Cameron’s welfare speech is just scapegoating: young people aren’t the problem

[This was originally posted at the University of York coThe Yorker here]

‘On my first night as Prime Minister, I said we would build a more responsible society.’ Such were the words of Cameron last week. And apparently that’s what the coalition is doing – building a more responsible society. Take a closer look.

You might imagine that a responsible society would be one where banks weren’t rigging interest rates, where millionaire celebrities (not to mention corporations and financiers) weren’t able to dodge vast sums of tax then get away with a meek apology. Or where bankers who’d contributed to the financial crisis weren’t seen off with golden handshakes (or were still in their jobs), but were seen off in handcuffs.

Instead the Prime Minister took the opportunity not to announce a crackdown on greed and corruption in the financial sector, to introduce a strict anti-tax avoidance rule, or to legislate on taking those responsible for the banking collapse of 2008 to justice, but to suggest abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s, thus forcing 385,000 young people to beg, borrow, steal or move away from their jobs to live with their parents.

Imagine it. A 24 year old couple with a child, working on the minimum wage and unable to keep up with spiralling rent costs. Cameron’s master plan for creating ‘responsibility’ would force them apart or to move in together with one of their parents, perhaps several hundred miles away – where there may be no work. Such a young couple, like most of the small percentage of housing-benefit claimants who happen to be under-25, are to Cameron part of the mythological ‘something for nothing culture’ he ranted about last Monday.

Of course, Cameron has hinted he dislikes the irresponsible tax avoidance referred to earlier. ‘Morally wrong’ he described Jimmy Carr’s scheme. Such comments, however, are not quite the same as actually doing something about it, when according to research by the PCS union it costs us up to £120bn a year – a damn sight more than the £1.8bn keeping rooves over young people’s heads costs. Yet it’s a lot easier to attack those struggling young non-voters than dealing with rampant tax-dodging when the HMRC staff has been slashed by a quarter. Whoops.

If you glanced at the papers last week you would have laughed and then cried. Straight after announcing his hopes of abolishing housing benefit for people under 25, Cameron announced another seventeen further welfare ‘reforms’. You might think – and I don’t intend to play divide and rule here – that a few of these reforms would be aimed at wealthy pensioners – the elderly making up well over half the annual welfare bill.

But no. To stay are the free TV licenses, bus passes and non-means tested winter fuel allowances for those in retirement who, you know, just so happen to vote Conservative. To go is social security for those who can’t find work, and benefits in the North (which just so happens to hate the Tories anyway) are to be intentionally disproportionately cut.

I may just be being cynical. It may just be that even though under 25s make up less than 8% of total housing benefit claimants, and that just one in eight of claimants is out of work, and even though we’re an easy target because as young people we don’t really vote – that despite all this, we are legitimate targets. I would be cynical if I thought that actually the tax dodgers, bank executives and their cronies at the top should be the real targets, not struggling twenty-somethings embedded in an ill-defined ‘culture of entitlement’ when youth unemployment stands at 22%.

I’ll leave it for the man himself to finish – welfare is ‘about the kind of country we want to be – who we back, who we reward, what we expect of people, the kind of signals we send to the next generation.’ Do we want to send the signal to the next generation that large-scale economic problems of high rents and lack of jobs are their fault? That it is not a right to have a roof over your head but a privilege?

Cameron’s ‘responsible society’ isn’t any such thing. It’s a place where the non-voters and the desperate pay the price for the real ‘culture of entitlement’ that is neoliberal capitalism.

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