The visible poor

April 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Posted in British Politics, Media, Working Class Britain | 11 Comments

It’s the first summer of a shiny new century and you’re stuck scrubbing floors. You work the graveyard shift in a town centre McDonalds and spend each slow-moving hour sweeping, wiping & rinsing. Alone among a swathe of swaggering drunks, you stop only to ask them to stub out their cigarettes; to take their feet off the formica furniture; to grovel apologies about being unable to offer refunds when they drop food on your freshly-mopped floor.

Towards the end of all this light entertainment, a disheveled-looking couple stagger through the door and head straight for the disabled toilet. Because you’ve abandoned all hope of stopping non-customers from using your loo, you leave them be and go to empty another bin. About 15 minutes later and it’s time for you to clean the toilets. Still engaged; you step back onto the restaurant floor and loiter by the door. Eventually there’s movement; the woman exits first – adjusting her denim skirt & straightening her hair – followed by her frowning companion. He peers down his jeans, zips up his flies and shouts across the crowded restaurant: “Fuckin’ hell bitch, you’ve given me herpes!” You go into the toilet and stick the used condom in the bin.

By sharing this story, I’ve just indulged in a stereotype which is as old as class itself. It’s a portrait of the working class as moral degenerates: crass, boorish, feckless and shorn of the same standards of morality which are shared by respectable England. They claim benefits as their birthright and spend what they do not earn; they fight and steal and drink; they create kids the rest of us have to feed and proceed to fuck them up just as badly as they were fucked up by their own parents. They are the underclass, the lumpenproletariat or, as Orwell Prize Winner Jack Night describes them, the ‘evil poor’.

In politics, the naming of things is always a sensitive topic and Laurie Penny took great offense when she saw such a grim adjective used to describe some of society’s most disenfranchised. A couple of brief – but important – points need to be made in the writer’s defense: in the offending post, he was referring only to a subset of the poor, and it’s important to recognise that the people he describes are real and their behaviour creates problems for the normal, law-abiding majority. But one thing which came to mind when reading Laurie’s piece was the unsettling suspicion that the people Jack writes about are more accurately described not as the ‘evil poor’, but as the ‘visible poor’.

Last year, I noted the Rowntree Foundation’s report that domestic poverty is a very low priority for the British media. Its news value is pitifully low, real life depictions/descriptions of poverty are practically non-existent and on those rare occasions when it is covered by the media, it’ll often be in connection with a story about crime. As a consequence, the poor are often represented by a motley crew of crooks and thugs standing trial for violence, drug dealing, theft, anti-social behaviour, or hiding a little girl under a divan bed. They are, of course, a minority, but their actions so dominate the reporting on deprived communities that the only time someone in the law-abiding majority will meet the press is to be asked about the people committing crimes. As we saw in the case of Shannon Matthews and the subsequent shaming of Dewsbury Moor, this practice can bring whole towns into disrepute and cast suspicion on those who live there.

The broader political consequence of this is that it leads the conversation in a frustratingly right-wing direction. Because the discourse around deprivation often obsesses on the behaviour of the poor rather than the structural explanations for poverty, this gives greater authority to those on the right who argue that a reliance on the welfare state is the cause of our social ills. And so solutions are put forward to cut benefits and make those kinds of reforms currently being proposed by this Labour government, because that will give them the ‘responsibility’ they’re so sadly lacking. In the end, it’s all a recipe for bad policy.

It wasn’t Jack Night’s intention to cast all poor people alongside the boorish, thuggish minority he described. But because of the way it reports on impoverished areas and the fact they’re so often represented by thugs and thieves, our media isn’t quite so guiltless.


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  1. Their actions blight the lives of the very communities that they live in. As I have said elsewhere, most social housing is designed and run in the hope of creating a community. Some people just see it as a pool of victims. There is some hope of turning things round when a local resident (invariably female) organises a resistance that cuts through the fear, oppression and demoralisation. The solution to the blighted estates problem never comes from the Police, Council or Social Services. If it comes from anywhere, it comes from the residents. It doesn’t come often enough.

  2. Crikey, that was quick! Do you have a rapid response operation running, or something?!

    I’d agree with much of that. My nan passed away a few years ago, but in her last few years she stopped going to church functions because she was too intimidated. This was a tough woman, and someone who knew the streets she was walking like the back of her hand, but she still didn’t feel like she could do it. It’s fine pointing to falling local or national crime figures, but the decision about whether you attend a whist drive or a bridge evening is never made with those things in mind, and nor should it.

    As for your point about communities; I hope, when the discussion comes around about how the left might be able to govern again, we talk about how communities can be empowered to devise their own solutions to problems. I look around my own area at neighbourhood regeneration projects, and the really successful ones have always been in those places with a strong shared purpose & identity.

    Congratulations on the award, by the way. I was particularly pleased that it went to a fellow ‘amateur’.

  3. Neil,
    What can I say. It’s a slow night here at home. Nothing on TV and I so I am sadly and rather obsessively watching the links to the blog come in and commenting rather freely. This is the day when many of the websites “of the left” for want of a better phrase are kicking around the phrase “Evil Poor” and I am getting a lot of links in posts. I am trying to get round them all and comment. I said it so I should at least try and stand it up. Most commentators seem to be pretty fair on me. Very little straw man argument and mild ad-hominem at worst.

    I absolutely agree that the left does need to plan to govern again because they will.

  4. Most commentators seem to be pretty fair on me. Very little straw man argument and mild ad-hominem at worst.

    I’m glad about that. Your writings might be political but they’re not partisan and should be treated with the spirit in which they’re written; in good faith and from first hand experience.

  5. Completely agree that the media portrayal of poor people is selective and discriminatory. And the effect isn’t just to stigmatise people, it can also influence public policy in a negative way, creating a bit of a vicious cycle.

    Oxfam have recently published a report that talks about FREDs – people who are Forgotten, Ripped-off, Excluded, and Debt-ridden. It’s partly trying to challenge the prevailing perception that people are poor because of individual failings, rather than structural pressures. I’m not sure it does it perfectly, but it’s a start.

    Finally, one contributory reason that press coverage is so biased could be that, in general, people on low incomes don’t want to appear on TV talking about being poor. In the last few months this has started to change, with people talking about the terrible impact of losing their jobs. The danger is that this creates a divide, between the ‘deserving’ poor who have lost their job, and the ‘undeserving’ ones who were already struggling.

  6. Will,

    Thanks for the comment, and for reminding me about that report on FREDS. I think I was on holiday when it came out, otherwise I would’ve written something about it. Perhaps I’ll get the chance when the bank holiday rolls around. Also, thanks for sharing that link about the effect of media portrayals of poverty on public policy; it really adds more weight to the point I was trying to make at the end of the post.

    • Hey Neil, no problem. Since I’ve got a bit of a vested interest in FRED, which I’m sure you guessed, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

      I’ve been keeping a not-too-rigorous track of a few individuals’ stories appearing in the press recently – for an idea of how people on low incomes have been portrayed over the last few months…

  7. This is all good stuff!, I don’t think the left will get in until we have a political party around which left thinking people can rally. I’m already thinking on setting up a framework for this, and a set of basic manifesto pledges. Though It’ll be after the next election before things will really kick of for us.

  8. […] found myself nestled alongside him and 10 other fine writers on the longlist. We had a few online interactions since and he always struck me as forthright, gracious & fair. When he was awarded the prize for […]

  9. […] The Visible Poor […]

  10. […] Neil <This post is a much, much longer version of an older post on the Visible Poor, which is here. It first appeared on linksUK, which is hosting a week-long discussion about the portrayal of […]

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