Once more on the ‘Visible Poor’

January 25, 2010 at 10:52 am | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 5 Comments

<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 poverty in the media. It’s worth checking out.>

Image via abrinsky (Creative Commons)

At 12pm on the West Orchards Terrace, Coventry sits down to eat. Where Alan Bennett might’ve found pleasure watching the manners and habits of people in hotel lobbies, I’ve always found mine in the more modest surrounds of the shopping centre food court. I like watching people negotiate the different choices on offer & mulling over where to sit; the things they do while they’re eating and the ways they interact with each other.

Just in front of me, there’s a dad reading a football magazine to his young son, who, awestruck and imaging, quietly slips chips between his lips. A woman from the Debenhams make-up counter hurriedly stuffs a wrap into her mouth whilst tapping frantically on her phone. Two elderly women tuck into their ‘giant’ Yorkshire puddings, pausing occasionally to coo over a baby in a high chair. An adolescent couple, presumably on their first date, eat together in silence; cautious not to do or say anything which could cause embarrassment.

There are pizzas and pasties, cappucinos and fried chicken, toasted teacakes & ciabattas. Yet all this difference is nothing compared to the range of people you’ll find. There are smart suits and shell suits, hoodies and cardigans, short skirts, jeans, leather jackets and niqabs, and they all ventured up the escalators for coffee or food, or just to have five minutes off their feet. This is why I’ve never understood people who dismiss shopping centres as cathedrals for commerce; they can be some of the most human places on the planet.

What a lot of socialists don’t often mention is that insofar as capitalism functions – falteringly, and with innumerable inequities – it does so because the people make it function. This isn’t just because of coercion, necessity or false consciousness, but because humans have a remarkable capacity to bend the rigid, humdrum formalities of working life into something more humane.

A security guard goes over to talk to the girl who’s getting bored at her unpopular hotdog stand. Two cleaners share a joke by one of the bins. In the queue for coffee, the harassed barista still found time for banter with one of her regulars. We all find ways to endure the long shift, adapt to the tedious routine, amend the unfathomable rules: we have in-jokes, fag breaks, staff competitions and nights out. Work disciplines us, yes, but we’re the ones who civilise work, and the skills we develop help us to be better employees and better members of society.

The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.

If there is a ‘social recession’, it is limited to members of a small, troubled, self-perpetuating group, which is neither reflective of the communities they blight nor the fault of one political party. It is a problem which has existed for generations and will probably persist generations from now: the only thing left to argue about is whether it’s gotten better or worse, and whether it can be solved.

But despite being unrepresentative of either the poor or the wider working class, cases such as the Edlington attacks are often the only time the media takes the time to report on poverty & deprivation. Prior to news of this attack, who can honestly say they had even heard of this small South Yorkshire town, let alone understood its character and problems? Prior to the kidnap of Shannon Matthews, who can honestly claim to have known where Dewsbury Moor was, or the demographics of the people living there? My own knowledge of Haringey is limited to the appalling crimes which happened there; I know nothing of the area or its people.

Because our view of these areas is restricted to its most infrequent but appalling crimes, we rarely take the time to examine the more generic, structural problems which exist. What’s the quality of the housing? How might the schools be improved? Do social workers have enough time to do justice to their clients? Where offending behaviour occurs, are there opportunities for community sentencing? Is there enough Early Intervention for parents who’re at risk? When your first introduction to a place makes you recoil in horror, these questions are rarely asked, and answers rarely sought.

The challenge, then, for people who campaign against poverty & inequality, is to humanise the problem; to demonstrate the struggles and champion the success stories which occur in these communities and – above all – give its residents a voice. Without that, we’ll just have to make do with a succession of bleak headlines which neither gives a true reflection of the communities in which they occurred, nor truly grapples with the causes.

One reason we think society is broken because parts of it remain invisible. That’s something we can – and must – seek to change.


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  1. It’s said that for someone with no resources, opportunities or prospects, the only way to become famous is by committing a terrible crime. You’ve put your finger on the fact that the same is true of a whole social class.

  2. Hi Neil,

    The problem I have with this article is the undeserving poor bit in the middle of the article – about how long term unemployed people don’t have the right values and behaviours, blight their communities, pass on state dependency to their children etc. etc.

    This doesn’t sit easily with the conclusion about giving residents a voice and championing successes. While reading your article, I thought about the groups which I know which have been successful in helping people get the services which they need and helping them get jobs – none of them would use this kind of “underclass” style language or thinking. Singling out long term unemployed people as a kind of separate, unrepresentative group is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Or as someone from the Gellideg Foundation in Merthyr Tydfil explained their ethos: ““For us, they aren’t “ex-offenders” or “hard to reach”, they are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and we help them because we love them and because they are part of our community”.

    • Hi,

      It may just be a degree of exhaustion/intellectual bluntness on my part, but I’m not quite sure where the problem is here. I’m not trying to assert that there’s something intrinsic in being long term unemployed which means you’ll exhibit troubling/violent/anti-social behaviours and become an abject parent. Rather I think that – if we believe socialisation has an important role in both child & adult development – the people who do exhibit these behaviours learnt it from somewhere. So then we ask: why are the norms of these people so different to the rest of us? Whilst there are many interconnected reasons, if I had to highlight one it would be lack of work.

      Also, I’m not trying to claim these people (notice I refuse to say ‘underclass’) are distinct from the communities they live in; merely that they’re not representative of them. It’s no secret that the hard right press and its hard right politicians loathe the welfare state and devised a ‘welfare state=broken society’ argument (ideology masquerading as sociology) to try to prove welfare’s sheer awfulness. But they couldn’t (from an academic P.O.V, at least – see Charles Murray) win that particular battle of ideas.

      But whilst they couldn’t win that argument in the lecture halls and seminar rooms, they could win (and are winning) that argument on the street. And so each of these horrid cases carries with it the whispered (and often shouted) assertion that if we simply had a more punative, restrictive welfare state, these problems would disappear, for everyone would be more self-reliant and responsible. For me (and I suspect for you), that fundamentally misunderstands how these problems arose.

      So to push back against this trend, I think we need to state that (1) yes, there are people in certain areas whose behaviour makes other people’s lives difficult; (2) these cases are not, in fact, even slightly representative of welfare’s most dependent users; (3) far from this being an argument for reducing the state, what the cases tells us is that if we want to intervene to stop children from mirroring the behaviour of their parents, you’re going to need some kind of state or local authority intervention. It needs to be better than what there is now, sure, but we need it nonetheless.

      And if, in my droopy-eyelid state, that makes the slightest bit of sense, I’ll be very happy…

  3. […] Neil Robertson – Once more on the “Visible Poor”: …If there is a ’social recession’, it is limited to members of a small, troubled, […]

  4. […] the first instance, but from economic disrepair & inter-generational joblessness. As I wrote in an older post: The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even […]

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