Austerity isn’t good for the economy, young people – or anyone else
Georgia Elander, a member of the Young Greens’ National Executive, explains how the government’s programme of austerity is hurting young people… and everyone else.
George Osborne’s Autumn Statement was, if nothing else, a clear sign that the Conservatives’ ideological commitment to austerity far outweighs their commitment to the British people. His promise of another wave of deep cuts to welfare and public services was a blow especially to young people, who under this government are already struggling to keep their heads above water.
Youth unemployment currently stands at over 700,000, and nearly 30% of those unemployed have been out of work for over a year. Many young people unable to find work are forced into unpaid internships or workfare, and for those in paid employment the picture isn’t much better, with one in three young workers on low pay. Skyrocketing rents, in London especially, make it even harder for young workers to make ends meet, and are forcing many to move back in with their parents. It’s a mark of this government’s ignorance that Cameron’s answer to youth unemployment is simply to make being out of work even worse by cutting Job-Seekers’ Allowance for 18-21s after six months – following the same kind of right-wing logic that responds to ‘I’m in work and I have less money than some who are unemployed’ by cutting benefits instead of making the minimum wage enough to live on.
This Victorian attitude to the out-of-work is fuelling a mental health crisis among the young, with 40% of young people having experienced mental health problems as a result of being unemployed. This is exacerbated by the impact of austerity on health services: cuts to Local Authority budgets have hit counselling services hard, meaning that patients have to be more ill before they can seek treatment – at which point often far more treatment is needed. The NHS in general is failing to cope with the rise in depression and mental health problems, with recent figures showing that since 2012 seven people have committed suicide after being told that there were no hospital beds for them. While the government’s recent pledge to invest £150m into treatment for children who suffer from self harm and eating disorders is a step forward, it does not nearly go far enough: it is clear that they do not recognise the scale of the problem, or the need to tackle the root causes – often a result of their own policies – of mental health problems among children and young people.
Of course, it’s not only the young who are struggling as a result of austerity. Women, being more likely to be employed in the public sector, are hit hardest by public sector job cuts and wage restrictions; they are also hardest-hit by cuts to child benefit and housing benefit reform. Cuts hit those on low incomes twice as hard as they hit the average person, and they hit the disabled four times as hard. More than one in ten people with a disability uses food banks, and it is estimated that around two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax have a disability.
This is why comments like those made by Sajid Javid on Thursday’s Question Time – made in the most patronising manner possible, that ‘the British people understand that deep cuts are necessary’ are sickening. They imply a collective responsibility – that the people of Britain have recklessly overindulged in free healthcare and education, and must now sit in penance as those who know best dole out our punishment – austerity. As if it were the young, the poor and the disabled who caused the financial crisis and not the unregulated banking sector; as if it were investment in public services, and benefit payments to the unemployed and low-paid, which were excessive, and not the £1.2 trillion spent on bailing out the banks.
As it becomes more and more clear that austerity is forcing millions of Brits into low pay – and that this, in turn, is causing the government to miss its borrowing targets – Osborne’s refusal to deviate from his course reveals the purely ideological nature of austerity. Even if we accept, just for a moment, that drastically reducing government expenditure is the only way to fix our economy, these cuts do not have to target the young and vulnerable. For example, we could cut raise taxes on the richest individuals and corporations, something which Osborne has consistently failed to do. We could also scrap Trident, which costs us around £3 billion in taxes each year – enough to scrap student tuition fees for the next 30 years, or pay for 150,000 new nurses and teachers each year for 30 years. It’s incredible that this government sees a safety net for young unemployed people as a needless expense, but is prepared to spend up to £100 billion on replacing a cold-war era missile system – but this illustrates once again that austerity isn’t about saving money. It’s about shrinking the state, privatising public services and eroding welfare provision.
We do not have to accept, however, that austerity is necessary. The Labour government’s immediate reaction to the financial crisis – stimulating the economy – was reasonably successful in reducing the deficit; the Coalition’s reversal of this policy in 2010 slowed the growth of the UK economy significantly, leading to two years of stagnation. Uncertainty about future demand has led to a dramatic reduction in investment by private firms, who have been increasing their cash hoard by £72 billion every year since 2008. A variety of economists and organisations say that the way forward is not to dramatically reduce expenditure but, in the short term, to invest in the UK economy, in areas such as house-building and energy. In the long term, we must focus on building a sustainable labour market, ensuring that young people are equipped with the skills that this country needs; making the provision of welfare and public services sustainable, by increasing taxes on the wealthiest in society; and ending the dangerous dominance of the financial sector.
The government’s narrative of compulsory austerity – now echoed, worryingly, by the Labour party – rests on the fallacy that like a household which has maxed out its credit cards, the UK must pay its debts as quickly as possible in order to secure a healthy economy for the next generation. However, George Osborne would only have to look outside to see that his economic policies are damaging the prospects of the young beyond measure. If we want to build a better, stronger Britain for the next generation, we need to invest in our public services, bringing the NHS, the education system and the railways back into public hands, and focus on building a balanced economy that works for the many and not for the few.
The Young Greens’ official response to the Autumn Statement can be found here: http://younggreens.org.uk/news/2014/12/03/young-greens-respond-to-autumn-statement/