End financial discrimination against young people

2009: the year of the Equality Bill. While readers probably have aspects of the Bill they don’t like, I’m sure most see it as a step forward.

However, one disappointment has been the Bill’s exceptions for age discrimination. Specifically, the National Minimum Wage isn’t affected. Nor, as far as I can see, will the Bill change the unequal provision of state benefits, like Jobseeker’s Allowance, housing benefit and tax credits.

The two arguments I’ve heard in favour of varied wage and benefit rates – excluding ‘nobody votes for raising benefits during a recession’ – are:

– it’s intended to encourage young people into higher education

– young people need less money because they’re supported by their parents.

First, the education angle: as many students and graduates will know, if you have a part-time job at university you’re only entitled to £4.83 per hour until you’re 21. If you’re from a low-income family, this is one more reason university might seem too expensive.

What we’re told is that with a degree, you needn’t rely on benefits or the national minimum wage. But there’s a recession on. I know graduates on JSA, and I bet you do too.

The ‘parental support’ argument, meanwhile, applies disproportionately to better-off families. Benefit rates don’t change until you’re twenty-five. I’m a graduate, and many of my friends are graduates, so I know many people who are way past 25 and still living at home. But none of their parents are on benefits or low incomes.

As soon as a child turns 16 or leaves sixth-form, their parents lose child benefit and child tax credits; if they’re receiving housing benefit and/or council tax benefit, that goes down. Unless this child is able to contribute to the household income from their £50.95 per week JSA, or from their wage, which could be as low as £3.57 an hour, then they’re under pressure to move out.

Which brings me to the way this affects women (you wondered when I’d get to it). Imagine you’re a teenage girl, and your parent(s) is/are on benefits or low incomes. (I’m aware that both of these things will apply to some readers, so please forgive me if I generalise or stereotype – I have based this on a composite of real people, but I know there will be many women whose experience it excludes.) Maybe your parent(s) has/have their own financial problems. You’d all find it easier if you moved out. Where do you go?

Your family’s experience of debt may put you off university. You’re low priority for council housing. If you rent privately, the maximum housing benefit you can receive a week is £65 (this varies nationally, but it’s £65 a week in Salford). As many young people complain to me at work every week, that won’t cover your rent anywhere, unless you house-share – and house-sharing isn’t something you’d necessarily consider unless you’d already been to university. Who would you share with?

You could get a job. Maybe. If your parents are on benefits then there are a whole separate blog-post’s worth of barriers to employment; and you might still earn less than four quid an hour, with no tax credits.

There is a way that all of these rules won’t apply to you, and I’m sure a lot of readers have spotted it. Depending on your circumstances…you could have a baby. You’d move up the council housing list; you’d get more housing benefit; and you’d get tax credits.

I’m pretty nervous about putting the words ‘baby’ and ‘council housing’ close together. Please don’t misunderstand: the reason families get more support is that they need it. I’d never suggest we withdraw any that support. There should be more.

I’m certainly not suggesting that young women get pregnant in order to get housing and benefits. Every week I meet a lot of young people with children, and I’d take a lot of persuading that any of them did it for the money.

But faced with a system that disadvantages young men and women alike, having a baby is one option some women have. (And men too, I know – but it’s different, and I could do a whole separate post about why.) I think they should have more options. And I think, incidentally, that it would take a lot of pressure off social housing if they did. But that’s another post right there.