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March 2, 2011 7:56 pm

Get Them Hooked While They’re Young

avatar by Gabriel Martindale

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A student protestor, note doubt wearing his fetching face mask to protect from a potential tear gas attack

Looking at Britain’s gaping budget deficit, you might wonder how any country could get into such a mess. A case study might help. The Education Maintenance Allowance, introduced by the previous Labour government in 2004, is a grant of up to £30 a week given to students in the last two years of High School if they come from families with a household income of less than £30,810 (about $62,000). Its ostensible purpose is keeping people who would otherwise be forced into employment in full-time education, which, as well as righting social wrongs, is supposed help Britain’s ‘knowledge economy’.

The coalition government, as part of its ground-breaking programme of budget cuts, want to axe it and, though this has met with protests, they will probably hold firm. They certainly should, for it would be hard to imagine a more rationally unjustifiable handout. It’s calculated based solely on household income and doesn’t take into account either alimony or savings. That means a teenager who lives with his divorced mother and has a high flying city lawyer for a father is eligible, as, indeed, are most children in single parent homes. It’s not uncommon even to find people at expensive fee-paying schools receiving an extra £30 a week in government pocket money.

Conversely, for people in real financial straits the allowance makes no real difference. It is dwarfed by the whole ream of benefits (what we limeys call welfare) – from housing to unemployment to child benefits – that they can claim and would barely make a dent in a family’s weekly rent or mortgage payments. In any case, the money isn’t given to parents, but to the students themselves. Either they live with parents or carers and so have their needs met, or don’t, in which case they have much bigger problems to worry about than the EMA could ever solve. That tiny minority of people for whom £30 makes a genuinely crucial difference can procure it by working eight hours a week, even at minimum wage, which for the average student who has around 2/3rds of the school timetable actually taken up with lessons, is surely not an impossible task.

The truth is, as even the EMA’s most fervent defenders have admitted, that the vast majority of people who receive the benefit are people who are neither very rich nor very poor, but those who benefit from getting the money, yet don’t even come close to needing it. Anyone with their wits about them can take a look at the student protestors, note their hair, makeup, clothes and haircuts and twig that these are not people worried about food or shelter. The EMA means for them the difference between making your own sandwiches for lunch or buying a panini; between going out with friends at the weekend and staying in; between a Sunday trip to Topshop or making do with somewhat outdated fashions.  Being charitable, it might mean the difference between buying an ergonomic pen or a packet of biros.

So clearly, the EMA must go and, if necessary, be replaced with a targeted benefit aimed at those who have genuine trouble, for example, paying the train fares they need to get to school. However, the net saving to the taxpayer will only be about £500 million, which, in the grand scheme of Britain’s fiscal woes, is almost a rounding error. So why focus on it?

The answer is that it teaches adolescents, at a crucial stage in their moral and intellectual development, an absolutely disastrous lesson: there’s no point in living within your means when you can get the government to make those means a bit bigger.

When people think of the welfare state they generally have poor and vulnerable people in mind; those of us who are nasty and uncaring might be more inclined to think about the types of people described by Theodore Dalrymple. The truth is, though, that both pictures are misleading. The bulk of welfare spending in Britain, whether it be free bus passes, child tax credit, pensions or the winter fuel allowance is taken by people of middling income. Indeed, with the exception of the very top end of society, almost everyone in some way tries to supplement their income by filling in forms and sending them to the government. They don’t consider themselves unrespectable for doing so, and nor, by and large, does anyone else.

There are all sorts of objections to a political system in which political parties confiscate people’s incomes and then compete for votes by giving it back. Even if there weren’t, though, the terrible looming truth is the amount of money the collective British taxpayer is capable of putting into the system is less than he now expects to be able to get out of it. A lot less. On one level the EMA is just a big joke: a particularly glaring example of the sort of profligacy the country can’t afford. On a deeper level, it is something more pernicious: a way of getting the next generation of voters into the mad benefits merry-go-round before they even enter the workplace. Axing it won’t undo the damage of course, but the first step in getting out of a hole is to stop digging.

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