Poor kids need a voice, not pity


12:00 pm - June 18th 2011

by Owen Jones    


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I was far from alone in feeling angry – as well as moved to the point of tears – by the BBC’s Poor Kids documentary. Angry that nearly one in three children grow up in poverty in the world’s sixth biggest economy; that most kids living in poverty are in a household where at least one adult works; and that 13 years of New Labour rule failed to reverse the bulk of the social damage bequeathed by Thatcherism.

But what made me perhaps angriest was the fact that it has taken a one-off documentary from the BBC to give Britain’s poor – all 13.5 million of them – a platform.

When Karen Matthews abducted her own daughter it was as though everyone from the same background was in the dock. One journalist argued that her community was “populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.”

The Tories couldn’t resist making political capital out of the case. According to Iain Duncan-Smith, “It is though a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in.” You’d think that millions of people were running around council estates, kidnapping their kids in an effort to cash in at the expense of the tabloids.

The case helped reinforce the view many have people are poor because they are feckless, debauched and morally questionable. After all, there is practically no counterbalance to this narrative.

When it comes to TV programmes, only grotesque caricatures like Vicky Pollard make the cut. James Delingpole, for example, argued that Pollard summed up “several of the great scourges of contemporary Britain: aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career opton; lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of any eye; dismal ineducables”. You’d never know that only one in fifty single mums are teenagers, or that the majority of single parents are in work.

Poor people need a voice, not pity. They do not have one in modern Britain. For example, over two thirds of MPs come from a professional background, and just one in twenty come from any kind of unskilled background. According to the Sutton Trust, over half of the top 100 journalists are privately educated – and only just over one in ten even went to a comprehensive scho

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About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
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Reader comments


Another demonstration that Owen Jones cannot distinguish between the criminal underclass and the poor, and that he will take any criticism or acknowledgement of the former to be some kind of right-wing attack on the latter.

oldandrew – No, my point is that ‘Poor Kids’ was so striking because it was almost unique in showing people in poverty in a positive light. Otherwise, only negative – and unrepresentative – examples ever make the headlines or TV screens. The media treated Karen Matthews as though she was the tip of an iceberg, and her whole community – who had come together to find her missing daughter – were attacked. Unless poor people actually have a political voice, this unbalanced coverage will continue.

3. Éoin Clarke

Good piece Owen…

I grew up in abject poverty very similar to that in the program you cite. It is good that it is finally in public discourse.

this is an opportunity we should harness…

Owen,

The point is that it is only to you that the coverage of the Karen Matthews case was about “the poor” as opposed to “a criminal”. To be frank, your attitude just makes me think of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=167IhlXnN2Y

5. Ellie Cumbo

@4

Then how do you explain the line from Ian Duncan Smith (hardly some lone wing-nut but highly influential in the Conservative party and beyond) that Owen quotes?

Gordon Bennett, please don’t let this thread get derailed by the deliberately obtuse oldandrew again.

@5

What’s to explain? There is a lot of habitual criminality and anti-social behaviour in the poorest areas. The Karen Matthews case did draw attention to it. However, the idea that this paints *everyone* in those areas as criminals is Owen’s idiosyncratic interpretation. And the idea that the media is at fault for failing to report the news that lots of poor people are actually perfectly nice is so patronising as to be unbelievable.

Owen: Basically the argument is that a certain type of person thinks that Karen Mathews is representative of the UK’s 13.5 million poor because the poor have “no voice”…?

Although I gather oldandrew is a professional troll, I’m more than happy to post quotes from the media in which Karen Matthews was used as a template. Shameless plug of my book though it is, I wrote an entire chapter on how the media and politicians did exactly that.

And of course the fundamental point is that, while the likes of Karen Matthews make the papers and politicians’ speech, positive portrayals of people living in poverty do not, as a rule.

Troll or not, doesn’t oldandrew have a point, though?

I’m not sure to what extent people really do think that Karen Mathews is representative of “the poor”.

“It is as though a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in.”

Owen

If you’d like another look at how our iniquitous drug and welfare policies sustain and foster an underclass, the BBC have opened the door fully here.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00sj713/The_Scheme_Episode_1/

I challenge anyone to watch that series and tell me how well our policies are working.

