Ah yes, when it comes to addressing poverty statistics, the rest of the UK gets this chap, known for his use of what Fry would call ‘terminological inexactitude’ regarding statistics.
Ah yes, when it comes to addressing poverty statistics, the rest of the UK gets this chap, known for his use of what Fry would call ‘terminological inexactitude’ regarding statistics.
Never mind, let’s see what’s in the news to cheer us up. How about this? A brand new UK Independence Party councillor, Eric Kitson, has made racist ‘jokes’ and shared ‘a cartoon of Muslim people being burnt at the stake with copies of the Koran fuelling the flames’, on his Facebook page. The following sentence seems to be his explanation for why Ukip have not suspended him:
‘I'm not a politician - I'm a bit of a fool really.’
Meanwhile, Colin Brewer, the previously mentioned independent councillor in Cornwall who said that disabled children should be put down, apparently was re-elected in the same round of elections: according to the Indy, ‘with 335 votes – a winning margin of four votes.’ Brewer compared disabled children with deformed lambs that are dealt with at birth by ‘smashing them against a wall.’ His presence on the candidate list would certainly get me out to the polling station.
In both cases, I’m perversely curious about whether some voters put their cross against these names without at least some understanding of what they stood for. The logic of democracy means that you have to believe that a majority of those who voted for these people knew what they were doing. Something is very rotten in the state of England.
Here's Will Hutton in today's Observer, summarising the social damage wrought by elitist educational and economic policies:
"Societies are built on multiple interdependencies. Trust, the foundation of human relationships, is created around reciprocity. An elite that segregates itself is declaring it does not want to be part of reciprocal relationships of trust. All that matters is its own betterment. Entrepreneurship and innovation, as entrepreneurs and innovators know full well, happen best in a climate of openness, access and high trust, not in societies managed to deliver economic rent and advantage to a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the privately educated."
And at the local level, the gated community is an increasingly powerful symbol of all this comtemptible ideology promoted by this government and its largely conniving press.
Among the findings:
And there are a couple of surprises (to me at any rate). First, there seems to be comparatively low interest in associating with ‘co-national or ethnic groups’. When asked to rank 15 priorities, respondents placed greatest importance (understandably) on ‘Absence of verbal or physical attack’ (9.5) and ‘Housing’ (9.29). The lowest priority was accorded to ‘Volunteering’ (7.09) (understandably); and (surprisingly) association with ‘co-national or ethnic groups’ (7.49).
Secondly, the research challenges the model which suggests that if you spend time and energy investing in strong ties (e.g. for emotional support) that detracts from investment in weak ties and bridging social capital (e.g. for getting work). The researchers say there was ‘no evidence that having strong kin networks precludes getting support from formal networks’:
‘The positive correlations between different types of contact… provide compelling evidence against the argument that immigrant and ethnic minority communities are ‘inward looking’ and only ‘invest’ in bonding social capital... There is no evidence that receiving help from relatives and friends (widely considered as ‘bonding’ capital) is mutually exclusive with gaining ‘bridging’ social capital from ‘out-groups’ and more formal organisations.’ (p11-12)
Yesterday, as various sources report (BBC, Indy), five disabled people lost their High Court challenge over the government's decision to abolish the Independent Living Fund (ILF). Only from Zoe Williams’s less resigned account in the Guardian do we learn that:
‘It's an inaccessible courtroom, so the people who brought the action couldn't get into the room to hear the verdict.’
What an exquisite vignette for the moral bankruptcy of the system. Can the injustice of British politics and the notion of British ‘justice’ sink any lower? We must wait and see. Matt Kenyon’s superb illustration brings a weird sound, a bit like laughter, to the cries of derision.
But there are sources of encouragement. According to Andreas Whittam Smith in today's Indy, action by those victimised across Europe by authorities in the name of ‘austerity’ has brought results:
‘When the President of the European Commission says that austerity has reached its limits, then something profound has changed. The street protests in weaker eurozone countries have made a difference.’
The slightly formal context of a conference venue was going to be unfamiliar for the participants, the timetable was very tight, and they would not know most of the others there. So we designed a mix of plenary and group sessions, exercises, discussions, and one short presentation; followed by a trip round the houses of parliament. We also had to take account of the fact that some of the young people had fairly complex backgrounds and there was always a chance that attention spans would be short and their behaviour could be what is euphemistically called ‘challenging’.
One of the exercises was designed to allow some of the experience to be fictionalised: this gave the participants ‘permission’ to release some fairly strong concerns – and some personal aspirations - that otherwise might not have been shared. This post summarises that process.
We had seven groups of about 5 or 6 per table, of mixed ages. Using a pre-printed worksheet, each group was asked to invent a character and describe their family background and the area where they lived. Prompt cards were provided but only the age of the child was prescribed, in order to ensure a variety.
We used the carousel principle so that each table inherited the character created by others. The second stage required them to think about the skills, interests, fears and friendships of the character. We provided plenty of prompt cards for this stage, covering a broad mix of options to get people talking: some groups used these while others chose to draw or write, for example -
Fears: ‘not being able to leave the estate’
‘A bit afraid of new people. Doesn’t know what is happening.’
‘He does not go to school so he don’t have a good ajication.’
In the next stage, inheriting a character with some detail known about them, the participants were asked to think up a crisis (or crises) that affected the individual, and to describe the implications. As we had anticipated, this gave them no difficulties whatsoever, although there were one or two oddities –
‘No life. Goes into foster home & runs away. Police find him and Bob wants to stay with the policeman.’
‘They move to a small stone hut.’
There was plenty of mention of adults in the household losing their jobs, plus imprisonment and quite unceremonially reported death.
In the last group phase, they were asked to think through the future for the invented character they inherited, given what was known about their circumstances and the crisis which afflicted them. Here, what was striking was the sense of resilience in some of the outcomes (but not all):
‘Finally he got his own business. And he doesn’t do any illgele job.’
‘(After 1 yr) Taken into care. Social involved. Abused in care. Bunking school. Mum + Dad not aloud to see them. Parents in rehab. Angry at parents. (After 2 yrs) Kills parents -Juvinal prison – No one to help him. (After 5 yrs) Turns life around and starts studying in Safe Children’s Home. Goes back to school and doesn’t get bullied.’
‘She become so ill and suffers too much. Luckily someone adopts her but she is so ill that she dies.’
‘(After 1 yr) out of prison after serving 6 months. No family support L (After 2 yrs) goes back to prison for selling drugs, couldn’t find work. (After 5 yrs) Dies from drug abuse. [Alternative happy ending] 1 yr – lots of support from family. 2 yrs – rehab and courses. 5 yrs – police and youth work, educating others to prevent them doing the same thing.’
The final phase of the exercise was a table-by-table account and short discussion of each of the characters. Unsurprisingly, energy levels had flagged a little by this stage but the richness of the narratives gave us plenty to work on in the final sessions and in our report, which will be published soon by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
If you're interested in finding out more about the process described here, please get in touch.
Everyone seems to have money on their minds these days: how much they have, the predictability of their income, and what to do with it. And I sense that more and more people – in spite of the conspiracy of disinterest shown by most of the broadcast media - are beginning to get the message that poverty is a dominant, complex social problem. There has been a significant political shift lately, and tomorrow’s budget ought to bring some relief; but undoubtedly profound, lasting damage has been done, much of it inexcusably ideologically-driven and malicious.
Some people, like Bradley Ariza who has an article in today’s Guardian, are counting calories too. As he says, ‘not to lose weight, but to try and make sure I get enough.’
‘The problem is that as soon as we try to work our way out of the grip of the welfare state, we lose so many benefits, and incur so many other costs; transport, childcare etc. Yet instead of helping people, there seems to be this obsession with punishing those on benefits, as if being poor is some sort of crime.’
‘I don't think I have done anything wrong.’
Personally I don’t think people with such views should themselves be put down, but I’m willing to discuss the question in a civilised manner if you like.
When the dust has settled, policy makers need to look at the dates here. It’s now February 2013, so it has taken our society 16 months to bring this man just this close to the necessary public retribution.
Beyond the individual disgrace, there is a wider public disgrace: why do we have public institutions that do not treat such issues with sufficient seriousness to disinfect themselves with a more rigorous urgency? Do equalities somehow not matter?
‘Food banks are the safety net of safety nets. It is only when government fails that food banks have to step in… They are not a substitute for social policies that protect people’ - Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaking in London recently, cited by Patrick Butler.
De Schutter said that widening economic and geographic inequalities in western countries such as the UK were reinforcing the existence in deprived neighbourhoods of ‘food deserts’ – places with few shops and where cheap, healthy produce was hard to come by.
The question arises in this context, is it morally defensible for a government to adopt policies that demonstrably increase economic inequalities to exacerbate the situation? I find it hard to think of anything more offensive right now.
As far as I can tell, the Guardian is the only major news broadcaster to cover this story – presumably the other sources do not regard it as important.
