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Universal credit Dazed

Life in the not-so roaring 20s: the young Brits on Universal Credit

Met with redundancies and barriers to employment, a younger generation is depending on benefit schemes to navigate the pandemic – but some young claimants are being denied the opportunity

The history books mark the roaring 20s as a period of hedonism, opulence, and glamour. Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker, it was a moment of sin and spectacle. But, a century on, being knee-deep in our overdrafts is about the only sin left available to us, and the spectacle? A Tory government trying to ‘manage’ a global pandemic. The closest we’re getting to any kind of roaring is the internal fury inside as we, the younger generation, kick-start our 20s hand-in-hand with Universal Credit (UC).

The social security payment introduced in Britain in 2013 was set up to simplify the welfare system via a single monthly payment for those on low incomes or out of work. Delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the scheme was intended to allow claimants to take up part-time work without losing all of their entitlement. According to a recently published government survey, there have been 3.6 million new claims made for Universal Credit since the beginning of the pandemic, and young people make up a greater proportion of new claimants than before the start of the pandemic.

But let us not be swayed by the obliging hand of Universal Credit, a puppet on a string, controlled by the Tories. Lest we forget it was former chancellor George Osborne who announced a £3.2 billion annual cut to the UC budget back in 2015. Then there’s current chancellor Rishi Sunak, forced into a U-turn on slashing UC benefits by £20 a week from next April, having introduced the raise only months earlier. But as the younger generation face a financial tempest and ongoing job insecurity, with young workers much more likely to be furloughed or have lost their job as a result of the pandemic, according to Resolution Foundation’s October report, why are accounts of those refused funding rising at a time when young people need it most? The country is still in varying states of lockdown, while another influx of redundancies awaits young people in the UK with 626,950 16-24 year olds are currently out of employment and on UC from September 2020, according to the latest government statistics. So how, you ask, do you become eligible? With a four-leaf clover and a horseshoe in hand – and then some.

“I received only £375 for four months of unemployment”

23-year-old recruiter Jack Bosley, from Rugby, describes his experience as an “ironic” one, losing his job in recruitment just three days before lockdown was declared in March. “When I applied for UC, I was rejected and told I needed to be out of work for more than eight weeks in order for the claim to be processed,” he says. “Under this advice, I was finally deemed eligible to apply in May, only to hear nothing back until over a month later. I was then told the claim could not be backdated to March as ‘the issue should have been raised at the time’, (so I received) only £375 for four months of unemployment.”

Cardiff-based pet care and animal rescue provider Kate Emma, 23, launched her own business a year ago only to be put on pause when the pandemic hit, as she was no longer able to retrieve pets from people’s homes. “With everyone being off work, no one would need me to walk their dogs as they were home all day,” says Emma. “I looked into the Self-Employed Income Support (SEISS) scheme but my business hadn’t been registered long enough to qualify. I was then told I couldn’t apply for UC as I was technically registered as earning due to being self-employed.”

The ambushing effect of the pandemic on this younger demographic has three principal causes, suggests research academic and expert on labour markets and welfare reform, Paul Gregg: “One is that firms are looking to shed staff, so they choose (employees who are) less experienced and less integral to the organisation, which tends to mean young people as they’re the least costly to dismiss. Two is that unemployment is rising, not just because of the shedding of labour, but because companies have stopped hiring and many young people were not in work when Covid hit. Three is that the primary entry points for young people who didn’t attend university are in hospitality, leisure, retail and care, which have been the worst hit.”

London-based part-time student Gulden Belli, 26, was furloughed during lockdown while her boyfriend, due to start a new job in hospitality alongside his studies in March, which was postponed due to coronavirus, was deemed ineligible. As EU-citizens, qualifying under a ‘migrant worker status’ – non-British people who are in the UK to work and are also pursuing a degree at university – the couple were able to receive support for tuition fees, however, the maintenance loan proved more problematic.

Despite Student Finance England’s (SFE) case-by-case assessment, an indicative threshold of 10 hours of paid work per week as a minimum is required to achieve financial support to help with the cost of books, transport, rent, and bills. But with the closure of the hospitality sector, they failed to reach the required amount of hours in work for financial aid, meaning the maintenance loan was cancelled by SFE. Belli was denied further income-related benefit from UC due to her boyfriend’s full-time student status – tuition fees are excluded and maintenance loans are deducted from UC. Belli has been compelled then, to share her income. “I’ve managed to get some UC help, although not much, as I get a salary from my part-time nanny job,” as the taper rate currently stands at 63 per cent, which means for every pound earned over the work allowance, UC will reduce by 63p. “I’m currently helping for his part of the rent and it’s becoming very difficult,” she says, meaning that an already reduced benefit allowance, intended for one person is being split between two.