@9

I don’t want to deny that there are unpleasant rightwing Tories out there who see “the poor” as some kind of amorphous entity, in which no distinction can be made between the criminal underclass and the law abiding majority of those suffering from deprivation and who consider all poor people to be equally unpleasant.

I just think that these rightwingers are the mirror image of middle class leftwingers who see “the poor” as some kind of amorphous entity, in which no distinction can be made between the criminal underclass and the law abiding majority of those suffering from deprivation and who consider all poor people to be equally noble.

14. flyingrodent

Entertainingly, The Scheme proves Owen’s point in graphic style. What do the people who live in Onthank say about the show?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-13602808

In short, that junkies and criminals are a problem in the area, but that they represent a small fraction of the population. And yet, the BBC managed to film in Onthank for months and somehow managed to film 90% junkies and criminals. You have to wonder how they managed that.

A recent Joseph Rowntree report (2008) has found that the media generally tends to push the question of poverty to the periphery, rarely exploring it directly or critically.

Who knows whether the public thought Karen Matthews representative of the poor or not. The point is that the question of poverty is not very well covered in the media; public debate is generally ill-informed, so it’s little wonder that nearly one in three children grow up in poverty in the world’s sixth biggest economy.

How we tolerate or rationalise such a situation is a moot point. I suspect that it might have something to do with a general notion that somehow the poor deserve it because they’re lazy, ignorant, anti-social. God forbid that we should begin to consider the systematic reasons for poverty.

16. So Much For Subtlety

Angry that nearly one in three children grow up in poverty in the world’s sixth biggest economy; that most kids living in poverty are in a household where at least one adult works; and that 13 years of New Labour rule failed to reverse the bulk of the social damage bequeathed by Thatcherism.

So it is still Fatcher’s fault is it? Can anyone explain to me how it is even possible for no children to be born into poverty when that poverty is defined in relative terms? What that one in three number means is that the middle and upper classes have more or less ceased to reproduce and the future belongs to the underclass. That is a very mixed message but one thing it says is that the middle and upper classes are not hostile to the poor. Why would anyone be angry that most children living in relative poverty do so in a household where at least one (and most of the time I expect it is precisely one as it is a single adult household) works?

One journalist argued that her community was “populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.”

Underclass != poor.

The case helped reinforce the view many have people are poor because they are feckless, debauched and morally questionable. After all, there is practically no counterbalance to this narrative.

So let’s see, there is evidence that many people are poor because they are feckless, debauched and morally questionable. Many people think they are. You assert this is not true. On what basis? Can we agree that some people are poor because they are feckless, debauched and morally questionable? Heroin addicts for instance. The homeless guy I see drinking out of a paper bag some times – so like an American movie – for another.

You’d never know that only one in fifty single mums are teenagers, or that the majority of single parents are in work.

Single mothers have about five years to be teenagers in. How many were teenage mothers? Although I don’t see how the collapse of the family with the growth of divorce is something to be proud about.

Poor people need a voice, not pity.

Why do you think so? Do you think they need some special voice to get them some special policies they don’t have now? How much more could we do for the poor than we do already?

@15. Rabelais,

What links the coverage of poverty in the media, however defined, to its incidence?

@16

Underclass != poor

So they’re rich or well off then?

Vimothy,
I think if we we’re capable of having a public debate about poverty that did rely on clichés, prejudice and speculation it might put us in a better position to tackle the issue successfully. I think it’s fair to say that how we interpret and represent and issue is central to how we act upon it.

If the Labour Party can’t provide this voice, it may as well pack up and go home.

I think you’ll find the Labour Party prefers to have privately-educated women as its candidates rather than working class men. If they cared about this issue, they’d scrap all women shortlists and replace them with all state school educated shortlists.

So Much for Subtlety,

“So it is still Fatcher’s fault is it?”

There was a definite leap in the number of poor in the mid ’80s. Coincidence?

“Can anyone explain to me how it is even possible for no children to be born into poverty when that poverty is defined in relative terms?”

60% of median wage is a measure of relative poverty–that’s true.

But there’s no reason why a particular number of people should earn 60% of the median wage.

According to The Poverty Site, using a 1997 baseline as the index year, absolute poverty has fallen, but this fall has not been monotonic. In particular, after falling steeply at first, absolute poverty has been gradually rising since 05/06.

