Financial instability damages opportunities for care leavers
The Children's Society works with vulnerable care leavers across the country. Like Centrepoint, we see the huge challenges they face as they try to set up home without the parental support other young people their age can still rely on.
As children emerge from the care system, they're often full of energy, hope and ambition for the future. How frustrating then that care leavers tell us they feel they've been 'set up to fail' by the system. In Claiming After Care we show how, rather than being supportive, government policies can often add to the disruption in their lives.
Complex and unstable lives
As care leavers move on from a childhood often defined by abuse, neglect and poverty, they are grappling with a number of significant life events simultaneously. Aged 18, many must move abruptly into a new home, pay all the bills, find a new job, try to complete studies, and apply for benefits for the first time.
Without the financial stability provided to most young people by their family, care leavers are much more likely to live a precarious financial existence and experience homelessness.
Unaffordable apprenticeship opportunities
Government data shows that 40 per cent of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are not in employment, education or training (NEET), compared to around 13 per cent of others of a similar age. An apprenticeship could be the perfect start to a great future for many care leavers. The government has committed to create three million of them by 2020, but these opportunities must be affordable.
In reality, care leavers we spoke to told us the apprenticeship wage was 'impossible to live on'. One said: 'The only way you can afford the apprenticeship is if you live with your parents and you’ve got everything spoon fed to you.'
An apprentice could earn just £3.50 per hour in their first year, less than half the minimum wage for a worker aged 25. It's not surprising that many care leavers are forced to opt for low-skilled minimum wage jobs instead.
Lower benefit levels contribute to instability
Universal Credit claimants under 25 receive around £15 per week less 'standard allowance' than older adults, affecting care leavers in and out of work. Some might justify this on the basis that younger workers will be living at home with family or can receive financial support from them. ONS data shows that around 56 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds still live at home with their parents. But care leavers do not have this luxury.
They also face housing benefit levels that drop significantly at a critical time in their lives. Currently, care leavers are exempt from the shared accommodation rate of local housing allowance until the age of 22. This allows them to claim the higher one-bedroom rate normally only available to older adults or couples.
However, when they turn 22, the sudden reduction in support can lead to financial difficulty and debt, rent arrears, homelessness or having to move from their first stable home.
What should the government do?
Along with Centrepoint, we're calling for the upcoming Budget to promote housing stability for care leavers by extending their exemption from the shared accommodation rate until the age of 25.
To support financial security, The Children's Society is also calling for care leavers to be entitled to the higher standard allowance in Universal Credit, recognising their greater financial responsibilities.
Finally, no one should be locked out of apprenticeship opportunities. An 'Apprenticeship Bursary' of £2,000 should be available to care leavers, helping plug the gap between the apprentice wage and the minimum wage.
Iain Porter is a Policy Officer at The Children’s Society, where he works to influence policy at a national and local level, focusing on the challenges facing for children and young people in poverty. Key issues include welfare reform, problem debt, access to resources, and support for children in low income families.