Anger for Doomed Youth
Listening to George Osborne’s introduction to today’s Comprehensive Spending Review made me angry. Very angry. For all sorts of reasons. But the one that made me most angry was his suggestion that the reason to slash public expenditure was to secure future generations. His actions, of course, demonstrate that he has no interest in future generations. He has little interest in today’s young, and is creating a political dynamic where more and more support is withdrawn from the young.
It’s not the first time they’ve used this line. There was an ad in the election suggesting a newborn baby had “Dad’s Nose, Mum’s Eyes, Gordon Brown’s Debt”
This is only the beginning of a long and sorry tale for young people and for unborn generations. The real tragedy is that this destruction of hope for the future is masked in a rhetoric of concern for the young.
Savage cuts to welfare are undoubtedly popular with the tabloid press, they are therefore some of the easiest cuts to make. But these cuts will weigh most heavily on the children of the poorest families.
And if the Thatcher years taught us anything it is that impoverishing the poorest leads to decades of intergenerational poverty. By cutting benefits now the government is storing up serious problems of ill-health, educational underachievement and unfulfilled lives. A crisis caused by the super-rich is being used to visit untold suffering upon the most vulnerable.
The CSR itself acts decisively against young people in a number of ways. Leaving the broadly commendable pupil premium aside the budget is wholly bad news for the young.
SureStart, the programme designed to ensure that children are guaranteed the best of early years provision by bringing together education, health and family support will be restricted to the poorest communities. This will undoubtedly lead to gradual reductions in service and problems with stigma.
Free schools are an expensive and risky project at any time, but it beggars belief that anyone seriously thinks the middle of the biggest planned fiscal contraction since the 1920s is the time to gamble on them. The likelihood is that they will suck resources from mainstream education while doing little to improve standards.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Free Schools are being promoted while the previous government’s school building programme has been largely scrapped. So the upwardly mobile parents who want pseudo-private schools can have them while very substantial numbers of children have to learn in substandard conditions. This is nothing short of a disgrace.
Having struggled through 12 compulsory years of education in substandard buildings, with the prospect of whopping student debt ahead many young people will be wondering why they should stay on at school. Many were able to do so because of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. The Educational Maintenance Allowance has now been scrapped.
The trailed changes to student funding recommended by the Browne Review will genuinely lumber a generation with huge burdens of debt. With existing levels of student debt averaging £23,000 on graduation, we can expect the introduction of a market for fees pushing graduate debt well beyond £30,000 and up to £50,000 in some cases. This is where the superficiality of Osborne’s concern for the indebtedness of future generations becomes clear. Simply, he doesn’t care.
Once young people have finished formal education they will be faced with huge difficulties finding a job, with unemployment spiralling upwards. The problem with reducing the number of state employees by natural wastage and recruitment freezes is that it denies new entrants opportunities to do useful work. When today’s young people do find a job it will be very unlikely to be a rewarding one. What employment there is will be in low skilled private sector jobs.
It is becoming ever clearer that the aim of these cuts is to impoverish the vast majority of people in Britain. These cuts make it easier for the very wealthy to add to their already significant riches. The attack on universal benefits is the thin end of a wedge. Once benefits are withdrawn from the majority and preserved for the most needy they will decline. Countries with welfare systems for the poor have the poorest welfare systems.
It is for this reason that we should welcome the few instances where universal benefits have been retained. Free bus passes for the elderly, the pensioners’ winter fuel allowance and free TV licenses for the over-75s are all valuable. But it won’t have evaded your notice that those universal benefits are all available only to older people. While this is at least partly a dividend for higher electoral turn-out amongst older people, it also gives lie to the notion that there can be no more universal benefits.
This decline in universal benefits is the political dynamic that will continue to make it difficult for the young people of today and tomorrow. While today there is a lower rate of minimum wage for under-21s and under-18s tomorrow there may be no minimum wage at all. That is the logic that underpins Osborne’s ideological attack on the state.
If, as seems likely, the cuts send the economy into a long period of stagnation it is today’s youth that will pay the price. And that’s on top of massive levels of intergenerational poverty, poor schooling and student debt. This CSR imposes penance for the sins of the plutocrats. Its consequence is to make the very rich people even richer through the application of a Shock Doctrine. It is disgusting that ideologues like Osborne seek to mobilise the interests of future generations in this cause, when their genuine intentions are so clearly hostile to the young.