WHY target the rich when you can bash the poor?
After a week when the media spotlight rested uncomfortably on tax "avoision" by multi-millionaires, including some prominent Conservative supporters, the Prime Minister was happy to get back to business as usual yesterday. In a Sunday newspaper, he let it be known that a future Tory government would consider scrapping housing benefit (HB) for under-25s, obliging them to remain living at home with their parents. HB for this age group costs around £1.8bn a year, which Mr Cameron describes as "a fortune", adding: "The system currently sends the signal that you are better off not working or working less". This message, tailored to appeal to the disgruntled Tory right, is based on the old myth that feckless young people, especially single mothers, have babies to get council houses and live in comfort off the state. For safety net, read hammock. It is a message designed to create some clear blue water between the Coalition partners in the run-up to the next General Election.
In a social democracy, housing policy needs to ensure that everyone has a decent place to live, not just those able to provide it themselves. Far from subsidising the indolent, the main function of housing benefit is to support the low-paid. Around 13% of Scots rely on HB, compared with 11% in the rest of the UK. For many thousands of young adults, it bridges the gap between their inadequate income from part-time and/or low-paid work and what they need to put a roof over their head. That is because of a perfect storm of record high youth unemployment and underemployment, frozen or falling incomes , a desperate shortage of affordable social housing and rising private rents.
Besides, whatever happened to the Tory notion of getting "on your bike" to look for a job? Cutting HB for under-25s would prevent people from moving from high to a low-unemployment area to find work. Going home to mum and dad may be an option in the world of large villas in leafy suburbs. When the family home is a cramped council house, it is a different story. What about those whose parents are dead, abroad, or estranged from them? What about hostels for the homeless? What about youngsters leaving care?
All parties agree that housing benefit needs to be reformed, but cuts can only generate homelessness and dire poverty unless they occur in the context of a meaningful job creation programme, a properly enforced living wage, a colossal social housing programme and regulated rents. At present much of the £1.8bn the Prime Minister refers to goes straight into the pockets of greedy landlords exploiting the housing shortage and the difficulty for young people in accessing mortgages.
Recent housing benefit cuts, which condemn single people under 35 to living in bedsits, are already causing hardship. Once again it looks as if the Tories are determined to target the young, despite all the recent talk about intergenerational unfairness. The plain truth is that are older voters are both more likely to vote and more likely to vote Conservative.
What awaits young people without a parental home to welcome them back? The workhouse and food stamps?
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