Meanwhile, I find it curious that this government – usually so determinedly disinterested in evidence of any kind – has initiated research which ‘will examine the extent and effectiveness of emergency food aid, amid concern that increasing numbers of low-paid and benefit-dependent households are forced to use charity food sources’. So they’ve spotted that there is ‘concern’, well done there. I can find no reference to the inquiry on the Defra site so far. I suspect they’re cautiously checking the morality of applying the ‘big society’ brand in this case (seriously: see the first 30 secs here).
The event was designed to feed in to the government’s consultation on child poverty (now closed) around which, as the Guardian highlighted last week, there has been a degree of tension. The idea that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, should be credited with a ‘theory that other factors aside from money caused poverty’ is odd. Apparently he is challenging ‘the tired arguments that poverty was about income alone,’ but no-one I have spoken to knows where to find those arguments.
Obviously the question is not whether there are other factors, but how they are emphasised. You’d only ask ‘is child poverty about money or not?’ if you had a pitifully weak grasp of what it is. Of course it’s about money. It's also about of lot of other things – like access to transport, health inequalities, network poverty, lack of cultural capital, environmental poverty, poverty of opportunity and so on - which are exacerbated by lack of money. Perhaps also it still needs to be pointed out that wide wealth inequalities are wasteful and have all sorts of negative human and social consequences, which are expensive.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of evidenced support in our event for the government’s idea that family stability is a key factor.
Except, wait. There was one feature of the lives of participants in the event which could strongly affect family stability, and which kept coming up: death. It was surprising how frequently death was mentioned - of someone known to the participant or in the fictionalised scenarios they developed collectively. It may be that we helped to create an environment which allowed this theme to emerge more easily than it does in other contexts, I don’t know, but it was striking. Death in poor families can be particularly devastating in both emotional and economic terms, the more so if young people are dealing with unusual frequencies of death among relatives and family friends.
Ah yes wait, I’m forgetting, there was something else that impacts on family stability, which kept coming up: imprisonment. The realities of someone they knew being imprisoned were clearly not too far away from the day to day lives of these young people to be dismissed. And some were acutely aware of the obstacles to rebuilding their lives that anyone could expect to be presented after a sentence has been served. There seemed to be genuine fear of the very idea of prison as a dead end to be avoided.
Less obvious as a factor having an indirect impact on family stability were the numerous remarks about transition stages – especially the moment of leaving care, which can be far too abrupt for many young people, due simply to inadequate levels of support (this is an example, one among several that we heard, of service poverty). One young man described how, at the age of 18, he felt ‘like a ball being kicked off the park’.
So I’m starting to come round to the view that family stability does offer a way of gaining closer understanding of child poverty, although not so much as a causal factor. It may be that it is a sub-theme which usefully helps us focus on a number of influential poverties; like health inequalities, service poverty, low cultural capital and poverty of opportunity.
But occasionally the reality that an inquiry discovers is so disturbing that it deserves wider attention, and should command that attention.
Today saw the publication of one example, from the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people. Former children’s minister Sarah Teather, who chaired the inquiry, said
‘The evidence we have heard is shocking and appalling. It is an affront to this country’s proud tradition of giving sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence.’
For the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed said:
‘Children and their families are being forced to live in appalling conditions that are unacceptable by anybody’s standards. No child, no matter who they are or where they’re from, should be treated with such a complete lack of human dignity.’
It sounds pretty serious to me. I don’t want to live in a society in which vulnerable families are separated routinely and people are treated like this:
‘The inquiry received evidence documenting reports of eggs thrown at houses, stones thrown at babies and children hounded from school. Evidence details how flats where asylum seekers lived were targeted in arson attacks; in one case a man begged to leave the area after a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of his home. The most extreme form of this violence has been the murder of asylum seekers in cities across the UK.’
Fortunately, the system is not always the end of the line:
‘One woman started to go into labour, did not have a midwife, did not know where the hospital was, and it was only the kindness of strangers in the street that got her to hospital.’
Is that what’s known as big society? It’s hardly contentious to point out that the Tory rhetoric of ‘benefit scroungers’ is at best unhelpful and in practice likely to be a consistent contributory factor here. The report notes that
‘Some segments of the population, including some frontline professionals and statutory agencies, have vastly inaccurate ideas about asylum seekers and the reality of their lives. This has fuelled a hostile reception for many thousands of children and young people, desperate to live in peace and safety.’ (Emphasis added)
And as if the evidence were not bad enough, its publication surfaces another distasteful feature of contemporary life – the inevitable trolls who see no reason, hear no reason, and speak no reason; for whom it is easier to dismiss this systematic inhumanity as ‘self-inflicted destitution’ (you can find examples in the comments section here). It’s scary when people are insistently wrong about these issues; when they also seem to take pride in being devoid of any kind of compassion it’s close to terrifying.
The paper includes the PSE team's responses to the consultation. Given the tendency in some policy circles to try to associate poverty with certain kinds of family, and to distance it from the structural effects of policy decisions, I particularly appreciated this note:
Q21: Which experiences associated with family stability should be captured in a measure?
None. Again family stability is not a measure of child poverty. Neither is family structure. Most poor children live in two-parent families. There is a higher risk of child poverty in lone parent and cohabiting families but this is a function of our social policy in the UK…
I’ve spoken to quite a few people who love living the high life, but if the PX findings from their recent study are accurate, then there are clearly too many children and young people cooped up in box flats too far from the outdoors. They claim that:
The argument may need a little more nuanced understanding. The press release says that:
‘Studies have shown that residents of high-rise blocks or large estates suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties, neurosis and marriage breakdowns’
- and it’s worth asking about the extent to which these dysfunctions might be caused by, exacerbated by, or coincidental to, the housing conditions. Do they occur to a statistically significant extent in well-designed, well-built, well-maintained towers?
Meanwhile, we seem to be witnessing an increase in the construction of highly secure high-rise buildings for the wealthy. Is a pattern going to emerge, the posh with their heads in the clouds and the plebs brought down to earth?
Perhaps we need to emphasise that design and build quality really must be part of the argument. It’s all very well calling for low rise, but maybe this image can serve as a reminder that bad low rise can be problematic.
It would help to breathe life back into the archived CABE (decommissioned by the present government in 2011), because this was their business. It seems to me to be hard for the present government to escape the charge that they have squandered previous progress on decent homes standards.
Snow across the country the past few days. And here's a text from a young muslim mother in poverty, with whom I've been corresponding - 'I was hoping to have a lie in today (wishful thinking!). We've been out in the snow every day since friday, [the children] were up @7am asking what time we could head out!'
And I thought, rather weakly, that's it - the snow is a delight in its own terms and it's free. For once, something pleasurable in this country that is not reserved for the Haves (although it helps to have decent clothes and a way to dry off, to warm up afterwards, and replenish with quality calories...)
‘Stories challenging assumptions about what constitutes home and how people understand their own sense of belonging.’
Footnote 12 Dec - Teresa Cairns (from Climbing the Wall) has written to me:
'Our most recent film production, 'No Place Like Home', deals with the difficult
transitions people face when they come off 'the street'. It is featured by the
Community Channel as part of their week of films exploring homelessness in
Britain today, until Sunday 16th Dec:
We would love feedback if you manage to catch it - broadcast tomorrow evening at 21.30, then Sunday at 22.30.'
Come lunchtime and at last some high profile criticism of Tory ministers’ mythology of ‘scroungers’ who laze at home ‘with the curtains drawn’ while ‘decent hard working people’ strive to get the economy back on track.
No matter that more and more of those working people face grinding hardship; as Polly Toynbee notes, this is mendacious, disreputable dishonesty. And some people, like my neighbour, have the curtains drawn during the day because they work nights.
How have we got to this wretched level, as a society, with this smirking politicisation of the misery of millions? It’s offensive to pretend that ‘we’re all in this together’. As I wrote a couple of years ago,
Some are poncing about with Pimms on the upper deck while some are clinging desperately to the sides, and many detached are screaming from the rising waters. Responsible politicians would acknowledge that, then do something about it.
Even Demos are a little concerned about how policy makers will interpret and exploit their recent analysis of poverty. They point to the ways in which multiple deprivation gets associated with anti-social behaviour or criminality:
it is not impossible that the Government or media might brand one or other of the groups associated with a type of poverty (perhaps those with the most entrenched poverty or negative features such as poor education and material deprivation) ‘neighbours from hell’.
Demos have set up a website for the project, Poverty in perspective. I’ve been really impressed with the report, with it's practical, meaningful breakdown of 15 categories of poverty. It’s timely in the way it shows how
The most prevalent types of poverty are among the working poor and the recently redundant (as a sign of the current economic climate), who have sophisticated financial coping strategies and lack the social disadvantages all too commonly conflated with low income.
It also helps show something that my colleagues and I will be ‘striving’ (can I use that word?) to do, which is to emphasise how levels of income and outgoings are only one aspect of that experience.
Yesterday The Guardian published a broad ranging article by Steve Rose, on squatters. Here are three quick points:
(i) Rose notes that
‘What the squatting dispute boils down to is a split between those who consider private property to be sacred, and those who would prioritise the right to shelter.’
