Opinion

Paul McNamee: Millennials face poverty without a hand up

"A fortnight ago the government announced they were scrapping housing benefit for 18- to 21-year-olds. It’s outrageous"

I hosted an awards event last week. It was a good night. And despite the host, nobody asked for a refund (not that I’m aware of).

It was the PPA New Talent Awards, the magazine industry’s celebration of the new entrants to the industry, the rising stars of the future. It was a collection of smart minds and energy, an encouragement for those coming next. These things are worthwhile. And it’s heartening that journalism, an under-the-cosh industry, still looks like something worth getting involved in.

I spoke to some of them afterwards, many asking for tips on next steps. And I thought for most, you’ll do alright. You’re already on the ladder. You’re making waves, you have the opportunity and now you’ve got to get busy.

But that isn’t the same for all.

I don’t hold with the idea that this generation of millennials have it easy, lolling around on Snapchat, high on the hog, not a care in the world as they spin an infinite scroll into tomorrow.

It’s a false economy that could lead to some desperate domestic situations and ultimately an increase in homelessness

Things are getting tougher. A fortnight ago the government announced they were scrapping housing benefit for 18- to 21-year-olds. They had suspended this policy for a time but decided to finally roll it out. It’s outrageous. And it covers everybody. It means that jobless young people now simply won’t get any help with rent. There is an estimated cost saving of around £105m by 2020. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a lot. But the cost to fix things later will be so much more. It’s such a false economy that could lead to some desperate domestic situations and ultimately an increase in homelessness.

Did you have housing benefit for any time in your life? I did. It didn’t mean I was a sponger, I simply needed a bit of a hand up for a time. I shudder to think what would have happened had it not been available.

Last week we also learned that poverty is affecting some teenage girls in Britain so much they can’t buy sanitary products. Kids are going to school with socks stuck down their pants. Imagine if that was you, or your daughter, or your sister. Imagine the attack on your dignity.

There are problems that need to be addressed. Anger will only go so far. Practical responses are needed.

All of us can play a part. At the risk of sounding like a Whitney Houston song, investment in kids now is essential for the future.

There are unquestionably hundreds of talented would-be journalists in Britain who aren’t getting a chance to show at the New Talent Awards because means is preventing the end.

In the past, when I started out, there were more opportunities. And there was money and access and supportive schemes – not always a lot but enough to get going. Increasingly it’s clear that opportunity exists so long as family help exists, so that several weeks’ internships can be undertaken.

I’m working with some magazine publishers to see what we can do about this. If the money isn’t behind these young people, we have to put it in front of them. They need to earn and learn.

There needs to be more focus across the board. At The Big Issue, early invention and prevention are our watchwords. As John Bird neatly puts it – we can’t afford poverty. We need to do all we can to stop the next generation of Big Issue vendors.

There is no time to waste.

If you have any comments please email me at paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com, tweet @pauldmcnamee, or send a letter to The Big Issue, 43 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 1HW

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