By Jade Azim
Under the coalition, language surrounding the toxic ‘strivers v scroungers’ debate has gotten so vast and vague, that almost any vulnerable group of the population has been incorporated into it. The Big Society, as it were, has become a fragmented one. The ‘we’re all in it together’ slogan that accompanied it is nothing more than a salt to rub into what we are presupposed to believe are self-inflicted wounds.
It would seem now, some 3 years after tuition fees were tripled and a number of investments in education, be it secondary, further or higher, were cut, David Cameron has set his sights on young people once more. He has suggested that in order to avoid the unemployed becoming ‘work-shy’, a term used so often nowadays it defies all meaning, under-25s are to have their benefits cut. This is a particularly sensitive issue, at least for readers of this paper, as this will affect all of us heavily should we – and more than likely most of us will in this climate- find ourselves in long-term unemployment when we leave even one of the most elite universities in the country.
As always, David Cameron has forced some of the most vulnerable of people into a drastic ultimatum; choose to either dedicate hours of labour for a terrible wage or face having already meagre benefits cut. It is a choice between poverty and poverty; a terribly low-pay check that does not cater to rising life expenses or social security that, well, hardly amounts to being secure in any way, shape or form.
And there is something strikingly paradoxical in this recurring cycle; David Cameron and his cabinet of highly indifferent Etonians speak of ‘work incentive’ and yet see no problem with making that work pay less. There is nothing appealing about working in the public sector where a wage freeze of three years of age sees no sign of diminishing. And there is something quite shocking to be said of current talks surrounding possible reduction of an already grossly low minimum wage.
But once again, ministers and in particular the DWP are using demonization and stigmatization to justify hitting the poor hardest, with the media playing along with exasperating the extreme amounts of attention on the mere 9% of the benefits budget that goes towards those that are unemployed. This time round, it is the ‘lazy youth’ that are supposedly to blame for their own shortfalls. The same youth who should by all accounts be the recipients of – if we are to call ourselves a civilised society – much investment.
For many, particularly for students, this hits home hard. Surely, it must be considered succinctly unfair that after becoming indebted to the government through spiralled tuition fees and loans, they cannot contribute some 4% (that is, Job Seeker’s Allowance) compared to pensions which make up 52%. Then consider the amount of media coverage each receives – of the Work and Pension’s budget to assisting graduates while they search through the ghost town that is the jobs market? Where, through the government’s own failures, unemployment has reached unparalleled levels where hundreds pursue one job in a shop? Where one million, with very little of that being a homogenous group of idle-by–choice youths, are without jobs mostly through no fault of their own?
You cannot incentivise work in the cruellest way possible when there is no work; you cannot incentivise work when wages are so extortionately low that paycheck recipients cannot afford basic life essentials. You cannot incentivise work while at the same time discussing the possibility of cutting even the minimum wage at a time when the public sector is seeing a now three year wage freeze.
Young people are not lazy or work shy, at least not the vast majority of whom fall under a media-wide image of what the public now sees as a ‘dependency culture’ that is based on a very miniscule statistical minority. Instead, they are lost in a world that sees no place for them, and cutting the only security they have will only make said world a far more unjust setting for our transformation into adults. This move, like much that has happened under the austerity plans claimed even by the historical austerity advocating IMF to be severe, will only entrench divisions further into our society. First will come justifying demonization, then will come the deep repercussions. Young people are set to be the new ‘undeserving working class’. Cameron must not have his way.
Photograph: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration