost in this degraded argument between two different kinds of pity for the poor is the idea that, actually, these young adults are capable of taking control of their lives, of putting a roof over their heads by hook or by crook – yes, even in an era of mass youth unemployment. In 1970, my parents came to London from the west of Ireland when they were in their late teens, with nothing, and they went all-out to find work and accommodation. They, like many others back then, would have been alarmed if anyone had referred to them as ‘vulnerable young people’.

Some might ask: ‘But why force young people into a situation where they must struggle to put a roof over their heads, when the state is willing, for now, to give them housing benefits?’ The answer is simple: because encouraging under-25s to become reliant on welfare is a deeply destructive and damaging trend, which can harm both communities and individuals. Very often, we hear torturous debates about what will happen to youngsters if we withdraw their welfare – apparently they will starve, go mad, turn to crime, etc. But we rarely hear discussions about what the already-existing system of welfare is doing to young people, about the impact that the cult of welfarism is having on young people’s capacities and expectations right now. The fretting about the harm that will befall under-25s if we cut welfare distracts attention from the harm that is already befalling them as a direct consequence of welfarism.

The reason it might be a good idea to cut welfare to many under-25s is not because it will save the state money, but because it might go some way towards reasserting the importance of youthful ambition and independence over reliance upon the faceless, heartless bureaucracy of the welfare state. The ages of 16 to 24 are a key part in every person’s life. It is the time when one becomes an adult in biological terms and fights to become one in moral, social terms, too. It isn’t easy. It involves ripping up old bonds (especially with parents) and taking big risks by venturing into the unforgiving world and working out what you want to do and who you want to be. Through experimentation and risk-taking, through striking up new relationships, and yes through episodes of privation, a young person becomes an adult, wiser and more sussed than he would ever have been if he had remained a dependant.

The thoughtless provision of welfare to under-25s seriously interferes with this scary but creative process. It neuters young people’s aspirations to independence by replacing their dependency on parents with dependency on the state. Worse, it hampers young people’s development of new social bonds by encouraging them to be more reliant on the state than on their newfound neighbours, friends or just strangers, people who might provide them with work or opportunities. Where once young people were expected (and wanted) to leap into the adult unknown, now they have the option of wrapping themselves in the comforting if soul-destroying blanket of welfarism instead.

No, cutting welfare to under-25s won’t solve every problem of today’s independence-phobic, anti-adult culture. But it will go some way towards elevating the virtues of risk-taking and struggle over dependency and self-pity. Have you ever noticed that it is always people who are the least reliant on the welfare state – well-off commentators or think-tankers – who are the most passionate defenders of it? That is because they know nothing of its detrimental impact on individuals and the communities they inhabit. I’ve heard enough speculation about what will happen if we remove welfare from under-25s – let’s discuss what is happening in the here and now, to real people, as a result of the welfarism that is so thoughtlessly and patronisingly backed by liberal politicians and agitators.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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