Data are here: http://www.poverty.org.uk/01/index.shtml?2#g3

“What that one in three number means is that the middle and upper classes have more or less ceased to reproduce and the future belongs to the underclass.”

If about a fifth of the UK population live in households earning 60% of the median wage and a third of kids live in households earning 60% of the median wage then it must be the case that poor households have a greater number of children than the average. In other words, there’s a relationship between being poor and the number of children you have.

Interestingly, the total fertility rate for the UK is waaaay below the replacement rate (1.42 for 2005-2010, according to Wiki/the UN). I’d expect immigrants and poor natives to have higher fertility rates. This is backed up by the discrepancy above, but I haven’t seen the data.

Statistics, comrades!

22. Ellie Cumbo

@20 That’s a false choice; a meaningful Labour Party should be challenging the under-representation of both women and the working class (agree they are doing better on the former than the latter, though).

Important to remember that most MPs in all parties (except the Greens) are still middle-class white men.

Lovely piece Owen, and the conclusion you come to is exactly right.

A while ago, not far from the council estate my nan lives in, a very wealthy man shot his wife and child in their mansion, shot himself, and then burnt it down.

The press and politicians responded, quite rightly, with shock and sadness. The victims were treated with sympathy and humanity. Nobody said this crime had ‘slightly opened a door to another world and the rest of Britain can peer in,’ even though the crime was just as astounding, exceptional and desperate as that of Karen Matthews.

That’s the distinction you rightly draw: the criminal acts of the rich are seen as isolated, the criminal acts of the poor are seen as representative – and nobody bats an eyelid.

@19. Rabelais,

I suppose you must be right. Still I feel that the “media class”, broadly defined to include institutions like LC and its contributors, oversells itself somewhat. I fear that, even if we gave the poor more of a voice, and less of our pity, they would still be poor.

25. So Much For Subtlety

18. Cylux

So they’re rich or well off then?

Underclass < Poor. Poor !< Underclass.

Vimothy,
I don’t really know if simply giving anyone a voice improves their situation. That’s the politics of identity – as long as everyone gets ‘respected’ and ‘recognised’ the job is considered done. Poverty isn’t, in the in the end, about recognition, it’s a question of redistribution. But that’s not an argument we hear (or certainly haven’t heard for a while). That said, we’ve seen a massive redistribution of wealth to the richest in society. Still, at least there’s Shameless on the tele. That’s some consolation. or maybe not…

Don’t the aspirational working class hate the underclass as much as anyone? Strikes me as something that undermines your argument.

Most of the people I speak to are perfectly capable of making a distinction between the working and non-working classes. Sounds like you’re attacking a form of snobbery that doesn’t exist on the scale you suggest.

http://outspokenrabbit.blogspot.com/

It’s not “poverty” that’s the problem, but the gross inequality that has been indulged by the last 30 years of misgovernment. With Labour intensely relaxed about people like themselves getting filthy rich it’s no surprise they even exacerbated the trend, and don’t expect any help from the sell-out union hierarchies either.

@Daz – you’re exactly right about the so-called aspirational working classes despising the underclass, but that doesn’t undermine Owen’s argument as such. It’s no wonder life for those at the bottom end never gets any better when we have no solidarity.

Fwiw, Marx was probably wrong about the Lumpenproletariat and the Black Panthers were right: the LP have way more revolutionary potential than your so-called aspirational working classes who are often only too keen to climb the greasy pole and tread on the heads of those beneath them.

@29

I think that what you are missing is that middle class people lecturing the poorest in society on their lack of “solidarity” is as offensive as lecturing them on their fecklessness or idleness. It also makes a mockery of the idea of giving them a voice, if they are only allowed to express their solidarity with each other.

@26. Rabelais,

“Poverty isn’t, in the in the end, about recognition, it’s a question of redistribution.”

Poverty is about the distribution of income *and* its growth.

I know I would certainly prefer to be poor in relative terms than poor in absolute terms. Migratory trends suggest that millions of people agree with me.

32. flyingrodent

I think that what you are missing is that middle class people lecturing the poorest in society on their lack of “solidarity” is as offensive as lecturing them on their fecklessness or idleness.

