Will axing housing benefit for under 25s cost votes?

By Savi Hensman
June 25, 2012

Housing benefit may be scrapped for numerous adults under 25, UK Prime Minister David Cameron informed the Mail on Sunday. Other welfare claimants too will be targeted in further harsh reforms. While the policy is clearly intended to win support from ‘middle England’, it may backfire as increasing numbers find themselves on the receiving end.

“Radical new welfare cuts targeting feckless couples who have children and expect to live on state handouts will be proposed”, the newspaper claimed, as if high-paying jobs were easy to come by for young people amidst an economic crisis made worse by government policies. Apparently “Scrapping most of the £1.8 billion in housing benefits paid to 380,000 under-25s, worth an average £90 a week, forcing them to support themselves or live with their parents” is being considered by the prime minister, though a few – such as those affected by domestic violence – may be spared.

“A couple will say, ‘We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?’” he said in an interview. “One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.”

Yet all but the best-off families can easily find themselves reliant on housing benefit. Suppose, for instance, that parents are pleased when their daughter marries a hardworking young man with a good job, and they move into a small rented flat. If, a few years later, just after their second child is born, he is made redundant, the expectation is that the young family-of-four will move in with the children’s grandparents. Unless they live in a mansion, this is likely to be uncomfortably cramped.

Most cabinet ministers, and the wealthy donors on whom their parties rely for funding, could afford to buy a house for their children and grandchildren if needs be, or secure a high-paying job for a relative. Millionaires are unlikely to be much affected by even the most savage welfare benefit and public spending cuts. Yet the vast majority of people, even among prospective Coalition voters, are not in such a privileged position.

There will be some young people for whom such a cut will be especially cruel, for instance a teenager sexually abused by her stepfather who is forced to spend years more at his mercy. Though in theory there will be a few exceptions, proving that one qualifies may be difficult and degrading. Yet, even where there is goodwill, family relationships may come under strain, and in some cases couples may split up. Others may just choose not to commit, or even turn to prostitution to pay the rent. This is a policy that really does undermine marriage.

When the notion of such a measure (on top of existing housing benefit cuts) was trailed a few months ago, housing charities and campaign groups warned of the consequences. There were reportedly over 380,000 housing benefit claimants under 25, 57 per cent of whom have children, some in part-time or low-paying work. This may increase if the economic downturn gets worse, and the stock of affordable housing gets even less, as a result of government decisions. Those in charge have not heeded the warnings.

Despite the rhetoric of politicians and sections of the media, increasing numbers of voters may realise that such policies are unjust and unmerciful, as people they know are affected. If the state presses ahead with plans to punish young people and their families still further, ministers may pay the price at the ballot-box.

(c) Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. An Ekklesia associate, she is a regular Christian commentator on politics, society and religion.

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