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The heavy price young adults have to pay for independence

January 24, 2014

New report: households below the Minimum Income Standard

It is plain to see that the combined dearth of jobs and affordable housing severely limits the opportunities of today’s young adults as they start out in life. When I was 25, I felt I was behind the curve because I had not yet bought a flat like many of my contemporaries. Today, barely a third of people are buying their homes even by the age of 35. Even among those lucky enough to get jobs, a rental shared with friends has become much more common, not just for 20-somethings but for people well into their 30s. Others find it more practical to continue living with their parents.

But this postponement of independence is not the whole story. Another part of it is an alarmingly rapid rise in the number of people who do manage to live independently, but only by living in dire poverty. Specifically, the proportion of people under 35 living on their own (not sharing) who have less than half the money they need for a minimum living standard has risen to one in four. This compares with fewer than one in ten at the start of the recession.

This dramatic change is the most striking statistic in our latest report on the number of households whose disposable income falls below the Minimum Income Standard (MIS): what is needed for a minimum basket of goods and services identified by members of the public.  Having less than half this standard means having less than about £12 a day after paying rent and council tax. This money has to cover food, clothing, heating, furniture and all of life’s other necessities. In 2008/9, only about 9 per cent of under-35s living on their own had such a low income; within three years this had nearly tripled, to 25 per cent.

Clearly, the speed of this increase partly reflects the increase in joblessness and falling real wages. But it’s also linked to the growing degree to which young adults must depend on the vagaries of private renting, combined with the shrinking degree to which they can depend on the state to help them out when the price of available housing far exceeds what they can reasonably afford. Among the multiple ways in which the government has reduced housing support, perhaps the most telling has been to extend to age 35 the restriction of Housing Benefit to the cost of a room in a shared house. No wonder that people in their second decade of adulthood who feel it is time to have their own front door so often end up with ultra-low disposable incomes.

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