However, this nightmare scenario is far from inevitable. There is a policy for its prevention which commands overwhelming support from the electorate. Seventy-three per cent of Tory and Labour voters alike support the proposal for a job guarantee – where the government makes sure everyone who can work has a job. The strongest support for this idea comes from working-class voters, upon whose votes the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has built such a handsome majority in the House of Commons.
Today’s electorate is not alone in backing such a scheme to prevent a generation of people being shut out of the labour market. If the prime minister were to adopt this policy, he would be following in the footsteps of his hero, Winston Churchill, who declared in 1906 that, “the state should increasingly assume the position of the reserve employer of labour ... to spread a net over the abyss”.
Even prior to the arrival of coronavirus, the numbers of young people facing hardship were frightening. Some 506,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 were unemployed at the beginning of the year, an increase of 34,000 from the previous quarter and a slight increase from the year before. The best estimates suggest this number could quadruple to 2 million as a result of the pandemic. Without action that is both bold and immediate, an army of young people will find themselves without a job and in need of help from food banks.
Campaign’s like The Independent’s Help The Hungry appeal are providing important support, but the aim for all of us – including Feeding Britain, the charity I work for – is to set people up for the future.
Feeding Britain has, in addition to our emergency food programme, begun creating job placements specifically for young people in this predicament. We are determined to do our bit; not only to abate people’s hunger now, but also to prevent that hunger arising in the first place. The effect of this scheme on the confidence and self-esteem (not to mention income) of our first new starter, in Merseyside, was as significant as it was immediate. We hope to extend similar opportunities to many more young people over the coming weeks.
Yet we can only do so much as a charitable organisation to prevent the hunger that accompanies long-term youth unemployment. That’s why we’re calling on the prime minister to initiate a job guarantee scheme in every community. If an initial period of searching for work is unsuccessful, the government should subsidise the creation of new job placements for young people. Those placements will, of course, need to be in workplaces that are safe and adhere to all the public health criteria for preventing the spread of coronavirus.
This scheme could be of particular assistance in the short-term to community organisations and other agencies working with the poor – young workers across the Feeding Britain network are helping to safeguard families’ wellbeing during the pandemic, for example. This approach was put into action on a mega scale in the 1930s by President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which successfully combined job creation for the unemployed with the provision of hot meals for children.
In the longer-term, though, this scheme will hit the bullseye on every front. The clear winners from a government-backed job guarantee are the young people themselves, whose health and employment prospects will be revolutionised by the scheme. Another winner is the taxpayer who will yield sizeable dividends (through reduced benefit expenditure, for example) from this upfront investment in the scheme.
Moreover, the prime minister will find that the extension of meaningful opportunities to every young person, through the offer of work and a living wage, goes with the grain of what voters in the newly Tory-held seats, and across much of the country, deem to be fair.
Without such action from the government, as part of a broader programme to protect the living standards of the poor, large-scale emergency food programmes will sadly remain necessary in post-coronavirus Britain.
Andrew Forsey is national director of the Feeding Britain charity. For information on how to help Feeding Britain, click here
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