I’m from a long line of industrial workers, mechanics and engineers; Mrs R’s family are former miners. Does that mean I could say things like this without being concern-trolled for middle class, hoity-toity lecturing?

@ FR

In short, that junkies and criminals are a problem in the area, but that they represent a small fraction of the population. And yet, the BBC managed to film in Onthank for months and somehow managed to film 90% junkies and criminals. You have to wonder how they managed that.

We can argue about the size of the underclass, or the proportion in whatever areas, but the evidence of our own eyes confirms it does exist.

Everybody agree so far?

Now what characterises the underclass is the lack of responsibility in their behaviour, often described as fecklessness, and what The Scheme illustrated perfectly was the way in which that irresponsible behaviour is both condoned and encouraged by our welfare policies.

Their is a classic scene where a 15 year old girl, having been made pregnant by a heroin addict shows the film crew round her new house- new kitchen, new bathroom etc and tells them she has reluctantly decided to “take it for now”.

Incidentally, the programme illustrated different children from the same family making very different choices for their futures. The problem they have is not poverty but that they cannot escape from the “help” we give them to nullify the effect of and therefore reinforce the poor lifestyle choices they make.

These people are only scum because we help them to be so. It is not their fault they are as they are, it is ours.

Sound familiar?

34. Charlieman

@27. Daz Pearce: “Don’t the aspirational working class hate the underclass as much as anyone?”

I have problems with the word “hate”. Hate is a very pointed word, directional; I have contempt for many but the number that I hate can be counted on one hand.

In every day life, citizens (of any class, race) fear the underclass because their behaviour is irrational and occasionally violent.

SMFS made a valid point: “Underclass != poor.” Pete Drugerty earns some dosh from his recordings but his chaotic drug life style defines him as poetic underclass.

“Marx was probably wrong about the Lumpenproletariat and the Black Panthers were right: the LP have way more revolutionary potential than your so-called aspirational working classes who are often only too keen to climb the greasy pole and tread on the heads of those beneath them”

Brilliant. Poor people who don’t want to be poor are counter-revolutionaries.

Can the subaltern speak? They can, comrade, and they told me that they don’t need no stinkin’ voice!

Actually what the poor need is decently paid jobs, adequate housing, good schools for their kids, first rate health care. Of course, in this country only the aspirational and entrepreneurial middle class have a right to such benefits – and they spend all their time whining because spending public money on (gasp) the public is (according to them) why we have a deficit problem. They might indulge in a little sentimental angst over poor kids, but once those kids are old enough to have to depend on benefits because there are no jobs around, the middle class would rather see them dead than restructure society so that everyone is included.

37. Julian St Jude

One of the most anausiating sounds is that of Politicians talking about “lifting children out of poverty”. Their actions are designed to put ever more families and children into poverty.

We saw this in the “Raggered Trousered Philantrophists”, where politicians and businessmen made great show of how they cared for children and yet pursued actions and policies designed to make life ever worse for those children.

Briar – well said.

39. Mr S. Pill

What’s the point in having a “voice” when no-one is listening to the screams?

As @36 says “Actually what the poor need is decently paid jobs, adequate housing, good schools for their kids, first rate health care.”

Repeat ad infinitum.

Errata:

“Interestingly, the total fertility rate for the UK is waaaay below the replacement rate (1.42 for 2005-2010, according to Wiki/the UN).”

I should have known better than to trust La Wik. Ignore this figure—it’s completely wrong.

According to the UN study that Wikipedia (incorrectly) quotes, estimated UK TFR for 2005-2010 is actually 1.82, converging on long-term trend TFR of 1.85 in the subsequent period.

ONS estimate that current (2009) TFR is 1.96.

41. Charlieman

@36. Briar: “Of course, in this country only the aspirational and entrepreneurial middle class have a right to such benefits…”

Throughout this thread, there has been confusion over class definitions.

Briar makes a particular mistake when referring to “aspirationals”. The economic status of aspirationals and underclass is commonly common. Both groups, typically, are poor. Group membership is interchangeable.

Aspirationals have an ambition that they or their children can change economic status, working within the system.

The aspirational and underclass are treated equally in terms of financial assistance, access to social services, education. The difference is what they do with it.

@41. Charlieman,

Is that actually true?

