The visible poorApril 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.