The radical argument against welfare benefits for young people

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Image © Beth Granter

Brendan O’Neill

The instinct of leftists is to leap to the defence of welfare benefits for young people whenever the government wields its austerity axe. So when the Lib-Cons reined in Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the small amount of money paid to hard-up 16 to 18-year-olds for attending sixth-form, campaigners went mad, claiming that young people’s lives would be “extremely hard” without EMA.

When workfare was introduced for 16- to 24-year-olds, encouraging them to do some work in return for their jobseekers’ allowance, the reaction from the left was so furious you could have been forgiven for thinking the Lib-Cons had built a Dickensian workhouse and forced thousands of youngsters to live/labour in it. Some clueless commentators even compared workfare to “slave labour.” A rousing cheer went up in left-wing circles when big businesses started withdrawing from workfare and when the government announced the watering-down of the scheme.

Yet this instinct to erect a moral forcefield around welfare benefits for young people, so that any reform of them comes to be frowned upon, is a deeply problematic one. It shows how out of touch much of the left is with the lives and experiences of young working-class people in particular. Most dramatically, it demonstrates the failure of the left to appreciate that reliance on state benefits is not a neutral and is certainly not a healthy relationship – rather it is one which can seriously harm young people’s aspirations to independence and stunt their cultivation of social solidarity within their communities.

Of course, every civilised society needs to have a welfare system to ensure that people who are incapable of feeding or housing themselves are provided with the means to do so. This should especially be the case for those who are incapable of working, such as elderly or disabled people, and for families where the breadwinner has been thrown out of work.

However, society should seriously rethink the provision of welfare benefits to the 16- to 24-year-old age bracket (apart from those who are disabled or who have children), because there is the danger that the intervention of the state into people’s lives at such a formative time, during the leap from childhood to adulthood, could prevent the full blooming of adult independence. Instead it simply replaces dependency on one’s parents with dependency on the state.

Many on the left seem to have become so enamoured with the state as the only source of justice and social change, and so doubtful of the ability of young people to make their own way in the world, that they think nothing of calling for the further tightening of the state’s apron strings around 16- to 24-year-olds. Such is their misplaced faith in the largesse of the state and such is their misplaced belief that young working-class people are fragile and vulnerable that they implore the agents of welfarism to care for and coo over the nation’s youth. Poor young people should be rewarded by the state for attending school, they say, and then they should be given benefits if they don’t immediately find gainful employment. The casualness with which such demands are issued suggests these campaigners do not see any danger in effectively making hard-up youngsters into wards of the state.

The ages of 16 to 24 are a key part of every person’s life. This is the time when one becomes an adult in biological terms and fights to become an adult in moral and social terms too. It isn’t an easy journey. Frequently it involves ripping up old bonds, particularly those that once existed between the young person and their parents. It almost always involves taking risks too – venturing into the unforgiving world and working out what you want to do and who you want to be. Through experimentation and risk-taking, through striking up new relationships beyond those that existed in the family home, and, yes, through experiencing periods of privation as you move from one job to another or one place to another, a young person becomes an adult, independent-minded and wiser and wilier than they were when everything was provided for them by their mother or father.

The unthinking provision of state welfare to 16- to 24-year-olds seriously interferes with this creative process. It can neuter young people’s aspiration to independence by communicating to them the message that they’ll always be looked after by faceless bureaucrats. It can restrain the attainment of adult independence – proper moral autonomy – by implicitly inviting youngsters to make themselves reliant on state charity. And worst of all, it can prevent young people from forming social bonds, from developing social solidarity, since they are encouraged to be more reliant on the state than on their neighbours, friends or strangers who might provide them with work or opportunities. Where once youngsters had little choice but to leap into the unknown and strike up relationships with the people they met on the way, they now have the option to wrap themselves in the familiar-feeling, though soul-destroying, blanket of state sustenance.

In short, state assistance during this formative period potentially alienates young people from their surroundings and also grates against their aspiration to independence. This has inevitably had the effect of nurturing in modern-day young people some pretty unpleasant traits – self-pity, feelings of vulnerability, a sense of entitlement, an aversion to risk. All those traits, by-products of the welfarisation of young people’s lives, can be glimpsed in the campaigns to “Save the EMA” or “Smash workfare.”

Nobody is saying that the period between 16 and 24 is easy. I’m sure all of us have heard stories from our parents about just how hard it can be (mine left the west of Ireland in their late teens and travelled to London, with one suitcase, in desperate search of work). But the stress and privations of that stage of life are more than made up for by what is gained as a result: a true feeling of independence, of autonomy, and an understanding that working with other people and within your community can be of great benefit to all concerned.

It is for these reasons that benefits to 16- to 24-year-olds should be cut – not in order to save the state money, but in order to allow young people the space in which to become morally autonomous, socially aware adults. It is no coincidence that the most vocal defenders of the EMA and the loudest opponents of workfare are the more moneyed sections of the left, whether well-off commentators, Labour MPs or rich, radical PhD students – that is because these individuals understand very little about how morale-zapping it can be to have the state sustain you for doing nothing and contributing nothing. We should cut the state’s apron strings for 16- to 24-year-olds, and allow a more confident, cocky, self-sufficient generation to rise up and potentially change society.

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