Children and young people have been one of the biggest losers in Minister Lenihan’s ‘austerity budgets’ and Budget 2011 is no different. With predicted “savings” of €307m from the Education and Skills budget, €765m from the Health and Children budget and reductions in Jobseeker’s Allowance, Supplementary Welfare Allowance (for the 22-24 age bracket) and Rent Supplement payments, yesterday’s budget has augmented the problems children and young people already struggle with. The diminished financial support available to young people leaving second-level education will serve to restrict the opportunities available to many, forcing them (and their parents) to make very difficult decisions regarding their future prospects.
Budget 2011′s treatment of youth services and young people has already been heavily criticised by those who work with children and young people. In response to Minister Lenihan’s announcement Barnardo’s CEO Fergus Finlay stated that there was no doubt in his mind that this Budget is going to make more children’s lives “unbearably hard”. Barnardos have cried foul to the Government’s use of statistics on social welfare support and the impact of cuts to benefits for families. As Mr. Finlay commented:
“Minister Brian Lenihan defended cuts to social welfare by stating that increases in payments over the boom time were ahead of inflation. He failed to mention that the number of children living in consistent poverty increased by 26,684 between 2008 and 2009. 91,954 childhoods are now blighted by poverty and all the things that entails. The Government’s own statistics tell us that children are already struggling with poverty and disadvantage. How many more have to join their ranks before their voices are heard and they become a political priority?”
Barnardos are not alone in their complaints. In response to the €6 reductions to Jobseeker’s Allowance and Supplementary Welfare Allowance for the 22-24 year olds, the 5% reduction in all capitation grants, the introduction of a flat-rate €2000 student contribution for university applications and €200 for PLC students, and the cuts to training allowances and supplements for participants in FAS and VTOS programmes have been condemned by the National Youth Council of Ireland as providing young people with another reason to leave Ireland. As James Doorley, Assistant Director at the NYCI stated yesterday:
“Young people and youth services have taken big hits in previous Budgets and this one is no different. There is little in the way of real investment in job creation and instead all that is offered are cuts to youth services and supports that might keep young people in education or training. This Budget provides no stimulus for young people, in fact it will only aid a further exodus.”
What’s frustrating about the reductions proposed by Budget 2011 is how, despite the mounting evidence of the acute effect the recession has had on young people - high unemployment amongst 15-24 year olds, rising emigration rates amongst the under-25s – the Government has shown almost no consideration of how deeply the reductions in public spending will affect this group and has completely failed to recognise the connectedness of social welfare for this group. It is not a case, as Minister Lenihan would like us to believe that protecting one element of the welfare structures for young people is enough. Their needs are connected and by cutting back in one area the government cripple another.
For example, yes the Government have protected Jobseeker’s Allowance for the 18-21 age bracket, but they have slashed long-term unemployment benefits to VTOS students from €31.80 pw to €20 and reduced the weekly training allowance for FAS students by €8. This translates into a situation whereby the young people who stay on Jobseeker’s Allowance will have their benefits protected but those who try to enter a training programme and bring themselves closer to the job market will have their benefits reduced. For a Government who are deeply concerned with the plight of the unemployed and with providing opportunities for education and training this approach is decidely short-sighted.
Another source of aggravation is just how easily the Government dealt out penalities which will severely restrict the opportunities for young people. In addition to the cuts in education and out-of-work benefits, the Government has abolished relief for first-time buyers and proposed a substantial reform of Rent Supplement Schemes. Though the exact details of the changes to Rent Supplements have yet to be unveiled, yesterday’s announcement has already hinted at increasing the contributions by welfare recipients. Given how dependent young people can be on social welfare support in order to move into independent living such reductions could be very detrimental.
Overall the outlook for young people is bleak but, sadly, it is not surprising. As previous budgets have already shown young people’s needs are not a political priority.