November 18, 2008 at 9:15 am | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

Whenever a tragedy emerges from the extremeties of breadline Britain which is considered ‘newsworthy’ enough for our country’s commentariat to form an opinion on, you’ll find one recurring buzzword in their analysis. Reacting to the senseless evil inflicted on a boy aged just 17 months, the dystopian Peter Hitchens diagnoses a “violent, conscience-free underclass, created by 45 years of well-intentioned but disastrous socialism.” Citing a friend’s testimony as proof, Sophie Heawood insists that yes, there is a growing underclass, and ‘non-judgemental liberals’ ‘gloss-over it’ at their peril. In The Times, Camilla Cavendish despairs that despite the attention paid to alleviating material poverty, we have failed to affect an underclass which posesses a “devastating poverty of mind and spirit”. Whilst these three writers would struggle to agree on all but the most basic of facts, when it comes to the existence of an ‘underclass’, they sigh in sorry unison.

On the face of it, ‘underclass‘ is a very serious-sounding concept; it’s been used in the social sciences for over 50 years and was popularised during the dramatic upheavals of the 1980’s. But whilst this history makes it appear scientific & trustworthy, as a method of analysing the myriad social problems in deprived communities, the term is completely useless.

People use it as some vague shorthand for ‘poor people whose behaviour we don’t approve’, and if you were to press them to be more specific, the answer often comes back garbled. They can’t define it, can’t quantify it, can’t provide any verifiable evidence of what caused its emergence and can’t offer any sure-fire solutions for reversing its apparent growth. Because of the way it’s been hijacked for political purposes, the term is just a shabby conflation of structural explanations (entrenched poverty, the consequences of having a ‘reserve army of labour’) with moral issues (crime, drugs, family breakdown) when they need to be treated separately. As the historian Michael B. Katz argues, the concept ‘muddies debate and inhibits the formulation of constructive policy’ – it lacks a consistent theoretical basis and has ‘little ideological substance’. In short, the term is empirically bankrupt.

This matters because the media’s coverage of poverty is so fleeting and threadbare that on the few occasions they can find an excuse to write about the lives of the deprived, they need to spend that time doing actual reporting rather than relying on lazy, politically-charged generalisations that make good copy and awful analysis.

Beyond that, there needs to be an acceptance that societal problems are normative; they take generations to fester and will take just as long to resolve. We also need to get serious about how much we’re willing to invest in trying to resolve social problems. Does inadequate parenting strengthen the case for expanding the Family Nurse Partnership? Are we willing to match the calls for more children to be placed in care by giving them care homes worth of the name? Can we begin to reform social services so that social workers are better paid and better trained?

I can’t tell you what all the answers are, but if the chattering classes wish to discuss the social dysfunction which plagued Baby P’s life and played no small part in his death, then it needs to be serious and sustained. Relying on defunct terminology, unreliable observations and peering at the poor on cab rides through council estates just isn’t good enough.

Image by Flickr user Neil101 (Creative Commons)


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