“It has long been said that Britain has a particular problem with our school-to-work transition for non-graduates. In a recession, when we start worrying about young people not in education, employment, or training, we start doing various programmes. But, as soon as it’s over, we shut them all down again”

In 2020, it feels like the Universal Credit system is shutting the very door it was designed to open. Young people from across the UK are at the sharp end of the Covid economy, from graduates being offered lower-paid jobs with a reduced career trajectory to people without degrees from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority groups impacted by a limited job market. “It has long been said that Britain has a particular problem with our school-to-work transition for non-graduates,” says Gregg. “In a recession, when we start worrying about young people not in education, employment, or training, we start doing various programmes. But, as soon as it’s over, we shut them all down again.”

The current benefits system fails to account for individual circumstances. Sophie Hughes, a 23-year-old postgraduate from County Durham, applied for UC, but was rejected because she receives £432 a month from working as a part-time carer for a relative. “Becoming a carer post-university, I was unsure as to whether I’d qualify, despite my already low income,” she says. “I filled out an application only to hear six weeks later that two monthly payments of my carer’s allowance had been lumped together meaning that, according to the offices, I’d made £800 in a month and was therefore earning too much to qualify.”

Gregg’s research, a report published in October on youth unemployment estimates that, as of this month, there will be 1 million young people with barriers to gaining employment out of work. But why so many? Youth unemployment was already a problem before the pandemic, with 700,000 young people who needed employment, but the monopolising effect of the virus meant vacancies collapsed. “There was a huge chunk of young people who were on the wrong side of the vacancy door when it closed, and this time it slammed very quickly,” he notes.

Even those who are eligible for Universal Credit could face a wait of at least five weeks before they can get it. Rather than help citizens fight poverty, UC is escorting them with an arm around their shoulders along to the food banks. The Trussell Trust launched the campaign #FiveWeeksTooLong last year, asking the government to reduce the time period for claimants to receive payment. Emma Revie, the charity’s chief executive, stresses how “vital local support must work in coordination with a national welfare system that is strong enough to act as a lifeline to anyone struggling to afford the essentials”.

There has been a 47 per cent increase in food bank usage during the crisis, and 2,600 emergency food parcels provided for children every day by the charity during the first six months of the pandemic – a streamlined government support system has never been more vital. While footballer Marcus Rashford has become a national hero for his campaigning work on food poverty, we can’t count on him alone.

A UK government spokesperson from the DWP shared with Dazed: “We know that young people have been hit especially hard by the pandemic and analysis shows that the youngest and poorest benefited most from our initial economic interventions. We’re also backing hundreds of thousands of young people to find good jobs through the £2 billion Kickstart scheme (offering thousands of subsidised jobs) while also investing in increasing the number of apprenticeships, traineeships and work coaches to support those who will benefit from different opportunities.” Those who weren’t initially entitled to benefits have been advised that they might be in “subsequent assessment periods” in a statement given to Dazed, without a clarification of when that period will be.

“There was a huge chunk of young people who were on the wrong side of the vacancy door when it closed, and this time it slammed very quickly”

Instead, the DWP shares publicly on its site that “no one has to wait five weeks to be paid” – this has proved massively controversial, and does not acknowledge the damaging duration between initial application and pre-payment approval. The system fails to facilitate for not only low-paid workers who don’t have savings to rely on, the argument for interim loans in the form of an advanced payment – the government's proposed solution to the five-week wait according to a report collected by the Trades Union Congress this month – is still a loan and therefore has to be paid back. At a time when young people are most vulnerable, the system fails to offer them total support. The five-week wait has fundamental consequences. Claimants are falling into poverty and debt, and rising numbers are being referred to food banks. Advance loans are available, but these must be paid back out of future meagre benefit payments. Claimants, who have been reluctant to claim cite the fear of falling into debt.

Clearly, too many people are being left to slip between the cracks of a flawed benefits system struggling to catch up with the harsh realities of life in locked-down 2020. How can we alter a system – already horrible by design before the pandemic – that generalises wealth distribution? And at what point do we acknowledge that it’s beyond demoralising for young people applying for jobs day-in day-out, only to face a long-term financial crisis? Because, let’s be real, cover letters are soul-destroying. It begs the question: why did it take a global pandemic to expose gaps in welfare provision which have left an entire generation to fend for themselves until eventually – we’re counting down – the masks come off? The disproportionate effects of this pandemic on young people might be quantifiable in a statistic, but their scarred futures and, most importantly, the calamitous effects on their mental health are not. They’re worth more than graphs and tables and empty promises.