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Politicians often point to falling benefit claimant counts as a measure of success. Tackling ‘dependency’ on state benefits is a key policy objective, and if some young people don’t want or don’t need to claim benefits, why should this be of concern?

According to recent estimates, almost half a million young people are out of work but not claiming the benefits they are entitled to. A new report from the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford explores the experiences of young people who are NEET (not in employment, education or training) but who are not accessing support from state-funded agencies like Jobcentre Plus.

Exploring the stories behind these statistics uncovers serious shortcomings in the way in which youth unemployment is tackled in the UK.

Pushing people away

Interviews with so-called ‘hidden’ young people suggest they are turning their back on the benefits system for a range of different reasons – such as stigma, a lack of information, and poor experiences of Jobcentre services.

One interviewee recalled the feelings of humiliation attached to earlier periods of signing on, which included having benefit payments withdrawn for missing an appointment:

They’re not nice people. They act like they’re better than you and that makes you feel angry because even though you are signing on, it’s not like you’ve never worked before. It’s just not a nice place to go, so I’d rather have nothing than go and sit in their presence (young woman, age 25)

Several felt that it was the conditions attached to receiving benefits which deterred them from making a claim.  As one young man explained:

I just don’t want to go, like. Basically, you’ve just got to go, haven’t you, like sign a sheet, go and see someone for five minutes and then go back home… you have to sit there for hours and look for jobs.  

This adds to a growing evidence base which suggest that high levels of ‘conditionality’ – whereby jobseekers are expected to engage in intensive work searches and other work-related activity under the threat of sanction for non-compliance – risk pushing people away from support.

Young people aren’t claiming benefits – so what?

Our research provides examples of young people who were very much in need of financial support, but who, following poor treatment from Jobcentre staff, had chosen to forgo their rights to social security payments. Instead, they were surviving through crime and drawing on in-kind support through food banks. This chimes with wider research highlighting the ‘counterproductive consequences’ of an increasingly punitive welfare regime.

Furthermore, whether or not young people need or want to draw on financial support from the social security system, not engaging with this system excludes them from mainstream support and service provision, as most programmes designed to support young people are currently routed through Jobcentre Plus and other contracted services.

Is the Youth Obligation an appropriate response?

The ‘Youth Obligation’, government’s flagship policy for tackling youth unemployment, is a case in point. In the first instance, young people are required to sign on in order to be eligible for support. If young people do engage with the programme, whether or not they stay involved is difficult to ascertain.

Policy detail is lacking. It is striking that in Salford, where our study took place, very little was known about what this new programme involved and how it was impacting support for young people locally. However, it appears to involve greater conditionality for younger claimants, which one stakeholder involved in our research felt would present greater barriers to engagement:

I think it’s a choice of words… ‘Obligation, expected to, expectations.’ People feel they have to do it… [for a young person], it’s just somebody else telling me what I’ve got to do (local stakeholder).

The mystery surrounding this policy and its effectiveness isn’t unique to Salford – Stephen Timms MP, former shadow minister for work and pensions has been pursuing the DWP to publish more detail on the programme, and concerns have been raised about young claimants dropping off the radar because of inadequate record keeping.   

From what we do know about the programme, there is a risk that it will result in more ‘hidden’ young people for whom conditionality acts as a deterrent to their engagement. There is an urgent need for service improvements on the part of Jobcentre Plus, including a review of the balance between support, conditions and sanctions imposed on benefit claimants.

Recognising that for whatever reason, a considerable number of young people will not engage with the benefits system, we argue that there is a pressing need for services and support to be made available to this hidden population.

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