‘People tell me they’re not ready to work’: how chronic illness ravaged a city | Economic Sciences

ohOn Wednesday night in Hastings, a handful of under-18s gather in the back of an old newspaper building for a weekly Dungeons and Dragons night. Around the table, a teenager watches from behind a flexible edge and tells the other players about a monster with jaws wide enough to swallow a man whole. Behind him, two children play pool. At the moment there is no iPhone in sight.

Sidney Ewing, the youth worker who oversees the program, says most of the young people who come to the center feel insecure about their future. His most popular night is for 16- to 18-year-olds, he says, a generation that lost two critical years of their education to Covid, with only screens for school and socializing. “Many of them say they are not ready to go to college or start working because of their mental health,” he says. “You hear that a lot: ‘First I need to sort myself out.’”

Britain is suffering from an epidemic of people too sick to work. Economic inactivity due to health problems has been rising for five years in the longest sustained increase since the 1990s, and now stands at a record level of 2.8 million. Addressing this will be one of the biggest challenges for the next government and a central economic issue for the parties in the electoral campaign.

There are now 700,000 more people than before Covid who cannot work due to illness. Nine-tenths of that increase can be attributed to two groups: those older in the labor market and the very young.

Alex Giles has landed a job funded by the government’s post-Covid Kickstart scheme at OBX, Hastings’ digital arts centre. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In Hastings, one in 10 young people leave school with no plans for further education or work (almost double the English average). The city has the joint highest number of people aged 16 to 34 who say they are in poor health, according to the 2021 census. In terms of opportunities for young people, Hastings has more in common with Blackpool than its regional neighbors such as Brighton or Tunbridge Wells.

“Downtown Hastings has one of the highest crime levels in the county, local schools are constantly changing and the largest employer is the caring industry. It forms this perfect storm for young people,” says Matt Davey, founder of a local community interest company called Head on Board, which uses skateboarding as a way to talk about mental health and suicide.

In 2019, East Sussex County Council closed 13 youth clubs and 14 children’s centres, a pattern that has been repeated across the country. Local authorities, under the pressure of austerity, cut funding for the provision of youth services in England from more than £1 billion to £408.5 million between 2011 and 2021.

Davey worked as a council youth worker in Hastings for more than a decade and saw first-hand the impact of the cuts. Once a young person starts to feel isolated, he can create a vicious cycle, he says: “There are common factors that keep us well and healthy: being connected to people, having a purpose. “There is definitely a link between doing something, whether it is volunteering, part-time employment or training, and good mental health.”

Like many coastal cities, Hastings suffers from a lack of high-quality jobs. A quarter of residents are employed in health and social care. Much of hospitality work is seasonal and insecure. But a growing number of technology companies are creating new opportunities.

The Hastings Youth Club, helped by a two-year grant from the Youth Investment Fund to create permanent spaces for young people, is currently run from the offices of OBX, a digital arts center that is part of Hastings Commons, an ecosystem of community. He led organizations that worked together to renovate abandoned buildings in the city center. Surrounding the board games and pool table are banks of computers, a digital scanner and a 3D printer.

A small gecko made of chocolate has recently been 3D printed as part of an experiment by Alex Giles. He had been earning a diploma in game development at university for two years when the pandemic hit. Without a computer at home, Giles was forced to abandon his studies. For the next two years he was on universal credit, struggling to find work, except for a job packing boxes in a local warehouse one Christmas.

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Hastings town centre: Much of the work in the coastal town’s hospitality industry is insecure. Photography: Fraser Gray/Rex Shutterstock

He was then offered a job at Hastings Commons under the government’s post-Covid Kickstart scheme, which provided funding to create employment for 16- to 24-year-olds on universal credit who were at risk of long-term unemployment. “Kickstart got me back on the right path,” says Giles. “Before that, I was in a state of uncertainty. “I wanted to find a job but I didn’t know where to start.”

At 22, Giles now works at OBX and experiments with printed food for a project exploring food poverty. He supports other people who come through the building through his work experience or through workshops. Many of them say they would like their jobs. Meanwhile, Hastings Commons has created its own version of Kickstart to replace the scrapped government scheme.

In the 1990s, the long-term impact of job losses after rapid deindustrialization was not persistent unemployment, but higher rates of economic inactivity due to long-term illness, according to the Resolution Foundation. The think tank says the long-term ill are now disproportionately concentrated in post-industrial and coastal areas of the country as the “hidden unemployed”, challenging the narrative in government statistics that the country is operating close to full employment.

Among working-age adults in England and Wales, new claims for Personal Independence Payment (Pip) increased by two-thirds (68%) between early 2020 and early 2024. In Hastings, 6,728 people are claiming Pip for a illness, disability or mental health condition, an increase of 52% since January 2020. The figures will be a source of alarm for politicians. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, spending on disability benefits will increase by 49% in nominal terms between 2023-24 and 2028-29.

In the Hastings Commons boardroom, social media assistant Sharon Rhodes recalls the success of a recent campaign. “I made a local historian go viral on TikTok!” she says. With her short gray hair and denim jacket, Rhodes is about 50 years old, which puts her in the second category: working-age seniors increasingly out of work due to illness.

He was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder more than 20 years ago and spent 10 years out of work before finding the courage to apply for the government’s access to work scheme. This pays for a designated worker to make sure she eats and sleeps, basic activities that sometimes still seem insurmountable.

Sharon Rhodes says her benefit payments help her stay in her job, rather than deterring her from finding work. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In addition to flexible scheduling, Hastings Commons provides staff training in mental health awareness. Crucially, Rhodes’ 10 hours of work do not interfere with benefits; She receives employment and maintenance allowance in addition to income support. But she says many people in Hastings are afraid to work for fear of losing their benefits. That culture of fear could get worse.

In his autumn statement last November, Jeremy Hunt announced changes to disability benefits to make it more difficult for some people with reduced mobility or mental health problems to receive additional support. That might make it harder, not easier, for some people to work. The Labor Party has promised to improve mental health services and reduce NHS waiting lists if it comes to power. A swing of 3.4%, or 3,500 votes, is all it would take to unseat the incumbent Conservative MP in Hastings and Rye, Sally-Ann Hart.

Rhodes maintains that he is able to work because of the benefit payments, not in spite of them, and because he found the right job. “I want to show the country that you can work with such a bad diagnosis if you find the right employer,” he says.

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