Indeed, and it’s a no-brainer if ever I saw one.
(ii) I suspect there might have been more about the constructive role of squatters in patching up buildings and thereby saving resources:
‘In Dutch there is a word krakers – literally "crackers" – to describe the type of constructive squatter who fixes up damaged buildings. "Squatters quietly restore house" is a story that rarely makes the papers, although in the 70s in Amsterdam, hundreds of squatters moved into and repaired dilapidated buildings in the historic Nieuwmarkt area, and fought to save the neighbourhood from large-scale demolition and redevelopment. It was the beginning of a successful conservation movement in the city.’
(iii) It’s not a great reflection on our society that people have to squat, but perhaps we should celebrate what they do as an example of collective resilience (this of course is partly why squatters are anathema to the Haves):
‘In the broader sense, what ties together these disparate instances of squatting is human beings' capacity to organise and provide for themselves.’ Rose quotes Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow cities: a billion squatters:
"Wherever you go in the developing world, and, I would argue with most of the squatters in the UK and the US, you're talking about a notable act of self reliance by people facing a system that does not provide housing they can afford," says Neuwirth. "This is something we should be saluting, rather than looking at it as some kind of horrific, criminal approach."
‘The impact of inequality on societies is now increasingly well understood - higher crime, health problems and mental illness, lower educational achievements, social cohesion and life expectancy.’
Inequalities reinforce social exclusion: it's hardly a contentious assertion, it's been around for a while, the data seem to support it, but is it really ‘well understood’? Understood as well as, for instance, the principle that people who are in positions of privilege, wealth and power will distort whatever they have to, in order to protect those positions?
No it probably isn’t, not in the context of Westminster and the outlook of the influential Centre for Social Justice. This was made clear to me at the launch of the CSJ’s second ‘Breakthrough Britain’ programme the other day. The new programme addresses the same six themes as the first: family breakdown; economic dependency and worklessness; educational failure; drug and alcohol addiction; serious personal debt; and the role of the voluntary sector.
The reports of the first programme, published in 2007, were sub-titled ‘policy recommendations to the Conservative Party’. So has no progress been made on these themes in the interim? Are social conditions worse, or better, in the CSJ’s eyes? Perhaps they are comparable. We know that inequalities have widened; but perhaps that doesn’t matter?
The six themes strikingly avoid any reference to disadvantage experienced collectively, or to collective responses, thus reinforcing the notion that poverty and social exclusion are just experienced at the individual or household level and have to be addressed by the individual or household. I’m not sure why another bash at them is needed (I mean at the themes, not the people) nor why other forces that contribute to or might help reduce exclusion are not being considered.
So when, after the introductory speeches, Titus Alexander asked, from the floor, where the principles of equalities might feature in the process, it seemed a wholly reasonable question and an opportunity for the chair to say something like ‘yes of course, it’s fundamental, obviously we didn’t have time to cover everything in our introduction, but…’
Not a bit of it. The idea that inequalities have anything to do with the problems of disadvantage and poverty in this country – or that addressing them might have anything to do with the solutions – was abruptly dismissed, on the grounds that the data do not necessarily explain why some countries have relatively high income inequality but fewer negative social indicators. (It might depend on which indicators you choose to look at I suppose).
(Re-reading my post from a previous CSJ thematic launch, I note there was a pertinent question dismissed on that occasion too).
A short while later, another voice from the floor challenged the chairs running the six inquiries to think long term about the potential to reduce the roles of the state to zero and encourage the voluntary sector to take on all – he repeated ‘all’ – those roles. With CSJ's claimed political independence looking more threadbare than ever, those assembled took this in their stride, without any kind of reflection on the implications of this manifestly nonsensical ideological folly. (This man told us all that his wife is an MP, so presumably her role would in due course have to become voluntary. The irony went unobserved. I can't be sure, but I think I was the only one smiling at this point. But the idea of a voluntary parliament is refreshing, is it not?)
Those two moments in an otherwise dull event have scared me rather more than they might have done at another time, I suppose because of the crystallising polarisation in this country: we face a division of increasing starkness between the Haves and the have nots, which these attitudes only serve to sharpen. Since the viewpoint on the community and voluntary sector seems to be a Cameronian stance that interprets it in terms of charitable philanthropy (no sign of mutual aid or community action) the disempowerment of people in poverty will be very much part of the tight framework being devised to keep them closed in. Those few who are lucky enough to break out, earn lots of money and not trouble the elite, will be welcomed into the ranks of the Haves (bless you kind sir). The rest will be left to fester.
On leaving, I tried to charitable as I thought about the man who stood up to call for the progressive and complete eradication of the state. I hope he did not trip on a publicly-paid-for kerb into the path of any passing public transport, was helped to his feet by a passing peasant and had to be comforted by a publicly-resourced pleb police officer while he waited under a publicly-funded street light for a national health service ambulance, was taken to a hospital to be cared for by public servants using technology that had been developed in publicly-funded universities by people educated in state schools. But given the level of intelligence exhibited, I doubt he’d have had the capacity to reflect on what that might have meant.
Let’s acknowledge that in influential policy arenas in Westminster it is deemed reasonable to plot the maintenance and regulation by the voluntary sector of, for example, our governance, water, public health and safety services and so on - obviously including all those which the private sector has shown itself incompetent to run.
That doesn’t just reflect a shameful ignorance of the fact that most voluntary action carried out in this country has nothing whatsoever to do with philanthropy or formal voluntary organisations: it also illustrates the desperate inability of those on the political right to grasp the concept of collective social value.
When issues of social justice and children coincide, it’s just the sort of context in which someone says, ‘what we need is another Dickens!’ Indeed. The other day I was told of a family where two children go to school on alternate days, because there is only one uniform to share. An issue like this would have incensed Dickens, particularly because of his own personal experience of disrupted education.
As it happens, I was asked to give a short talk about Dickens the other day, to introduce some readings from A Christmas carol as part of an open air ‘Victorian’ high street festival. Groping around for some reminders, I chanced upon a phrase used by one of Dickens’s biographers, Edgar Johnson, who refers to his ‘uncompromising humanitarian radicalism’: fifteen syllables in three words may be OTT, but what an encapsulation!
Sadly, we can’t have another Charles Dickens. Not because there are not talented, persuasive writers and passionate social commentators in our own time – there are. But because no commentator today could expect to sustain the level of attention that Dickens managed to command for several decades in the nineteenth century. The media channels were fewer and the hall of fame far less crowded then; and Dickens had the skills, energy and temperament to maximise his impact in the interests of social justice.
He wasn’t ‘just’ a novelist, he was a communicator adept in the dominant media of his time. Lord Northcliffe described him as the greatest magazine editor of his or any age – how was that possible? It’s scary to be reminded that Dickens died at about the age I am now – he achieved so much that we might mistakenly think of him as long-lived.
All of which leaves me wondering quite why we are in such a mess now, and what is needed to signal positive social change. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to start interpreting the above-mentioned child poverty map as representing many thousands of family crises, weeks of hunger, months of debilitating stress, sickness, sense of abandonment, fear and maltreatment and loss and ruined lives. What kind of influence over our power-mongers is needed to restore a respectable insistence on social justice?
In 1843, Dickens was just 31 years old and a huge celebrity. He was at the height of his powers, full of ideas and overflowing with creativity. And he was besieged on all sides by people seeking to persuade him to use his influence in one cause or another. We should not overlook his skill in dealing with persistent lobbyists. He did not shy away from difficult issues and frequently took up a cause about which he felt passionate, and would take it further than anyone else ever could.
And so it happens that around March 1843, one of the representatives of the Children’s Employment Commission, no less, Dr Southwood Smith, sent or lent to Dickens a copy of the Commission’s second report. Sounds like a gripping read doesn't it? Nowadays we can well imagine the kinds of nasties that were depicted. On 6 March Dickens writes to Smith:
‘I am so perfectly stricken down by the blue book you have sent me, that I think… of writing, and bringing out, a very cheap pamphlet, called ‘An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’…
This is Dickens the journalist, moved by what he has read or heard or seen, and ready to use his formdiable reporting skills to bring social injustices to public attention. But a few days later he writes again to Dr Smith:
‘…since I wrote to you last, reasons have presented themselves for deferring the production of that pamphlet, until the end of the year. I am not at liberty to explain them further just now; but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force - twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following my first idea…’
The phrase ‘until the end of the year’ is a clue. We are witnessing the germ of an idea in the author’s mind and he has perhaps already glimpsed the opportunity to shift his commitment from a short piece of journalism to a hugely influential work of – let’s face it – very fanciful fiction. This letter is part of the genesis of A Christmas carol.
We may not see the ghosts that Dickens conjures in the way that his contemporaries did as they read, nor feel engrossed by the polarised moralities he delineates. We don’t do sentimental any more. To me, it’s a mediocre fable, a rather laboured parable. But Dickens seems saturated with his own power, he is saying, I can do anything with words, I can persuade you of the virtue of compassion and generosity of spirit through imaginary beings, you will believe it. It would be hard not to be in awe of the prose, its forceful confidence based so solidly on ‘uncompromising humanitarian radicalism’.
Perhaps ignition was inevitable when the spark of Dickens’s genius was brought so close to a necessarily dry report from an official commission. And it’s generated plenty of warmth and light over the decades. How do we replicate that sense of compassion, now that we need it so badly?
"Language is balls coming at you from every angle" - Alan Bennett, Talking heads 2
‘The language of 'benefits' and the 'welfare state' have become 'dog-whistle' words of implicit abuse. Politicians assert that housing benefit is designed for ‘those who lie in bed with the curtains drawn’. Those on benefits are ‘scroungers’, ‘benefits cheats’.
‘The data shows that 61 per cent of children in poverty actually have working parents. Yet what we hear is the stigmatising of what the Victorians used to call the 'undeserving poor...'’
‘Public discourse is manipulated so that policy measures which penalise rather than help those in poverty are seen to be going with the grain of that public opinion...’
Stoller sums this up in terms of ‘political stereotyping’, which
‘blames poverty either on the individual or structural inequality, confuses welfare with poverty and fails to make the basic connections which underpin a true appreciation of the common good.’
It would be interesting to develop a wider critique of the persistent rhetoric of this government, including the use of the phrase 'hard-working families' which I mentioned previously; 'integration' as a replacement for 'cohesion'; 'doing the right thing’ as a moral justification for evidence-free whim; and the word 'heroes' used to help manage a delicately balanced political approach to the funding of defence.
The basic rationale was to test whether resident-run online neighbourhood networks could be established in low income neighbourhoods and if they could be shown to bring social benefits.
One of the sites, in Low Hill, Wolverhampton, has lost momentum but the work has given rise to other promising online activity on the estate. Two other sites – at Littlemoor near Weymouth, and the area around Lings Wood on the outskirts of Northampton - are stable although they struggle to sustain active participation. The fourth, based in three villages in north Shropshire, is recognised as a very successful initiative which quickly achieved stability.
The report adds weight to claims that local online channels can be established inexpensively in low income areas, that they can be made sustainable, and that they contribute to the quality of local social life.
The tension between privatising policies and public need has been given a welcome tightening twist with the launch of We Own it, a campaign website to counter the irresponsible privatisation of the public sector.
A few months ago I was wondering how much further the tension could be built. While we have plenty of evidence to contradict the ideology that the private sector is by definition more efficient than the public, we have no evidence to show that this government takes much notice of evidence.
Through an article by Polly Toynbee in the summer, I learned about a few examples of ‘in-sourcing’ by which some local authorities seem to be demonstrating the logic of taking certain functions back in house in the interests of efficiency and value.
Meanwhile our rail privatisation started to creak and then fell over. At least we’re having some kind of debate now. All stirred up by the demise of A4E and the bizarre example of Atos, the company which sub-contracted disability assessments back to the NHS.
Public libraries are part of this mix. Not only are they symbolic of what remains of the public realm: as I wrote here,
‘Once they're gone, it's not just hard to get the library service back: it will be that much harder to reinstate the notion of publicness.’
The We Own It site notes that, through privatisation, costs go up, services get worse, they are run by people who are not accountable, staff are undermined, and the whole nonsense is difficult to reverse. We have been watching the large-scale, systematic, ideologically-justified, evidence-defying manufacture of widespread social exclusion. Time to bring it to an end.
It seems to me that some of the language of political discourse is getting more and more dangerously partial. Of course, there's the usual propensity for manifest misrepresentation - the most exquisite example being Cameron's remark yesterday that - wait for it -
'it’s us, the modern compassionate Conservative party, who are the real champions of fighting poverty in Britain today.'
(Source, at 12.16)
You can take that as laughable or baroque or insulting, or all three and more, but it's so far from being a sensible reflection of the policies he is promoting that no-one's going to be too affected by it.
There's more serious, nasty abuse of language going on though. I particularly dislike the determined repetition of the phrase 'hard-working people' as if they are the only folk worthy of a government's attention. I pointed this out a few weeks ago and the number of mentions seems to keep increasing as the government seeks to justify the detachment of state support from those who do not have work.
If you've ever had a period of unemployment, you'll have a keen sense of just how insulting and degrading this attitude is. Norman Tebbitt achieved a comparable effect back in the 1980s with his line about how his father got on his bike and went looking for work. (So is that the end of the state's responsibility then? we all asked). It's divisive and in the long term pointlessly damaging.
Once again we are being offered persistently a language that constructs poverty as the fault of individuals, thereby implying that the state is absolved of the responsibility to provide opportunity or support for them. All of which is underpinned by an economic policy, such as it is, which is widely derided as misguided at best. What good can come of this?
I was reminded just yesterday that we’re well behind the Dutch in our thinking and action on this theme (although they have a general election coming up with plenty of potential to go backwards fast).
Nearly three years ago I remember offering a somewhat disillusioned post after running out of steam and failing to get anyone interested in the issue of neighbourly support. Even Age Concern, who had supported my research and publication, could muster no interest. At the time the problem seemed to be that the ageing agencies were all preoccupied with what they saw as the ‘countable’ issues of pensions and benefits. Crisis, what crisis?
The crunch may be not so much whether high quality research and policy advice emerges – it surely will – but whether JRF manage to get any purchase on policy itself. High stakes, in an ageing society with its formal support systems being rapidly dismantled.
‘Genuine respect for the law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard.’ George Gissing, The nether world (1889).
This is a rum old business, this news about criminalising squatters. When I was a kid I used to pass a squatted block of flats in Harrow, the outer wall painted in large letters - 'Your logic is a dog. And so am I.'
To try to be fair to the government: on the day the widely-decried regulation to criminalise squatters was publicised, they published sensible looking guidelines to help local authorities deal with 'rogue' landlords. Most of us wouldn’t have noticed.
The determination of the Haves to hound, punish and brutalise people in poverty seems to be taking on its own momentum, albeit with familiar rhetoric. Here, in the Ministry of Justice press release, are some of the words of the housing minister:
'For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.’
(I know, I know, the heart bleeds, sometimes some of them can’t decide which home to sleep in, it must be awful having to make your mind up).
But what is the word ‘hardworking’ doing in that sentence? How does the minister know that all those people who, for instance, have more housing than they need, and seek to make profit from it, are ‘hardworking’? It doesn’t follow. Could he possibly be using the term in order to establish some kind of moral distance, as part of the nasty rhetoric of marginalising the unemployed and the poor?
What struck me about the media coverage yesterday was that the government appeared to be more interested in publicising its bullying approach to the crime of squatting, so that people who have lots of property will feel there is justice for them (to go with the legislation they already have) than they were in offering a progressive approach to addressing problems associated with homelessness. Nothing, not a word, about bringing abandoned properties back into use, so that fewer people are forced onto the streets.
Whether or not there is a satisfactory strategy on homelessness, the driving assumption is that ‘the public’ want to hear that people who experience exclusion are being dealt with ‘firmly’, and never mind the consequences. That’s scary. It feeds into the accumulating mood of povertyism, which I described here as ‘straightforward nasty prejudice against a large class of people who, by inconsiderately not having much stuff, manage to make others uncomfortable about their own greed.’
A couple of articles have been published lately (BBC, Atlantic) based on some fascinating 2011 research by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely which looked at Americans’ perceptions of wealth and inequality (pre-pub copy available here).
They invited respondents on a ‘nationally representative online panel’ to say how much wealth they think is concentrated in each percentile from the poorest to the most wealthy. They found that respondents ‘dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality.’
The average estimate was nine per cent for the bottom two quintiles combined, and 59 per cent for the top 20 per cent. This contrasts starkly with the reality which is that the bottom 40 per cent of the population holds 0.3 per cent of the wealth, while the top quintile holds 84 per cent of the wealth.
This echoes UK findings. According to this Equality Trust paper, three quarters of us misperceive our economic position within British society.
‘Respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution.’
The black bars in this chart from the Atlantic show that people’s ‘ideal’ proportion of wealth for the highest quintile was only slightly more than half the estimated proportion, and much less than half the actual. (The 'actual' in the left hand columns is invisible because it is so small).
Yes indeed, 92 per cent of respondents did, and there was no significant difference in gender or income level among participants. Nor, strikingly, was there a significant difference between those who professed Republican sympathies and Democrats.
Notoriously, both the US and the UK have been getting more unequal for a long time. If nothing else, the debate around this research has to give a boost to the equality movement, because it implies that even those whose behaviour suggests they think they benefit from inequality, would prefer a more equal society. But. As one commentator put it:
'Americans' ignorance about wealth (and, probably, income) distribution is encouraging in the sense that it offers hope that most voters might opt for government policies more conducive to equality if only they knew how unequal things were. But it's dismaying in the sense that people who occupy a position of relative privilege seem to go out of their way to avoid acknowledging it.'
Maybe all it needs is for the right calibre of politicians to convert this knowledge into lasting change: is that too much to ask?
New figures from Shelter reveal worrying statistics that price families out of entering the property market in London. For most households the disparity between take home wage and cost of living is preventing them from saving up the equity to purchase a home, for others it’s the increased interests from overseas buyers pushing up the price.
These new figures revealed that for households to be comfortably renting a two bedroom home the total household income, before tax, needs to be £52,000. However the reality is that the average household takes home less than £35,000 in London. Furthermore in eight London boroughs, Shelter found that households would need to earn on average more than £60,000 before tax; this includes the boroughs of Islington and Tower Hamlets.
Nearly one in four families in London is now in private rental accommodation - a 70 per cent increase in private renting in the capital over the last two years, pushing up rental costs due to demand. This demand of private rental properties has helped inflate the price of rent in 2011 by 7 per cent, almost double the rate of inflation of the London average wage.
The spike in private renting is driven by the lack of affordable home ownership in London as well as overseas buyer interest and the long council waiting list for rented accommodation forcing more people to rent private properties, even if that rent is well above the affordable rent rate. This leaves many households at risk, with little money left over for other essentials such as food and clothing.
Overall Great Britain has some of the highest costs of housing in the EU, the third highest housing cost overburden rate with one in 6 people overburdened by living costs associated with the home.
Whilst traditional avenues of home ownership are on the decline, housing association projects such as a shared ownership scheme or part buy part rent mortgages are playing a more significant role in preventing families being priced out of England’s capital.
The G15, the largest group of independent housing associations in London, are hoping to ease this burden on families by providing around six in 10 of the new affordable homes in London over the next four years, helping to ease the demand on the private rental market.
Some of the houses will be available for shared ownership schemes, whereby 25 per cent to 75 per cent of the property is available to purchase at market value and a subsidised rent on the remaining share of the property until the property is bought outright. A part buy part rent mortgage is typically a 5 per cent deposit on the share of property bought. Part buy part rent mortgage schemes help families build up the equity to outright own the property they are renting.
There's been a surprising amount of recent commentary on the disturbances that took place in England a year ago. The fact that the social system is taking so long to heal illustrates clearly how sick it is.
Meanwhile the government bumbles on, not just generating inequality as fast as it can but also celebrating it. Witness the silly (and disproven) claims that state education does not produce Olympic winners because those on what are called 'the left' (apparently that term is regarded by people with expensive educations as a way of distinguishing something that is publicly funded) do not approve of competition. Reflecting on this tradition of misrepresentation I draw your attention to the way the rich and powerful historically commandeered phrases like 'fair play' while resolutely refusing to distinguish between fair and unfair competition. It's an imperialist thing, you have to invade and conquer a few countries over the centuries to know how to do it convincingly.
As if to prove the point about the disturbances, no sooner do Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson publish a straightforward article in Comment is Free than the trolls plunge in. If you have the stomach, try reading the first dozen or so responses. If you have the abs of an Olympian (irrespective of education) try going deeper.
About a year ago I suggested that those who were confounding explanation and excuse were best ignored until they’ve worked it out. It seems to be taking a while. Blaming youthful criminality and inadequate parenting doesn't get us very far. What's socially significant and really worthy of attention is the apparently high proportion of people who see that as the end of debate, 'pure and simple'.
For these people, there is no need to ask, or no point in seeking to understand, why levels of criminality and perceptions of poor parenting are so high in this country. In taking that stance, they appear to be at the same time condoning inequality and ignoring the evidence of its destructive effects. How many of them are climate change sceptics, I wonder?
Here’s a good example of the distortion that can happen in that murky space between research and policy.
There are purported to be between 117,000 and 120,000 'families with multiple problems'. Last week Louise Casey, the government’s adviser on ‘troubled families’, appeared to be basing policy on interviews with sixteen pre-selected families. Eight of the sixteen families had four or more children. Seven had five or more, while two families had nine and twelve children respectively. Were they representative, and if so, of what?
Inevitably, eyebrows are raised because we know how it works: you have a political steer and a theory – in this case, the sceptic might say, the theory concerns families that deviate from the Surrey-Oxfordshire norm, not least by being poor – and you find the evidence to support it.
This is also an example of the government's presented style of pragmatic understanding of issues: not unwelcome if done properly. Casey shows aggressive determination to be doing ‘the right thing’ (a favourite coalition hollow phrase) which is ‘to get our sleeves rolled up nationally, locally and in these people's lives.’ Many of those whose lives she wants to get stuck in and change
‘have large families and keep having children, often with different fathers, even if they are struggling to cope with the children they already have.’
Well, this government still funds independent researchers, I'm pleased to say, so let’s hear what one of them has to say, while we still can. In a paper on the ESRC’s Poverty and social exclusion website, Ruth Levitas summarises Casey’s presentation of the problem as
‘one of large families by multiple partners forming a burgeoning dysfunctional underclass resistant to reform.’
But Levitas says that from what we know of the sample, having ‘loads of children’ cannot be shown to be one of the characteristics of families with multiple problems. Nor are the children from these families ‘overwhelmingly likely to be involved in crime and anti-social behaviour or be excluded from school.’
The accepted definition of a family with multiple problems is one that has five of the following seven characteristics:
No parent in the family is in work;
Family lives in overcrowded housing;
No parent has any qualifications;
Mother has mental health problems;
At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
Family has low income (below 60% of median income);
Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.
So it’s reasonable to ask why Casey has picked out some other feature, assumed rather than evidence-based, on which to focus.
Some large families on low incomes, with or without multiple problems, will be trembling at her threatened approach, like aboriginals at the appearance of armed self-righteous missionaries. And the rest of us will continue to be subjected to the poisonous message that poor people who have lots of children are a burden, requiring a muscular 'sort-you-lot-out' approach from the haves.
I’ve been helping to process some material about the sense of exclusion, and experience of inclusion, felt by some young people who are disabled.
Among the striking findings was the extent to which noise and bustling rowdiness in public places and public transport can be very off-putting for these young people. Some find the prospect of a noisy crowded bus, swimming pool or youth club too challenging to use, and that's important to know. As one put it tellingly, ‘I feel quite discluded’.
At first I felt quite stunned by this remarkable article in The Atlantic Cities the other day. Sometimes it’s good to be silenced by what some people can achieve.
The Skid Row Housing Trust develops, manages and operates homes for the homeless of Los Angeles. Increasingly, the trust is building its own developments. Buildings that do not look like the image of social housing that mostly we’ve learned to accept. The trust has got to the point where sought-after architects are working in partnership with them, with striking results.
Staff member Theresa Hwang is quoted in the article as saying:
‘Architecture really helps sometimes by showing it's not a 'homeless project,' it's not a shelter. It’s an apartment building.’
‘The technology makes participation easier for most, but it does not affect the underlying behaviours and values that really motivate people to get involved.’
Meanwhile we’ve seen the publication in the US of an e-democracy.org report on an ‘inclusive social media’ project in two ‘high-immigrant, low-income, racially and ethnically diverse urban neighbourhoods’ in Minneapolis-St Paul. Some of the lessons here are about how digital conversations are seeded, and the need to have someone on the ground for a few hours a week stimulating interest face-to-face and online.
But it can be hard to get sites flourishing. There are real challenges to do with understanding marginalisation. Sometimes people who experience exclusion may perceive what others might think of as ‘empowering’ opportunities, with indifference.
Hugh Flouch and I have just published a review of the reports, with thoughts on the issues, over on the Networked Neighbourhoods blog.
The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level for 30 years.
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I’ve been co-authoring a report on a ‘young inspectors’ project in East Sussex. It has been revelatory for several reasons, two of which I’ll mention here.
The project involved training and support by participation workers for eight young people with a mix of disabilities, to carry out inspections of public venues and services. They inspected an outdoor activities centre, the catering service at that centre, a youth centre and a public library. This was the second such programme in East Sussex.
The report describes the significant benefits both to the inspected agencies and to the young inspectors, especially in terms of self esteem, skills and employability. My conversations with some of the young people, and telephone interviews with some of their parents, showed that for most if not all, the impact for them has been transformational.
One young woman hinted that ‘bad things’ had happened to her, and said that she was always ‘very shy in school’ and used to put herself down a lot:
‘Now I’m loud at home, more confident, I don't need any help in any lessons… It's made me feel more special in a way, I speak more in class, I'm more confident in what I do.’
The father of a young man who experienced intense anxieties and phobias, reflected in very low self-esteem, told me that the project had ‘helped him to overcome his fears and helped him to go to places.’ Simple things like having a clipboard and a badge helped his sense of identity enormously.
Two things in particular resonate with the work I have been doing in the east of England with young people looked after (eg).
One is just to do with the inclusive diversity of the group. The age range was from 12 years to about 20 years. I suggest that a bunch of relatively privileged young people, covering that age range, is quite likely to be hard to handle; but not this lot. Just as with the diverse groups of young people looked after that I’ve observed, they are dependably mutually supportive and tolerant. They’re an inspiration and the rest of us can learn from the way they unfussily co-operate to overcome difficulties.
The second point is a consideration of the costs and benefits of a project like this. In our evaluation of work with museums and young people looked after, Martin Dudley and I found that significant personal benefits accrued to the participants, reliably and sustainably, for around £30 per young person per hour. A typical programme in that field might run for say 15 hours, and this is quality, skilled work we’re talking about: in terms of funding, you’d think it was a no-brainer.
The same goes for the young inspector programme. Some of these young people had serious challenges in their lives, which might leave them marginalised and not in a position to contribute to society. The benefits were consistently attained and the risks of failure were low. The estimated cost to the state of providing these benefits was just over £3,000 per young person for the whole programme – and that cost is likely to fall of course as practise and familiarity develop. Even if only half of them establish a participation career and/or become employable and contribute socially and economically, that represents exceptional value.
It’s another uncontentious low-risk opportunity for social investment. What chance policy makers spotting that?
Being a neighbour is not necessarily straightforward: managing the relationships can be tricky and stressful. Those of us who have positive, easy-going relationships with our neighbours have much to be thankful for, the value of which is easily overlooked.
One of the problems in engaging with any neighbour at a mutually-acceptable level on the spectrum between provocatively negative and intrusive, is to assess the other’s communication impulse and readiness. Somehow you have to find out where they are on the scale between ‘gab about everything endlessly’ to stubborn dull silence about most aspects of life as it passes by; and they have to do the same for you.
At any point on this range, but especially at the extremes, your neighbour could be someone with mental health problems. And as Clare Allan suggests in a Guardian article today that I encourage you to read,
‘in the age of the "big society", professional support is being cut dramatically. Situations such as this are going to become ever more common.’
So are we ready for it, as a moderately-sized society? How good are we at connecting at the right level – not too close, not too easily drawn-in, but close enough to react fast in case of real need - with neighbours whose mental health is not what it might be? It’s hard to think of anything more important to get right, at local level; but I fear there will be many tales of avoidance, misapprehension, ignorance and recoil.
‘People come together through day-to-day activities, not 'integration projects' which too often feel irrelevant and prove unsustainable… Central to this will be ensuring that the integration benefits of programmes and projects are recognised and supported.’
These sentences come from a paper on Creating the conditions for integration published yesterday by DCLG. They suggest, first, that the government recognises the value of interactions in everyday life, so it must place value on a public realm where such integration can be stimulated and take place. That's a relief, the sceptic might have been wondering.
Secondly it suggests that the government values the evaluation and demonstration of 'integration benefits' where they can be shown to have occurred. That's good too ain't it?
The paper raises a few other points. First – I don’t think I have a problem with using the word integration rather than, say, cohesion (which is what we’d have expected in the past): but it might be interesting to ask why, why the change in vocabulary? At the Institute of Community Cohesion, they know about some of this stuff: do they feel snubbed, I wonder?
Second – is there an understanding that social injustice, poverty and unequal access to power and influence might be critical barriers to integration and should be part of the equation? (Answer, no).
Third – at least three times in the paper the following phrase is used: ‘We want to hear further ideas for action…’ but there is no channnel offered, no named author with contact details on the document, only the switchboard number for the entire department. Somebody’s not being sincere.
And on the question of social justice, here’s some curious news. A week ago the DWP set up a survey to help define social justice (be quick if you want to catch that link):
'The government will shortly publish a social justice strategy paper, detailing a new approach to it. This will define what social justice means to the government, and principles and current practice underlying activity in this area. The government would like to know what social justice means to different stakeholder organisations, so would like organisations to complete a short survey.'
If you follow the link now, this (at the moment) is what you see:
This survey is no longer available.
Please contact ( ) for further assistance..
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ‘social exclusion’ was, rightly in my view, a major political issue in the UK and the theme under which a good deal of positive social change came about. But I sense that the concept is being replaced in our vocabulary by increasingly assertive discussion about ‘social inequality’.
Two recent examples may in time come to illustrate this. Yesterday we had the director general of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, unhappy that Sir Fred Goodwin, former boss of RBS, had been stripped of his knighthood:
“To do it because … you don’t approve of someone, you think they have done things that are wrong but actually there is no criminality … is inappropriate."
So he still doesn’t get it, and shouldn’t be surprised if he is stripped of any credibility he may have had.
My dad was a bank manager. He would have been appalled at the crass contortions being attempted by financial services cronies trying to justify their greed at the expense of several million other people. The ramifications of the behaviour of people like Goodwin, who arrogantly remoulded their roles in crude attempts to exclude social responsibility from banking when, as my dad would have observed, it is fundamental and ineluctable, are causing widespread poverty, stress and grief.
But today we heard from someone who sounds a little more grown up, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank, who warned of a 'social time-bomb' from wealth and income inequality. Let’s be thankful that this man has shown awareness and a willingness to speak out. Who knows, he could start a trend.
And maybe the money from the RBS chairman's declined bonus could go towards copies of The spirit level given to people like Goodwin and Walker and thousands like them, as part of mandatory workshops run by the Equality Trust? It would be good to see them shamed into learning something.
Social exclusion as a principle theme of policy emerged from long-standing debates in Europe about poverty in the 1980s, which mattered because they expanded to include other forms of exclusion. Will something similar happen with ‘social inequality’, which is emerging in the context of 'public concern' about relative wealth? Social inequality is not just about wealth, is it? When do we get to the bit about power?
When I dropped out of school and went into ‘the world of work’, as it used to be called, I remember being disturbed by the fact that the education system left me utterly ignorant of what government and local government do, and what taxation is for. It looks like things have got little better, in spite of the introduction of citizenship to the curriculum.
Yup, it’s time for a bit of seasonal gloom, with the British Social Attitudes report published today and plenty of publicity given to this statistic:
The proportion who think we should pay (more) taxes to improve health and education and social benefits is only 30% in England, 40% in Scotland. A decade ago it was 60% in both nations. (BBC)
Like a separating galaxy, it looks like we are moving at speed away from the traditional civilising notion of the ‘common weal’. (In case you missed it, here’s the link to requirements for people who don’t want to pay taxes).
Do people who think like this imagine, for instance, that business could function without publicly maintained roads and systematically tested vehicles, or a managed wider economy? Or that the police could maintain order without some sort of funding; or that the food and water they consume could be guaranteed to be hygienic without public agencies? Perhaps it does not occur to them?
Ah wait, perhaps what really bugs them is that poverty is self-imposed, not structural:
63% believed parents who don't want to work were to blame for children living in poverty.
I suggest you blink hard, and re-read that figure: almost two thirds.
According to Mark Easton on the BBC site today, the UK ‘has long been the most judgmental of the needy in Europe.’ In a way, that’s a relief; but yes we do seem determined, disastrously, to become more and more like the US. Income inequality is increasing, with a government apparently comfortable with polarisation. And we seem to be a bit angry too.
Dark age ahead, as Jane Jacobs warned. Jane listed five pillars of culture including ‘taxes and governmental powers that are directly in touch with needs and possibilities’. But civilisation will pay a heavy price if too few citizens really appreciate what they’re for.
The other day I had the chance to tag along with what might have looked like just a bunch of loosely-supervised youngsters wandering about in the countryside. It happened to be one of the most impressive social inclusion projects I've ever seen.
There were half a dozen young people in care, aged between about 13 and 19 - at least one of them in a residential home, the others having varied histories with foster carers. Through the youth council and the museums service they were involved in a week-long programme of events exploring how the Norfolk countryside has changed as a consequence or cause of social change.
The project began last Monday with the participants viewing a series of dioramas at Norwich Museum, which represent recognisable Norfolk scenes. None of the dioramas features any human beings. One of them shows the wildlife on the marshland around the coast at Blakeney, a village which has grown around a number of cottages built from the local flint.
Visiting Blakeney themselves, the young people spent time reflecting on the kinds of people who would have lived there in the past, their livelihoods based on fishing; and on the kinds of people who live there now (the house prices are an indicator of the now-classic scenario in which less-affluent local people who have looked after their local environment for centuries are abruptly priced out of their area). I understand that there is little or no fishing based in Blakeney now, but there is a tourist industry based on seal-watching from nearby Blakeney Point. There are insights here about human involvement in the changing environment, which were readily absorbed and discussed by the young participants through the week.
Another of the dioramas features a 'loke', which is a regional term for a country lane enclosed on both sides by vegetation. Lokes would have been used heavily over the centuries, often marking parish boundaries, and might well have sunk gradually below the level of adjacent fields.
While I was there on Thursday, two or three geocaches were traced in lokes, and I was struck by the young people's appetite for knowledge about wildlife and landscape even while a series of treasure-hunting games was being played. When I was their age, me and my mates would have been relentless in our determination to disrupt the entire process, and I for one would have learned nothing.
All the same, I found the ease with which they mastered global positioning technology too much of a contrast with the difficulties these young people have faced and will continue to face in locating themselves. Unlike their settled peers, they are ceaselessly navigating through many uncertainties.
The subtle excellence of this project is worth dwelling on, at the start of national adoption week. They're still too rare, but you can find initiatives like this in the public sector - it might be through sports and leisure, museums, libraries, youth services or wherever - often with little recognition and against excessive management constraints. It takes exceptional people working in partnership with other committed individuals, all well beyond the call of duty, to bend those constraints and pull off this kind of programme. The benefits to the young people are almost tangible, but try telling that to the politicians and accountants.
As in previous work where I've been talking to young people looked after, I was struck by their easy readiness to talk among themselves (even though in most cases they had not met before) about the experience of being looked after. Much of the time they feel so different to other kids and cannot share that experience, so these occasions are particularly valuable, liked cached treasure.
It was enchanting to listen in on a conversation about globalisation and capitalism as we took our lunch on benches in a church porch (in modest reference to the protest outside St Paul's). And it's striking how sensitive they are to how others might be feeling. Mainly towards the other youngsters around them, but also to the adults. As soon as I joined them in the minibus I was offered sweets and as we wandered round I was twice asked by one lad I'd barely met 'You alright Kevin?' Yes, I most definitely was. I don't earn much doing what I do, but I have some extraordinary privileges.
We know that neighbourhood characteristics influence health but we don't know quite how or how much. Here's a study which used a random lottery to give selected low income families a voucher to move to a less-impoverished neighbourhood. Apparently it shows that
'low-income women with children who move from high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods experience notable long-term improvements in some aspects of their health, namely reductions in diabetes and extreme obesity.'
Yes I think so too, it would be a good idea to start eradicating neighbourhoods characterised by extreme poverty in the first place. I can see how doing that might reduce poor health and therefore costs to the taxpayer.
It would be nice not to need studies like this, but in the meantime it's important to have the evidence. And I like the idea of the randomised study.
What can politicians do about their own lack of popularity? Quite reasonably the BBC is taking a look at political cynicism, but it's a bit of a struggle when the leader of the UK opposition reveals the thinking to which he is prepared to commit the Labour Party. According a PA press release this morning, Mr Miliband will say in his party conference speech that
'councils should give priority in allocating scarce social housing to people who work and contribute to their communities over benefit claimants and trouble tenants.'
'Benefit claimants?' You mean, there are people who have needs and the state is supporting them? How did that happen?
Listen, Ed, if you have a problem with people claiming benefit, why not just go the whole way and say you'll scrap the welfare system?
Believe it or not, there are many people claiming benefits who make huge contributions to local quality of life, through community action, caring, neighbourliness and informal support as well as volunteering, which would put the efforts of most politicians to shame.
'This particular interviewee explains in detail her love of running, and describes the geography of her neighbourhood, distinguished by a letterbox at the end of the road. Such are the gendered and social constraints imposed by other residents of the refugee camp, however, in a place where there is little privacy, that she is forced to run round and round the flat roof of her building instead of down the road, with her husband measuring out the distance in recognisable terms. 'Have I reached the post-box yet?' she reports herself asking, imagining that she is in fact running along the road outside her house, an activity forbidden to her because she is a woman.'
K.H.Adler, in 'Gendering histories of homes and homecomings', in this volume, referring to a video art project by Palestinian architect Sandi Hilal called Roofs: public private open spaces in the camp. According to this note the project was 'produced in a refugee camp in Hebron on the West Bank in cooperation with UNRWA [The United Nations Relief and Works Agency] and the University of Stuttgart.'
The image is from the Occupied Palestine blog.
There's a lot of rumour flying around about Emma Harrison and I'm not sure I trust much of it. But because she's rich, I'm afraid she has to be subject to exactly the same prejudice that I apply to all rich people.
Emma is allegedly a multimillionaire who allegedly knows how to relate to families which have no-one in employment, and persuade them into work. She's a godsend then for millionaire members of government who grasp things more readily, shall we say, when they are articulated by other millionaires. Her plan is by no means foolish: it involves training 'champions' to engage with such families, apparently in an openly coercive manner, if I can put it like that.
Her company A4E, with government funding (ah you knew I'd mention that didn't you) isn't trying to do community development, it's trying to hit the 'problem' of families without employment, through persuasion. But of course a family without employment is not a single issue, it's a complex mess of tangled, knotted, social and bureaucratic confusions. Oh well never mind that. Maybe we're wrong, and these folk just need a good talking to from a successful entrepreneur.
Many people will only have heard about Emma through an embarassingly inept interview by Justin Webb on the Today programme last week. I must admit I squirmed. If you want to know more, keep an eye on Watching A4E.
Now here's an excellent, penetrating post by Mark Gamsu which tries to get at the gap between the awkward touchy-feely complexities of community development and the apparent crisp simplifications of Emma Harrison's approach. Do try to read it if you can spare five minutes.
I've seen similar tensions created many times over the years, by very articulate persuasive people who grotesquely over-simplify a set of complex social issues - objectifying the victims in the process - and for that very reason attract the attention of politicians. And funding. (I'd like to say at this point 'You know who you are!' But they don't of course).
One day it might really work, then we'll all be in for a shock.
Could this just be coincidence? Research carried out for Regeneration & renewal by Experian, reported here, shows that '71 per cent of riots occurred in local authority districts ranked in the bottom 10 per cent for social cohesion.'
In most of the areas people who have been trying to make a difference will be disheartened by conclusions like this, although my recollection of the Experian Mosaic system is that it is surprisingly specific.
According to the article, we're talking about
'some of the most disconnected communities in the country'.
That's 'disconnected' in terms of local social relations; maybe not in terms of the reportedly heavy use of Blackberry Messenger by a small proportion. And probably not at all connected in terms of the kinds of social capital we know can be generated by online neighbourhood networks.
Say, here's an idea. Why don't we invent some shared ways of bringing people together at local level to stimulate cohesion and involvement, and help people to influence the decision-making processes that affect them? We could call it, oh I don't know, something like 'community development', how does that sound?
It could be exactly the sort of thing the government would be interested in supporting, especially since it's a lot less expensive than having disconnected communities.
So what have we learned?
‘My clothes stank of smoke and I wanted to weep with rage at a society that has disenfranchised so many for so long while brainwashing several generations of children to want, want, want.’ (Hayley Matthews, Guardian, 10 August 2011)
1. The past week’s disorders in English cities involved a range of different behaviours – collective protest, rioting, wanton violence, vandalism, arson, intimidation, theft, opportunistic looting, and organised looting. A wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities were involved. So it’s obviously rash to generalise. But that wouldn’t stop the dominant broadcast media and politicians from insisting on doing so. TV presenters have been taking it in turns to ask ‘Who’s to blame?’ As if it were a quiz question. The bland insistence on over-simplifying complex issues is irresponsible and contributes to the problem.
2. It’s perverse that anyone seeking to understand what has happened should feel the need to use phrases like ‘I’m not excusing’ or ‘not condoning, but...’. (Will Davies has some words about this). The Kneejerk Right got lathered up quickly in confounding explanation and excuse. They’re best ignored until they’ve worked this bit out.
And really, is it too much to ask, for the sake of a healthy polity, that more of those on the right might have made some contribution to the discussion of context and understanding, instead of stamping their feet with the predictable apoplectic response of defiant property-owners, visibly salivating at the prospect of locking people up and blaming parents? For the first few days, nothing but blunt mentalities offering crunch responses. It would have been refreshing to have a few voices from the right showing readiness to think about social issues beyond the principles of condemnation and punishment.
3. Those who were rioting and looting showed complete contempt for moral standards. In this respect, sadly, they can be compared directly with numerous parliamentarians; some very influential bankers; various motley journalists and newspaper editors; an undisclosed number of senior police officers; a sparkling array of corporate executives; empty celebrities (like Russell ‘bang pregnant’ Brand - inexplicably given airspace on this topic by the Guardian the other day); and a scary number of catholic priests.
What was shocking about the rioters and looters was that apparently they didn’t pretend to have moral standards. In this respect they differed from the above.
It might also be noted that most of them had little or no power or influence in society, nor, in most cases, much prospect of that. Again, in this respect they differed from the above.
4. Sadly, determined to be an international embarassment, our prime minister jumped straight into the ‘simple criminality’ camp. Pointlessly appointing a US supercop for obscure reasons was a masterstroke. Not just an undisguised insult to the police – it should go down really well with the community development workers, community activists and youth workers who could help him and his out-of-depth Home Secretary to understand what things are like at local level. Nice one Dave.
5. I want to make a point about wildness. One interpretation of the tensions of social behaviour is that people have to be encouraged away from selfishness. This argument sees selfishness as a fundamental human attribute (which may have been necessary, for the earlier survival of the species); and the behavioural norms, coercive processes and institutions of society have evolved to keep the selfish impulse in check. Government is impossible unless most citizens exercise self-discipline; it depends on encouraging people to control their own behaviours. From time to time wildness bursts through, and we are forced to do a bit of maintenance on our social processes. The best source I know of, for thinking about violent irrational behaviour, is an absorbing work by Mattijs van de Port, Gypsies, wars and other instances of the wild, which I have referred to previously. To adapt slightly what I wrote then:
‘those of us who try to pronounce on [these events] simply from a position of civilised comfort, seem to do so with pitifully inadequate appreciation of the thirst for sensation, the seduction of chaos, the persistence of the primitive, what van de Port calls 'the choice of irrationality,' the comforting adoption of the barbaric, the suspension of civilisation, 'an affinity with some pre-cultural state,' the impermanence of our own truths and values.’
6. It seems to be the case that many young people were involved in the disturbances. The debate has lacked not only appreciation of wildness but also reference to young people’s need to disrupt things. That is what young people do: get used to it. A responsible society will find ways to help this process take place creatively and without negative consequences – in sporting encounter, in adventure, in semi-formal flexible environments like youth centres, by giving young people space without obsessive surveillance or devious assimilation. What chance is there now that our society’s neurotic control-freakery towards young people can be cured?
7. And so, a week on, we come to the usual strident calls for more responsible parenting and the perennial determination to ‘improve’ or ‘repair’ social connections at neighbourhood level.
About six years ago a bloke called Blair launched a policy initiative around the theme of ‘respect’. I pulled together contributions from some calibre people I happened to know and edited a book called Respect in the neighbourhood, which looked at various aspects of local social relations and civil behaviour. Very few people seem to have taken any notice of it, which I suppose is mildly disappointing, because the questions we addressed keep coming up. What strikes me by way of explanation, is the likelihood that most people think they already know what needs to be known about local social relations. They don’t want telling; especially if the answer isn’t simple.
About a year ago I was driven round parts of Tottenham and Edmonton by a local ward councillor, Zena Brabazon, for whom I have enormous respect. Of all the many difficult areas I've been to with an informed guide, in the UK and elsewhere, this one struck me for the layers of exclusion that were identified. Ethnically-concentrated poverty overlaid by invisible drugs networks and pseudo-religious networks with secret power in the housing market. Of course it was a short and cursory introduction, but for once I couldn't see where you might even start.
Her partner Alan Stanton has posted a poignant note from Zena who is pictured here. She reflects on the fact that a wrist-watch that she was given by fellow council workers, was in for repair in a shop that burned down in one of the riot fires:
'Following the riot it feels that it'll take years to repair the damage done to Tottenham this weekend. Those who burned buildings, made people homeless, smashed windows, destroyed businesses and jobs did not act or speak for "the community". Thousands of people in Tottenham make efforts everyday to improve and build a real community, Over the years we've all tried to repair the damage suffered by residents. Like my watch, that melted last night and now we have to start again.'
Here's a curiosity. Ryan Shorthouse in Prospect magazine has a go at both Philip Blond (Red Toryism) and Maurice Glasman (Blue Labour - you still with me?) for their 'nostalgia for a "golden age" of British communities'. Quite right too.
[Start of short Kev rant, partly lifted from a forthcoming paper] The contemporary media-political rhetoric is partly problematic because it finds 'community' historically still within reach, through the living-memory images from the nostalgia industry. (I often think we would gain greater insight discussing the assumed decline of neighbourliness in early modern England). Our politicians and journalists invite us to do penance before the curling monochrome prints of streets where doors were always left open and everyone knew everyone. The problem is not that this mythology is entirely misleading – it isn’t, not entirely - but that it is packaged as universally flawless, implicitly recoverable, and key to the resolution of expensive problems of social policy. For politicians and political commentators to peddle this rhetoric uncritically is either ignorant or disingenuous. [Rant ends].
Perversely, Shorthouse ends his article by claiming that market forces and private capital
'could sustain and improve public services that people rely on. Revitalised community life will only really come from improving the skills of individuals: boosting education levels and improving employability, for instance.'
Well, and one or two other things we can all think of. A reliable economy would help, one that is not held to ransom by the Tories' dear friends in the financial sector and rescued at the cost of public services that are used by people who happen to be below their lofty field of vision. Meanwhile we all have to be patient while the current experiment in 'progressive conservatism' demonstrates quite how education levels and employability will be boosted by cutting education funding and closing libraries.
Call me old fashioned, but I too think that it's in society's interests for people to associate more, and more pro-socially, at local level. But we're not likely to achieve that with the current vicious assault on the public realm or by decimating services that people need just to give them the strength to reflect on their own circumstances.
I do this because I'm aware that children in care have a high likelihood of delayed development and consequent disadvantage; and because early gains in speech and language can be of critical importance in later development. I'm helping to care for a baby who could easily get left behind if he doesn't get plenty of face-to-face communication right now. This kind of effort to compensate for disadvantage is routine in foster care.
But through a compelling piece on R4's Today programme this morning we learn that a noticeable proportion of children are starting school without knowing their own names, or in some cases not knowing that they have a name. How excluded can you get?
Once I ponder the implications of that in terms of sense of identity - let alone the development of communication skills - I find it scary, and feel ashamed of our society. One example given in the article referred to a parent who simply didn't know that you can talk to a child before they can talk back to you:
'he don't talk to me, so I don't talk to him'.
Some attempt was made lamely to blame contemporary media for this state of affairs. But Jean Gross, who has the great job title of 'the government's communication champion for children,' referred to young parents lacking contact with other adults of different generations.
And I think it might be worth asking about the sometimes-missing contribution of the extended family, intergenerational relations at neighbourhood level, and the impact of poor housing design. Where someone's immediate environment seriously discourages them from stepping out with their baby or toddler, and diminishes the likelihood of conversational encounters with others in the nieghbourhood if they do so, the reduction to silence and hence namelessness may be understandable.
Neighbourhood natter about parenting may not always be packed with wisdom, but at least there's a good chance that names will be exchanged.
Blaming the media and blaming the parents is way too easy. We need also to think about how parenthood is affected by the social and environmental character of our neighbourhoods, and what can be done about that.
It also strikes me that we bring a legitimate urgency to our calls for people to check on their elderly neighbours, especially in winter: surely a similar urgency should apply to connecting with parents of children who are in the fragile early spring of life.
The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University has published the final report of their study of low income neighbourhoods.
It’s an important body of work, mainly qualitative and thus sitting most obviously alongside Anne Power’s City survivors as a source of stories and quotes.
At the same time, JRF have published a paper prepared by some of the researchers and based on the same study, which looks at current social policies and assesses their potential impact on residents living in the neighbourhoods studied. The paper explores some of the underlying assumptions in the new policy agenda. (Summary here).
It’s a smart move, let’s hope this latter paper has some impact. The key message seems to be this:
There was little evidence in the research of any fault line between ‘cohesive’ and ‘broken’ communities, of places somehow set apart from ‘the rest of us’. Place still matters and, as a rule, neighbourhood mattered most to people where both the economic legacy and future prospects for their community were least favourable.
The authors stress the role of social housing -
neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of social housing often provided households with an island of stability in an ocean of turbulence (not least in the jobs market).
They go on to ask,
what happens to those communities that are facing structural economic weakness but where countervailing systems of mutual support and resilience have also become attenuated over time – those at the end of the economic line – if the opportunities for economic growth lie elsewhere?
As far as neighbouring is concerned, two familiar points are re-confirmed: that neighbouring is not the same as friendship; and not everyone wants to invest in neighbourliness. But there is one pertinent point that is very well-made in the main research report, concerning the extent to which so many people on low-incomes are both time-poor and cash-poor.
This point needs making with research to back it up, because policy too often implies that people in poverty have time on their hands while worthier citizens are busy driving the economy and bringing up more worthy citizens. Lack of time and energy constrains people’s ability to get involved in co-production or civic action or in strengthening their social networks. Here’s one quote that illustrates the way in which this plays out in neighbourhood relations:
No I don’t want to be going round for cups of tea and that kind of thing... I think it’s important to say hello and recognise each other but… there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to socialise with the people I socialise with, family and friends as it is… and it’s just trying to find time to do the laundry and keep the house tidy as well as everything else.
And finally while I remember it, for the record, there’s one point in one of the research papers which doesn’t seem to have made it into the final report, concerning the negative effect of declined neighbourly overtures:
I tried to make friends with these neighbours but they won’t so I left it at that so basically. I don’t know anybody in this street unless somebody dies and ‘oh her name was Mary’ or something… it’s not like you would go out and knock on the neighbour’s door and say ‘hello can I borrow a cup of sugar’. I even started that when I first come over here, I cook and I would take plate of samosas or whatever to the neighbours and so I stopped and I just keep to myself….people keep to themselves, they don’t have the time… I think people are busy, they don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to bother, because I’ve got two neighbours here, they’re both the same, don’t want to know. So I gave up.
I’m reminded of a very similar sense that Toby Gale and I got from talking to refugees and asylum seekers (case study 3) for the Manchester neighbourliness review.
The silencing of the unanswered voice is probably quite prevalent, if we did but know it, and obviously damaging. How might it be countered? Thinking up lots of formal devices like street parties is only a partial solution at best, not just because not everyone is comfortable with them but also because they overplay expectations of neighbouring and try to coerce us into chumminess, whether false or not. So we have to fall back on all the old key drivers like design, occupation of streets, locality of services and amenities, limited churn, and so on. Oh, and neighbourhood online channels of course.