Owen Jones: Leave our kids alone – or pay a heavy price

Parents' desperation to ensure that their children have a decent future should never be underestimated

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Nothing provokes such visceral feelings among people as their children. Anything that threatens their security, their wellbeing or their future triggers some of the most profound emotional responses that humans are capable of. I have no kids of my own, but the recent arrival of a nephew made all those cliches, like "everything changes when you have children", suddenly make sense.

Our current rulers have not hesitated to exploit people's nagging fears about their children's prospects. Austerity was necessary because, without it, "our children will be saddled with debt for decades to come," David Cameron has argued. "I have got two young children," George Osborne told us. "I want my children to think that our generation paid off its debts, valued its savers, rewarded responsibility, invested in their future." He added: "And because I want it for my children, I want it for your children, too."

But when it becomes apparent that the most important part of many people's lives will suffer because of a financial crisis they had nothing to do with, Cameron may no longer be able to count on a mood of resignation. Around 2.5 million children have been born since Lehman Brothers went under; their future is uncertain and, in many cases, bleak. We've heard about the "squeezed middle"; but now we face the squeezed toddler, and the squeezed teenager.

Today is "Black Friday", when a Government that defied public opinion to scrap the 50p tax for the top 1 per cent of earners raids the incomes of working families with children. According to the Resolution Foundation, a young couple working 23 hours, looking after a child and getting by on £15,500 a year, will lose a fifth of their income because of cuts to working tax credits.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has revealed that the average family with children stands to lose £511 a year. Some low-paid workers will now be better off on the dole. When asked what they have gained from propping up a Conservative government, the Liberal Democrats often proudly boast of pushing up the tax threshold. It is a scam: not only does it do nothing for the poorest, it is in any case cancelled out by cuts to tax credits and benefits and the hiking of VAT.

And so children across the country will be squeezed even further. Save The Children already reports parents having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their kids. Some are even skipping meals to make sure that their sons and daughters are fed. It was reported this week that schools are shrinking meal portions, leaving children's stomachs emptier still. We live in the seventh richest country on earth; the average fortunes of the wealthiest 1,000 shot up by a fifth last year – and we can supposedly no longer afford to feed our children properly.

With the IFS projecting that the number of children living in poverty will reach 3.1 million by 2013, the lives of some will get lonelier. More will feel that their families cannot afford to let them invite their friends round for dinner. Other shared social activities – like going to the cinema, or going on a school trip – will become financially out of reach. Youth services – often the first to face the chop when local authorities slash budgets – face drastic cuts, leaving the street corner the only place left for many to hang out.

From birth to early adulthood, the squeeze will intensify. A cut of more than a fifth in grants to Sure Start has resulted in the closure of 124 centres, meaning more and more under-fives will miss out. And, at the other end, youth unemployment is hurtling towards 25 per cent. The Government talks of not saddling the nation's children with debt – and yet that is precisely what they are inflicting on a generation with the trebling of tuition fees. The future for many of our young will be colder, hungrier, lonelier, duller, less secure, more indebted and, overall, poorer.

Not that appeals to compassion from those with power (and well-fed children with secure futures) will reverse this dire situation: that's not how social change works. But the Government's attempt to drive back the frontiers of the state depends on a sense of "there is no alternative", that austerity is painful, but unavoidable. Will that last when parents realise that, while carrots are being plucked from the plates of their children, a multinational like Amazon can generate sales in Britain of £3.3bn a year without paying a penny of corporation tax?

Ed Miliband has talked of a "British Promise", a clunky formulation that has so far failed to resonate, of each generation being better off than the last. Overall, that has been the case since the Second World War, although there are glaring exceptions: it cannot be said of the children and grandchildren of miners thrown on the scrapheap in the 1980s, for example. But parents' desperation to ensure that their children have a decent future should never be underestimated. It may well be the squeezed child – not the squeezed middle – that helps seal the fate of austerity Britain.


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