Surely it’s a truism that the subset of the poor who do not want handouts will consume less state resources than the subset who don’t care either way, and they will consume less than the subset who actively free-ride.

43. Charlieman

@42 vimothy: I’m not following you but I am interested.

“the subset of the poor who do not want handouts”. I’d substitute the expression “do not want” for something that acknowledged mutuality and the beneficiary’s need.

44. Chaise Guevara

“When it comes to TV programmes, only grotesque caricatures like Vicky Pollard make the cut.”

Where does it say that Vicky Pollard is poor? And do you seriously think she is reflective of the portrayal of poor people on TV? I think you’ve picked the most extreme example (if it IS an example) rather than a representative one, tbh.

The very small amount of trouble my council has complaints about is from kids called chavs by other kids. They come from very poor homes in every sense and there is a palpable self-loathing in their behaviour. To argue for more porivision for them is a hard sell, but I’m pleased to say we are doing what we can.

My community is very much working class, most people work in trades, shops or offices. Is their loathing for a cultural underclass the source of their anger, or the fact some drunken child of drunken parents has wrecked something else?

The big problem as far as I can see (having worked in poverty ghetto schools for a few years) is that there is a culture that has developed that perpetuates the deprivation and lack of aspiration. What politician has the balls to stand up and argue that the only solution is to throw tons of money and resources at the problem? The resources of police, social services and education alone will cost millions for each ghetto.

Of course, for the human benefits, the reduction in crime and the improvement of social cohesion and economic activity would make such an investment worthwile, but the Daily Mail wouldn’t see it that way.

Where does Owen’s book fit into this? Is it just a call for bourgeois angst?

@16 SMFS: “Can anyone explain to me how it is even possible for no children to be born into poverty when that poverty is defined in relative terms?”

Well, it’s defined relative to the median wage, not the average. Therefore, all that would be needed would be for the range of earnings _below_ the median to become narrower – no artificial reduction would be needed in the range _above_ the median, which is what the right like to clutch their pearls about whenever poverty figures are mentioned. So it’s perfectly doable: tie both the minimum wage and all relevant benefits to the median wage, set them both above the poverty line, and bingo, nobody’s in poverty.

@45: “The big problem as far as I can see (having worked in poverty ghetto schools for a few years) is that there is a culture that has developed that perpetuates the deprivation and lack of aspiration.”

True enough.

“Government figures show only 15% of white working class boys in England got five good GCSEs including maths and English last year. . . Poorer pupils from Indian and Chinese backgrounds fared much better – with 36% and 52% making that grade respectively.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7220683.stm

“Though white children in general do better than most minorities at school, poor ones come bottom of the league (see chart). Even black Caribbean boys, the subject of any number of initiatives, do better at GCSEs”
http://www.economist.com/world/britain/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14700670

In places, social values have not changed much since George Orwell wrote this in 1936:

“The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.”
Source: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), chp.7

@ 30 “I think that what you are missing is that middle class people lecturing the poorest in society on their lack of “solidarity” is as offensive as lecturing them on their fecklessness or idleness. It also makes a mockery of the idea of giving them a voice, if they are only allowed to express their solidarity with each other.”

Love how you assume that birdie is a condescending middle class type, on the basis of no evidence other than your own prejudices.

@ 32 “I’m from a long line of industrial workers, mechanics and engineers; Mrs R’s family are former miners. Does that mean I could say things like this without being concern-trolled for middle class, hoity-toity lecturing?”

Don’t be silly FR. Anyone who says anything class-related that sounds remotely left-wing MUST be a middle class ignoramus. All authentic working class people are either apolitical or ferociously conservative. I know, because very rich conservatives keep telling me this.

@48

The assumption that anyone who cannot tell the difference between the poor in general and the criminal underclass in particualr is going to be middle class is one that is rarely mistaken. Nobody with first hand experience of poverty is ever going to suggest seeking “solidarity” with the criminal underclass.

@45

I’ve worked in a few ghetto schools myself, and you are never going to convince me that “self-loathing” is the motivation of trouble-makers in poor areas. Part of the problem is that middle class people who make excuses like that for really quite evil behaviour have a lot of power over the education, social services and criminal justice system in these areas. The voices of the law-abiding poor, who invariably would like the authorities to stand up to the criminals and the anti-social, are the last voices that anybody wants to hear.


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