The Marcus Lipton Youth Club is the last dedicated youth center still standing in its pocket of South London. Every day, the center opens its steel security gates to an area of the city plagued by youth violence, where half the children live in poverty.
But Marcus Lipton is teetering. Nearly half of London’s youth centers have closed in the past decade as Britain has cut money for youth services, as well as for welfare, schools and drug and alcohol treatment, according to the most recent available data. Marcus Lipton used to count on hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in government funding. Now, it gets nearly zero.
“Just look around you,” said Ira Campbell, 55, the manager of the club, which offers counseling, warm meals and sports for young people. “This place is a safe haven.”
Marcus Lipton lies in the shadow of the vast Loughborough Estate public housing project, where two of the Conservative government’s longtime priorities — fighting crime and trying to reduce the budget deficit — collide.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is building new prisons and recruiting more police officers as part of his party’s pledge to be tough on crime. He has also proposed a budget that would make deep spending reductions in the coming years, forcing officials to find savings in programs that have already been whittled to the bone during a decade of austerity.
Budget cuts during that decade, instituted in response to the global financial crisis of 2008, hit the poorest neighborhoods of Britain’s capital particularly hard, according to the Institute for Government, an independent research group in London. Those neighborhoods are also where serious youth violence, like homicide, has risen or remained disproportionately high after austerity, data from the office of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, shows.
Annual knife violence involving teenage victims in the city increased by nearly 40 percent to 5,332 in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began, from 3,809 in 2012, according to police figures obtained by The New York Times. (There was later a dip in serious youth violence during virus-related lockdowns, most likely because of reduced social contact.)
Residents of the Loughborough Estate, already frustrated by sharply rising utility bills and food costs, say that the government would rather pay to lock up young people than spend money on projects that might provide them with positive activities or help their parents to make ends meet.
With government funding effectively vanished, Mr. Campbell is no longer able to provide regular meals to children from the estate. The center receives occasional local government donations but is mostly self-funded and has been forced to cut the number of days it opens — three days, down from five on a good week.
It all leaves the youth center as one of the few places left trying to hold things together, he added. “We’re doing the dirty work that society doesn’t want to talk about,” he said. “You can’t jail your way out of this problem.”
He slowly counts on his fingers the teenagers from his youth center he has lost. Seven have been murdered over the past decade, he said. Teenage homicides in London reached a record peak in 2021, according to police data.
It is too soon to know whether a sharp drop in teenage homicides last year was a reversal of that trend or an anomaly. The relationship between crime and budget cuts is difficult to prove, particularly because money for policing was also cut during the same period. Further complicating things, crime rates in England and Wales have fallen steadily since the mid-1990s.
But under the austerity measures of the past decade, serious youth violence in London rose, as the figures from the mayor’s office point out. One analysis by a group of lawmakers found that areas of England where youth budgets had been cut most tended to have bigger increases in knife crime.
The government cut youth services in England by more than 1.1 billion pounds, about $1.35 billion, from 2010 to 2021 — a 74 percent decline. In recent years, the government has been promising to reverse £560 million of those cuts. But time and again, the money failed to materialize.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the government office responsible for youth policy, said in a statement that the pledged money would soon be available, with funds to help refurbish or build 300 youth centers. “By 2025, every young person will have access to regular clubs and activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer,” the department said.
The Home Office, which oversees crime policy, said that it had committed £130 million to tackle serious violence in England and Wales. That money, it said, would pay for increased police patrols, weapons sweeps and early-intervention programs.
Mr. Sunak, speaking at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia in November, acknowledged that poorer areas tended to experience greater levels of crime than wealthier areas.
“It’s often people who are in parts of the country that may feel that they’ve been looked over in the past, or that are from more disadvantaged backgrounds, that crime impacts the most,” he said.
He did not address how his party’s budget cuts might play into that analysis.
Past cuts have had a measurable effect on young people. Under austerity, since 2010, welfare money available to the poorest families dropped by an estimated £37 billion, nearly a quarter. As a result, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent research group based in London, 4.3 million children were in relative poverty by the time the pandemic began. At 31 percent, that was the highest level since the financial crisis.
For Patrick Boyce, the talk of a new round of austerity cuts at the same time as a crackdown on crime shows that the government is out of touch. Mr. Boyce’s son Jamel died last year after being stabbed in South London in 2016. The attack, which occurred when he was 17, had left him in a vegetative state for years.
“They haven’t got a clue what it’s like to live here,” Mr. Boyce said of Britain’s leaders. “These kids are fending for themselves.”
The London mayor’s office has also pointed to hunger as an indicator for crime, noting that areas with high food insecurity were strongly associated with rates of serious youth violence.
In 2009, Britain’s largest network of food banks sent 41,000 boxes of emergency food supplies to families in need.
Last year, it sent 2.1 million.
Mimi Asher is a pastor at Word of Grace Ministries, a small evangelical church housed in a rented school hall across the railway bridge from the Marcus Lipton center.
“These children are being left out there in the wild,” she said during a recent sermon. “We need the resources as a community. We can’t keep losing them to jail and the grave.”
For years, Ms. Asher has offered her church as a de facto youth center. She has helped write résumés, given counseling and career guidance, organized day trips out of London and even housed some young gang members in her own home, winning an award from the local government for her efforts. That award is proof, she says, that a little investment of time, effort and resources can redirect young people toward a better future.
But Ms. Asher, too, says she is on the brink of failure. Her congregants were already struggling after the welfare cuts. Now, with the skyrocketing costs of food, energy and other essentials, people are increasingly skipping meals — and donations. Ms. Asher said that it was getting harder to cover the rent. She has cut back on counseling and other services, and she says many young people have stopped attending church.
“We’re heading down a very dangerous path,” she said.
Gideon Buabeng, 29, knows that path well. A former gang member, his torso is jagged with knife scars from an attack that finally persuaded him to turn his life around. Mr. Buabeng now provides youth mentoring services in impoverished areas such as his home neighborhood, Pollards Hill, in South London. Funding, he said, is always spotty.
Mr. Buabeng said that children who grew up surrounded by poverty saw drugs and robbery as their best chance to make money.
“If you have a young person who has not eaten for days, what do you expect him to do?” Mr. Buabeng said. “No one is born a monster.”