For some of us, social mobility seems like a pipe dream
If you believed everything screamed at you by the tabloids you could be forgiven for thinking that anyone claiming benefits is a lazy, scrounging so-and-so. Spare a thought then, for those struggling to fight their way out of the system against the odds and the stereotypes. In a week that saw David Cameron and George Osborne called “two arrogant posh boys” by one of their own MPs, it is safe to say the class war still rages on in 21st Century Britain.
In April of last year, Nick Clegg unveiled a new strategy for social mobility called “opening doors, breaking barriers”. The strategy highlighted a number of points in an individual’s lifeline where there were opportunities for social mobility, including, of course, education at all levels. Sadly however, many of the decisions taken by the Coalition instead serve to prevent rather than promote movement between the social classes.
The aim of the document was to try and break the cycle of deprivation which is evident in the UK, and a feature of the benefit culture that exists here. The intentions, just like most of the ideas of the Lib Dems, are good, but if fluid movement in society is to be achieved, policy needs to start supporting the ideas.
Social mobility is often viewed as something which happens through education, by parents who want more for their children. Upon finding myself a single parent at 20 at the end of an abusive relationship, I decided I’d rather lead by example and make the change this generation. So off I marched down to my local college. Four years later I am due to finish university with a good degree in a matter of weeks, and, having started this journey with only GCSEs, much better career prospects. Sadly my success had as much to do with timing as with hard work, and the Coalition have been busy “closing doors and making barriers” for others to do the same.
Financially being a single parent student is not an easy option. In 2009 when I started university I had to make a decision about whether it was worth the debt I was about to get into. At just over £3000 per year just on tuition fees it was enough of a gamble, at the new rate from September of three times this, for others like me it is likely to be too big a risk to take. There is also the stress of having to negotiate mountains of paperwork, as student parents are accountable to student finance during term-time and the DWP during the holidays. Factor in the weeks of delays when switching between these authorities and it is often nearly impossible to make ends meet.
I am lucky to be at a uni where there is a slightly subsidised on-campus nursery for the children of staff and students. When I started uni however this nursery was full, so for my first year I had to put my daughter in childcare elsewhere. Student finance provide a grant of up to 85% of childcare costs which is similar to the amount given to those in work through tax credits. Even with this help in the UK childcare costs are higher than ever, and even finding the remaining 15% was a challenge.
Cuts do have to be made for the good of the economy, however many of these are being applied to the nation’s poorest. Finding a few pounds a week extra to make up rent deficit is not a problem most politicians have ever faced, and they don’t seem to understand how difficult this is when there is nothing going spare. Equally the proposed charge on the CSA is a tax on children and the most vulnerable. The idea is that parents with care should pay for the service or make an agreement without it. Paying the proposed £50 (£100 for those not on benefits), and a charge on each payment to use the CSA for many will be impossible. For some such as myself, it is not stubbornness that prevents an external arrangement, but fear.
In April last year the government made changes to housing benefit across the country. These changes mean that in each category of bedrooms, three in ten homes will now be affordable instead of five in ten. This was not a bad proposal, were it not for the fact that in many areas there are no available council houses, and that a lot of the time private sector landlords will not take DSS tenants. What this means is that of the three in ten homes now affordable, those on benefits would be lucky to find one that would accept them. Having struggled to find a landlord that would take me on before these changes, a letter landed on my doormat saying that my previously approved rent was now just over the limit. I, like many others had no choice but to find the extra from thin air. And now I find that I will not be welcome in areas of London where I can find good schools and work in my chosen field. Thanks Dave.
All this however could be justified, were it not for the fact that graduate prospects are not what they once were. Most students are fully aware that life after university will mean interning for little or no money for any length of time in the hope that it will lead to something paid. But what about those like myself who don’t have rich parents, are adults in our own right, and have a mouth other than their own to feed? Living in a bedsit on a diet of beans on toast would likely end in a visit from social services.
Both the government and the press are guilty of demonising certain groups and creating prejudices. Recently on a day trip, with my now four and a half year old, I stood at the counter whilst the older lady working there served three people behind first and then refused to speak to me as I made my purchase. There was no apparent reason for this other than that the other parents were at least 10 years my senior. I made no complaint as I didn’t want to ruin the day, but inside I was dying to tell the woman how I take my child to clubs, on trips, read to her, and then work late writing essays in order to give her a better life. But of course the woman could see none of this, all she could see was the ‘pramface’ she had read about who expected a living on a plate.
Despite all this I am hopeful. The recession has made finding work hard for everyone, but at some point things will get better. The drive has always been self-sufficiency. I don’t, like many other people, want to be on benefits. I am on them for the short term, so that I can be off them in the long term. The government needs to make this a realistic choice for everyone, instead of making it harder as they have been. Real social mobility can only be possible if the system and attitudes facilitate it.Tagged in: benefits, breaking barriers, class, coalition, david cameron, degree, education, nick clegg, opening doors, single parent, social mobility
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter