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.
CYP Now reports that the number of young people aged 16 to 24 who have been accepted as homeless by councils has 'risen by 15 per cent over the past year, according to latest government figures.'
This is scary. The increase is expected to continue and it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to anticipate serious further consequences for these young people over time. The charity Centrepoint notes that 'the actual increase could be far greater' and says
'the figures show the effect [that] public sector cuts, poor job prospects and price rises are having on young people and families.'
The Guardian has a piece today on the more general homelessness figures, but otherwise they seem to have been passed over by most of our broadcast media. Why?
And I don't have a lot of confidence that this government will regard these figures as a matter of concern until it's way too late. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but would you put your trust in the eight ministers who form the Ministerial working group on preventing and tackling homelessness?
Last year I worked with Rebecca Linley and Martin Dudley on an evaluation of museum-based activities with children and young people looked after, and we were surprised by and impressed with the outcomes that we found.
These are young people who either experience exclusion or are at risk of being excluded from many social and economic opportunities and benefits. The work is empowering because it targets young people’s options for empowering themselves.
The observations and interviews were instructive in helping us appreciate some of the nuances of inclusion. In one instance a fairly withdrawn young man was ‘drawn in’ by the others in the group in sessions he attended. They arranged to meet up independently and invited him along. His carer told us that he did not mention it at the time and so he did not go. Her interpretation was that
‘inclusion has never happened to him before.’
These were initiatives designed exclusively for children or young people who are looked after. They were based in museums (although several initiatives involved extra-mural visits), and involved some kind of activity (usually both group and individual activity) such as drama, design, craft etc. The activities varied in number of sessions and duration, from a single to fifteen sessions and from 90 minutes to five and a half hours. The age range was 7-17 years.
We argue that the activities are low risk and inexpensive; not addressing the young people’s needs is high risk and expensive.
About ten years ago in community development and policy circles there were lots of conversations about using social network analysis to get at understandings of 'community' and thereby contribute to policy. To their credit, folk at the RSA just got on and did it, and have now published the second report of their Connected communities project.
This one is called Power lines and looks at social exclusion in terms of isolation from networks of influence and power. The report suggests that
'people feel a greater sense of empowerment if they have a larger and more varied number of local connections and relationships.'
Social networks reflect the ways power plays out, so that influence accumulates from influential connections, and exclusion accumulates from weakness of social ties.
Hence the authors' recommendation that local public bodies should assess their funding for community groups on the contribution that groups make 'to building stronger, more diverse social networks.'
'In particular, initiatives should seek to connect those who are currently isolated or at risk, with others.'
The hard bit is working out how. There's plenty to build on, and firm justification. Asif Afridi, in a review for JRF published in March, suggests three main ways in which social networks can address poverty:
Understandably, the report does not dwell on what it means to have or not have a sense of influence and empowerment. But it provokes questions for me, which I'm not sure have been answered in previous work either in this project or for instance by MORI (Searching for the impact of empowerment) or in the important National Empowerment Partnership paper (which I discussed about a year ago)...
To begin with, who wants to have influence? What do we know about the sort of people for whom it does or doesn't matter to be able to influence policy?
And then I suppose I'd like to know, is wanting to have influence associated with believing you have influence? Are there survey data that tell us who says they want to have influence; and a comparable data set that tells us who thinks they have influence? Looking at that would be a start, after which we should maybe see if we can find out who actually exerts influence.
Finally, two quick reminders. Using social network analysis to help understand meanings of 'community' is not new. For instance, it's been used in the debate about the idealisation of late medieval English villages as harmonious close-knit communities. People were found to have manifold external connections, which tells us a little about our assumptions of levels of cohesion in the past - and maybe hints at unrealistic expectations in the present.
And it's worth remembering that Geoff Mulgan was writing about network poverty in relation to digital technologies as long ago as 1990, possibly earlier. Notwithstanding the pioneering work of people like Barry Wellman and Keith Hampton, and the important contribution that the Connected communities project is making, we maybe should have got further by now.
There seems to be a widespread assumption that loneliness is increasing. The Mental Health Foundation's excellent report last year suggested as much but does not seem to confirm it. I think we should be alert but sceptical.
As it happens, with a little time to do some catching up over the past few days, I've managed to read one of Keith Hampton's recent papers, on the relationship of internet and mobile phone use to network size and diversity. Among the points made with characteristic thoroughness are the following:
The Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme includes a question about new media, but JRF's approach to technology has always been tentative, not to say reluctant. It would be good if they would grab the initiative in this case, and really open up the potential here. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the evidence on local online channels gives us plenty to go on.
Via Children and Young People Now, I pick up news that the excellent Child Poverty Action Group is relentlessly fighting the corner. CPAG has launched a legal challenge to the government's controversial welfare and housing benefit reforms.
No-one can really have been surprised that this government came up with measures to segregate, corral and punish the people they despise for being poor. CPAG chief exec Alison Garnham is quoted:
'It is not right that families living in certain areas, especially larger families, are punished and pushed aside while parts of Britain become enclaves for the privileged.
'Children will be forced to move away from schools, friends, neighbourhoods and family. For some this may include moving away from another parent, most often their dad.'
I hope this one doesn't fade quickly: a thorough, well-publicised challenge to expose systematic social injustice will be welcome.
The other night I sat in on a session with four boys who are looked-after, attending a museum-based programme in an English town. It’s a super project which they began some weeks ago, looking at the topic of public campaigns. They've gone on to design various elements (T shirts, badges, posters, bags, drama) of a campaign of their own choice, namely anti-racism.
The boys are all aged about 12 and you can be sure none has had an easy childhood. The conversation was all over the place and the behaviour relentlessly disruptive, but sporadically they discussed the topic with impressive maturity.
One lad said with unfussed confidence that if he was asked to speak about racism, he would talk in terms of objectification. There are five more syllables there than his peers are usually comfortable with in one blast. Without pausing, he told us all precisely what he meant by that – treating people of different ethnic groups as if they were objects.
This young black man is growing up in a town which today will host a march and demonstration by an overtly racist group of people who simply are not in his league.
I think I'm not the only commentator who has remained neither inspired nor gobsmacked by the publication of the Localism Bill.
This is partly because so much of it was thoroughly trailed beforehand, and partly because, well, it doesn't seem to be nearly as radical as we had been led to believe. Shades of the Empowerment white paper a few years ago. Perhaps that is why the gloomy news about funding arrangements for local councils was released at the same time.
I will be most curious about CLG's 'barrier-busting' initiative, described as follows:
'Some local authorities want to deliver public services in new ways. Others are keen to do new things, such as invest in small-scale green energy. And volunteers, community groups and social enterprises of many kinds would like to play a bigger role in local life.
But sometimes barriers get in the way. Red tape, rules and regulations stop people putting good ideas into action. Not only is this frustrating – it means that local people miss out.
The barrier busting team is here to help. We want to help you get things done for your local community.'
Of course, you have to go through a few bureaucratic processes to make your case, and rightly so. I'm only going to say this once: don't let me catch you putting in a request to the barrier-busters to bust their own barriers, ok?
Meanwhile, there was more interest in the published information about cuts to local council funding. Ben Toombs over on the RSA Projects blog notes that 'councils with the most deprived residents seem to be facing the deepest cuts precisely because their residents are the least affluent.'
'I think there is plenty to suggest that in practice ... the empowering effect of the Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest. If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.'
Indeed. So no surprises there either. I may be wrong about the radical impact of the Localism Bill, but I don't think Ben is wrong about the effect of the cuts on those who are least able to deal with them. These cuts are doing what cuts do: they divide.
Some observations on yesterday's news. It's about information, poverty and power.
First, I was struck by the extent to which the government's bullying of the BBC has pushed it to the right. BBC TV coverage of events in Westminster was almost devoid of any attempt to analyse why protestors were angry. The BBC has become afraid to say anything that might upset the authorities. Luckily for them, they had a couple of over-paid celebrities to get excited about. (Incidentally, it obviously wasn't just students, there were other citizens protesting. It suits the establishment to explain the protests as just young people being over-exuberant).
I'm perplexed though at the lack of attention paid to the abandonment of education maintenance allowance (EMA), which is a proven way of supporting young people from low income families who want to stay in education. Secretary of State Vince Cable described EMA as 'enormously wasteful'. Well, it helps poor people with the objective of trying to equalise opportunity, so why would this government want to fund it? The arrogance and complacency seem impregnable. And they're surprised that people are angry.
We don't get many opportunities to be proud to be British (and frankly I don't look for them) but yesterday sort-of counts. While Wikileaks has left most of America apparently supine in acceptance of the arrogant stupidity of its bullying powermongers, in London people have come out and shown the politicians and authorities that their stupidity is unacceptable. I use the word 'unacceptable' because the Haves have been queuing up to use that word with reference to yesterday's street performances. And I use the word 'stupidity' with reference to leaders in the US and UK who have completely failed to grasp the role of new communications media in these confrontations. It's laughable how the establishment feels that the old hierarchies built on hierarchical communication systems (most obviously the bible and the pulpit, but by extension the analog divide generally) can still be depended on to keep people in their places.
Yes, the old question 'why do we have such stupid people in power?' applies as forcefully as ever, but it's gratifying that ethical hacking globally, and the use of google maps to outwit the police in central London, are exposing the powermongers' attempts to deny social justice.
One of the tenets of community development is that nothing succeeds like adversity, and this is shown to apply at the national scale. Sometimes in community development we are disappointed at people's reluctance to get worked up about things; sometimes we are taken by surprise at the vehemence of the response. I count myself among those who have been surprised, and refreshed, at the sudden and fierce discovery of readiness to take political action. It has value which is increasing in proportion to the declining credibility of those in government.
This paper by Anna Coote, published today, is quite simply the best statement on big society yet, IMHO.
In her presentation at today's launch, she emphasised that big society cannot be seen as separate from the public spending cuts:
'Big society and the cuts are all about replacing paid with unpaid labour.'
'When things go wrong, there is a grave risk that we shall only hear the voices of those who can shout loudest or whip up the most colourful media outrage.'
'We must not undermine the support systems already out there'.
The main concern of most civil society organisations, she argues, is that 'efforts to reduce the deficit will undermine the very networks and groups that are most needed as life gets tougher for those who are already the most disadvantaged.'
The main concern of most civil society organisations, she argues, is that
'efforts to reduce the deficit will undermine the very networks and groups that are most needed as life gets tougher for those who are already the most disadvantaged.'
Coote's conclusion was that:
'The cuts make the best ideals of the big society impossible to realise.'
Today Nesta launched the Neighbourhood Challenge to try to highlight ways of stimulating local social action.
“Community organisations across England are invited to apply to the 18-month programme. NESTA will select ten organisations and provide them with funding to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area.
We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.”
Deadline for expressions of interest is 22 November.
Some good will come of this. But the first thing that struck me at the launch is how desperately tasteless it was to be in a plush central London location with a free breakfast among a large number of affluent be-suited people talking in very general ways about 'communities' that are characterised by high levels of apathy and low aspirations; and offering residents of those distant neighbourhoods a chance, by competition, to improve their lot.
Statistically their chances of winning through in that competition are likely to be very small. They are expected to put in a bit of effort, symbolically making pleas to the powers that be, and then in all probability just knuckle down to things as they were before; or get picked off by the developers. What sport this must seem to the Haves - get the peasants to do a wee dance in their quaint custom, then show a little favouritism to a handful.
Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair, but it was all so reminiscent of the ghastly mistakes the Labour administration made in its early years with challenges and competitions - dressing the excluded in costumes and getting them to jump through hoops. As if a process of lottery is a legitimate way of reducing deadly disparities in the quality of life.
I hope the Neighbourhood Challenge will result in at least ten decent projects and lots of shared learning: I don't see why it shouldn't. While that's going on I just want to offer a few thoughts here about some of the assumptions that underpinned the speeches I heard this morning.
First, the C word was used throughout, by a succession of speakers, apparently as a synonym for neighbourhoods. What this tells us is that they hold vague assumptions about consensus and cohesion in localities, based on slight experience or poor understanding.
Secondly, much was taken for granted about how straightforward is the role of community organiser. This was revealing: it's beginning to become clear that the notion of community organising under Big Society is going to be pretty much value-free. They won't wait around for people to discuss and refine the values and principles that might guide their work, nor refer back to the previous efforts of the community development field. We want 5,000 community organisers please, using this simple template, male and female, by autumn next year, just get on with it.
Thirdly, the rhetoric of power remains seductive and uncritical. The forthcoming localism bill will bring radical new 'powers', we're told, but as soon as people start to talk about this they refer to devices like petitions, possibly the most blunt and unhygienic item in the toolbox of democracy. Surely by now, we should be able to talk about how power gets transferred and exercised at local level - and how it feels - in a more nuanced way.
Fourthly, there was much carefree talk about the power of local online, and the perceived 'need' to focus this on the problematisation of local issues. But local online is still a very imperfect democratic environment. The approach espoused was to encourage people to use online to articulate their concerns about local issues. A hall for loud voices. I humbly suggest that it would be more sensible to encourage the development of lots of digital conversations at local level about all sorts of things, from which the real concerns of a wider variety of residents would emerge.
My last point is about the nature of the localities in question, the 'communities' from which expressions of interest are sought. Behind the Neighbourhood Challenge there is talk of targeting areas defined as 'low in social capital'. Public sector funding cuts are going to have an atomising effect: how far is social exclusion, and the effects of social justice, going to be identifiable in these terms? Are those who suffer network poverty likely to be clustered into ghettoes? In some ways it might be better if they were, but my suspicion is that the toxic effect of the recession will be more distributed, far harder to track, far less amenable to our fancy mapping technologies.
Does Small State seem any clearer after the Spending Review?
This article by Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in yesterday's Observer has sharpened the focus on one particular point, which is that a key political sleight has been to get working class people to condemn the workless poor. With the notion of hoi polloi solidarity now exploded (not with a bang but a whimper), the Haves can sit down and tuck in without fear of interruption from the rabble at their gates.
In truth this process has surely been gathering for decades, thanks in no small part to the decimation of trade unionism and the influence of a shameless press; but what the economic crisis has done is to give it a perverse logical justification. The authors note:
'polls suggested substantial support for the assault on benefits. Focus groups had told the chancellor they wanted welfare not cut but shredded.'
And they quote the chief exec of one homeless charity:
'People have looked down on those out of work for a long time. So when you ask them what to cut – police? They say no. Schools? No. NHS? No. The armed services? No – but welfare, who is going to lobby for that?'
And so it comes down to povertyism, the fact that for some reason many people despise those who are poor, seek excuses for their negative attitude towards them, and support policies that punish people for being in poverty. Some of our media and some of our politicians do the rest, with distasteful zeal.
The brand managers are working away at Big Society. Big it may be, but it doesn't look like it will be representative of an inclusive society.
Here's a thoughtful article on the quality of life for older people in a good nursing home, by documentary film-maker Alan Gilsenan in the Irish Times:
'Real care does not reside in the building or its facilities... but rather in the spirit of the people within. Laughter seems to be a huge part of this: a shared sense of humour that engages with the elderly rather than excludes them. Time too is hugely important: the time to sit and talk, to listen. The ability to engage with each person as an individual rather than as a unit. Above all, tenderness. Time and time again, one glanced down a corridor or through an open door to see a gentle hand on a shoulder, a supporting arm, an easy hug. These little gestures spoke of some enduring goodness, some small triumph of humanity, in a health service so maligned and under threat.
'Strangely, while there is a sense of warmth and light inside the home, one would be less certain about the life for older people on the outside. Spending time with the many day-care users, who live independently in the community but visit St Monica’s for one day a week, one was struck by the loneliness and fear of many of them.
'The demise of neighbourliness and the onset of violent crime against the elderly was a constant theme. The quiet emptiness of weekends and bank holidays seemed to carry a particular poignancy. For many, that day inside St Monica’s each week was a lifeline of care and fun and support.'
This theme has been part of the thinking behind the Haringey Neighbourhoods Connect project underway with Networked Neighbourhoods, working with networks of informal neighbourhood carers. We can't insist that older people are necessarily better off ageing in place rather than in an institution, but we can take steps to make it more desirable as an option.
I seem to recall Charles Dickens wrote in a letter, 'Oh for a world without an ism!' The extension does make for ugly language, but that's no excuse for not having a public debate about povertyism.
To pick up from my last post, I think it's time to make a lot more noise about disrimination against poor people.
I was far from being the only person incensed by Nick Clegg's recent remark that the welfare system should not be "a giant cheque written by the State to compensate the poor for their predicament". If I fix on that remark, it is because it is a blatant example of embedded prejudice at a high level, expressed by the wealthy and powerful towards those who are not.
And there's a widespread selective deafness at work here. More than 40% of adults claim that there is ‘very little poverty’ in Britain today, an Oxfam blog post tells us. And a recent Oxfam briefing paper points out:
'People living in poverty in the UK make a vital contribution to the economy and society through unpaid caring and community work. But public attitudes prevail that people on low incomes – and particularly those on benefits – are ‘scroungers’ who are to blame for their own poverty.'
The authoritative Damian Killeen describes it like this:
'Public attitude surveys... reveal a widespread resentment of people living in poverty. Better-off people may often disapprove of the fact that many poor people share the same tastes and consumerist aspirations as they do. This can extend to a denial that poverty exists and hostility towards the costs of providing people with opportunities to escape their poverty.'
This plays out painfully in people's experience of judgemental attitudes in public space and in the ways they get treated by agencies. One example Killeen gives illustrates how embedded povertyism has become in our systems:
'One mother of five was offered £36 per week to meet her family’s needs after leaving her job to protect her children from an abusive father. She said she thought she was being punished by the system when she believed she was putting the interest of her children first. She kept her family together by selling the children’s toys in order to buy food.'
Should we be talking about class discrimination? We've learned to identify racial discrimination at last and are supported legally in doing that. Even age discrimination has finally been recognised, if not yet brought to order. But I think we'll continue to struggle to identify class discrimination, partly because class is now so fractured and far fewer people self-classify in the established categories any more.
That's why I think it's right to talk about poverty discrimination and to make more noise about it in the run-up to the coalition government's spending review (20 October). JRF's report on Understanding attitudes to tackling economic inequality, Killeen's paper mentioned above, and Oxfam's more recent Something for nothing report seem to be the starting-points.
Does it matter that we don't have a term in widespread use for discrimination against poor people? We have a disability discrimination act and I'm not aware that the awkwardness of the term 'disablism' was a brake on that. Povertyism is an awkward word for a distasteful concept - 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. I don't understand why more people are not bloody angry about this.
But there wasn't much of an outcry against Clegg's words, which shows how poverty discrimination is routine and acceptable in British society. Being unrecognised as an 'ism' in the political armoury (what were Labour doing all those years?) makes it all the more devastating.
Now, a word about the received wisdom that ethnic diversity at neighbourhood level gives rise to lack of cohesion and weakens social relations. There seems to be an assumption that directly relates diversity to perceptions of antisocial behaviour and disorder. It matters because I suspect the assumption influences many actions and decisions in a hidden way, in policy, practice and everyday behaviour.
I recently mentioned a paper by John Hipp (Social networks, 32(2), 2010, subscription required) which hints at a little more complexity: perceptions of disorder are explained by general social distance between individuals, not simply social distance based on ethnicity.
And last week the ESRC published some research on neighbourhood social heterogeneity. The researchers found 'little evidence' of a significant effect of ethnic diversity on people’s perceptions of a neighbourhood.
Among the findings:
So, it's the poverty, stupid. And attitudes towards people who are poor. There have been people working their backsides off in the field of poverty alleviation and wealth equalities, ready to voice this message to those who would hear it.
So one of my next posts I hope, Clegg inspired, will be about the nastiness of povertyism: I want to ask why there isn't any debate about disrimination against poor people?
I feel gloomy about the future of equalities in the UK. In recent months I've heard several stories of distorted job recruitment processes which suggest that much of the hard work done in the eighties and nineties to equalise opportunity in our society might now be vulnerable to selfish value-free indifference.
But given that having money is now such a dominant motif in so much private and public conversation, it makes sense to pay some attention to poverty and the notion of saving. Assets matter: the wealthiest half of households holds 91 per cent of the UK’s total wealth, while the other half has the remaining 9 per cent. That's not healthy. I learned this from a new report from ResPublica on 'creating a new civic savings platform for young people'.
This issue is a bit like Big Society: I can see it makes sense to talk about encouraging a culture of sensible saving for people in poverty (just as it's reassuring to hear that government recognises the importance of local community action); but wouldn't it have helped if those in positions of power had demonstrated some competence in financial management themselves (just as it would have helped if they'd had some kind of track record in appreciating local efforts at co-production)? A refreshingly sharp reflection on the mess our leaders have got us in comes from Karel Williams, via Will Davies:
'Any society in which massive gains are privatised and massive losses are socialised is one which is suffering from a problem of predatory elites.'
Here's how the ResPublica report's authors, Phillip Blond and Sandra Gruescu, present the argument:
'Too many Britons are trapped in a world of welfare and low wages, where owning little, they can change even less. And with minimal prospect of advancement for them or their children, it often appears as if we are creating and expanding a new servile class progressively and aggressively cut off from the world of assets and opportunity. These are the conditions that incubate the debt disease that has captured our culture (both public and private) and allowed our citizens to mortgage their futures and make fictional all their hopes and aspirations.
'Without assets, opportunity seldom knocks – wealth is what allows people to access opportunity and to advance up the social ladder. Locking people out of wealth and access to assets condemns them to debt serfdom where they must borrow to make ends meet and where futures are consumed by the demands of the present. If we are to create a genuinely free and fair society, then the language of equality and opportunity has to be matched by some chance of economic equity and some way that ordinary people can build a real stake in the world.'
Here's a story that reached me the other day about a young boy at a family centre. He turned up one morning and when asked how he was, said that he felt a bit strange.
So they took him to one side and gently asked questions to see what the problem was. Children with difficult backgrounds, it's right to be attentive and you might be looking for certain signs. Nope, there didn't seem to be anything untoward, he just felt strange and couldn't explain.
It turned out to be happiness. The lad had no vocabulary for the sensation and no recognisable previous experience to refer to, so how was he to know what it was?
Yesterday, absorbed in that well-known activity of looking for something else, I happened across a book chapter on 'income inequality and the information society'. It argues that poor people stand to be excluded from the information society by being priced out of commercial information services,
'and left with an impoverished and over-stretched system of public provision which is increasingly unable to meet their needs.'
The second bit resonates at least, and it's a curious little discovery just after a colleague and I had a meeting in a borough which has challenging levels of poverty and low levels of technology use.
The author was the much-respected Graham Murdock and the chapter appeared in Excluding the poor, published in 1986 by the Child Poverty Action Group (still listed on their publications page).
It's a good example of the thinking at the time around what was called 'information poverty' and concerns over the levels of exclusion that would result from these things called computers, telecomms and databases. I was involved in a lot of the debates at the time and we thought the threats were very real.
But they did not really emerge. It's hard to say how much of that is down to the refreshing initiatives taken by the incoming Labour government in 1997. Perhaps it was even down to the influence on those policies of people like Graham Murdock. Or were we all just wrong about information use and poverty? Britain did indeed become information-intensive, but we stopped hearing arguments about the widespread denial of access to information for people in poverty.
Then we started to see adverts on the London tube with the mysterious letters 'www'. Around 1999-2000 I served on a government task group tasked to consider 'access to IT'. Suddenly the issue was about people on low incomes getting their hands on the technology which provided access to the information they weren't otherwise being denied. Then came an insistence in some quarters that people on low incomes weren't participating in this tech-binge because the diet wasn't to their taste, ie there wasn't enough content of the right kind.
This was accompanied and then succeeded by efforts to promote a more empowering, less philanthropical approach, which would necessarily mean stimulating self-publishing. Oh and then something called web 2.0 came along, and behold, before long people did publish stuff themselves. (See, in this respect, my thoughts about where local websites fit into this history).
So where are people on low-incomes in all this now? Sorted? If it wasn't about access to information sources; and it's clearly not about appropriate content if it ever was; and for all the rhetoric about 'digital divide' it's no longer significantly about access to the kit or connections; is there still a sense in which people who experience exclusion are constrained in their use of information and communication technology to address their own circumstances? Yes there is, as I and my colleague heard clearly while we sat in a town hall the other day learning about the difficulties of bringing social media to certain culturally self-excluding groups.
We were told about an area comprising mainly white working class families after the collapse of a dominant industry, where the dependency culture is deeply embedded, racist tension is high and levels of motivation to overcome disadvantage are very low.
The neutering effects of this culture are profoundly damaging. I think the central point is this: workers feel that people self-exclude from contexts of dialogue and engagement, so there is little advancement of thinking and no empowerment. This means that the openness of social media may be a non-starter.
From his study of contributions to neighbourhood email lists, Keith Hampton concludes firmly that a significant proportion of people in disadvantaged localities in north America are online and participating in discussions; and also that those contributions afford the formation of collective efficacy in ways that other media do not. This evidence is hugely valuable, but it still leaves us in the UK with a lot of people in low-income areas, who have a connection and spend time online, but are unwilling to participate in digital conversations with others or to engage with agencies online.
Perhaps in time, once again it will come to be seen that we've been barking up the wrong tree, but how do we identify the right one? I'm not aware of any studies at local level, since those I was involved in a few years ago, that are involving people on low incomes themselves in exploring the answers to these questions. I'd be keen to hear of any, cos that's what we need.
Back in the summer I worked with Bev Carter reviewing levels of social and civic participation in Milton Keynes. The report has just been published by Citizens:MK - click on the research tab here.
For a small study it's quite a lengthy report, because a lot of stuff came up. We based our work on the belief that social participation and informal involvement with others in everyday life underpins and is critical for civic participation.
Here are some of the main points:
by Allison E. Smith
ISBN 9781847422705, published by Policy Press, September 2009, (£19.49 online)
Reviewed by Kevin Harris
I was really looking forward to this book because it takes on a theme that is going to assume great significance in the next decade. In an ageing society it becomes harder to guarantee quality of life if we do not understand the factors that affect older people's experience of their local environment. Most older people have a stronger sense of attachment to place than other age groups, contributing to the aspiration that where possible, the option of 'ageing in place' is the ideal.
So we need to better understand the key factors that contribute to or diminish quality of life, especially in low-income urban neighbourhoods, and Allison Smith tries to get this underway by injecting some new research and thinking into the field of environmental gerontology. She takes 'environment' to mean 'the physical and social space of the neighbourhood', but without detaching discussion entirely from the private internal space of the home, since the two spaces overlap in important ways; and she draws on some 52 face-to-face interviews with people aged 60 and older living in low-income areas of Manchester and Vancouver.
Unfortunately the text is occasionally careless ('urban cities'?), consistently cautious, and very repetitive. The amount of padding (eg sub-section summaries) in the book is perverse given the under-developed potential of the primary material. From the testament of each of the 52 older people we are permitted approximately two hundred words in summary, with eight of them selected for more analysis (though very little quotation) as case studies in the middle of the book.
When the residents' voices are allowed to come through, they can be hugely refreshing: the case of Elizabeth Laing (p128-131) is a good example. But in general the voices are, sadly, stifled, which is an ironic echo of the everyday reality for those involved. Presumably the exercise was an academic one which required more attention to tinkering with theories - in this case, a framework of 'environmental comfort', 'environmental management', and 'environmental distress'. Let's hope that greater value from the time the participants gave to the research might emerge in something stylistically more adventurous in due course.
To her credit, Smith steps readily enough into the awkward territory of gerontological psychology, and I suspect not even the psychologists feel comfortable there. And she drops an unexpected little grenade in suggesting 'the need to consider a minimum standard for neighbourhoods'. This idea is put forward 'to spark discussion and debate', although the prospect of it leading quickly to the publication of league tables is not considered.
I was surprised at how few references there were to gardening, which presumably reflects the participants' circumstances of disadvantage (I've never before thought of gardening as a possible indicator of exclusion). I would also have welcomed some exploration of the ways in which the participants used terms like 'friend', 'acquaintance' or 'neighbour'. And there's a curious omission in chapter eight, which is about opportunities and challenges: there are brief discussions of the effects of globalisation, technology and the economic downtown, but nothing about climate change. This is not just about whether or not substantial parts of the country are likely to be under water well before my children reach old age - meaning forced urban density and associated costs - but also the impact of necessarily radically-changed lifestyles within a generation.
In the end, as the author puts it, the findings largely reflect a predictable relationship between place and quality of life. Routine is important and social networks can be also. People's identities are 'intertwined, preserved and reinforced' by the places where they live, but of course they are also sometimes confused, challenged and eroded.
Sarah Coward has learning difficulties. Her mother Suzanne realised she could use direct payment money to set up a cafe in Sutton Coldfield, offering a place for people with learning difficulties to hang out, socialise and feel enabled to do things which they wouldn’t often get the opportunity to do.
Previously, on the socialisation of people with learning difficulties: Juxtaprose 4
Published by The Policy Press, 2009. ISBN: 978 1 84742 323 8. 304 pp. £19.99 (paperback) (£14.99 online)
Review by Alison Gilchrist
I read Jeremy Brent’s thought-provoking and insightful book with growing regret that I had not taken the opportunity to have more conversations with him during the time when we were both living and working in Bristol, as well as studying part-time for our PhDs by pursuing very similar lines of inquiry. Jeremy uses his substantial experience as a youth worker on an estate in Bristol to reflect on the nature of community and the role of the practitioner as an ‘inside-outsider’ working to support community aspirations and deal with troubles as they arise. From our different perspectives we came to very similar conclusions: that communities are elusive, complex and riven with divisions and differences, which makes the job of the practitioner difficult, rewarding and full of dilemmas. In Jeremy’s case, his role in running a youth centre focused on the energy, creativity and rebelliousness of young people, and he clearly responded with great empathy and awareness of the wider social and economic context.
He is critical of romantic, homogeneous notions of community, and talks knowledgeably about the complex dynamics of community politics and passions. Like me, he is interested in the networks of relationships that form the ecology of local life and at one point he writes: “the more connections, the more exciting the territory” (p145). Even at its most challenging, Jeremy clearly relished his long-term ‘inside-outsider’ role, illustrating this through a bricolage of anecdote and diary notes, that describe critical episodes and accounts of his work to support different community initiatives.
The book is based on his PhD thesis and as such can be heavy-going in places, with a surfeit of academic terms and theory mainly drawn from post-modernist philosophers. Nevertheless he uses these ideas effectively to analyse his experience. He is thus able to contest and compare images of the estate, to explore the dispersed nature of power, and to consider his own mixed feelings and motivations.
The book makes a strong argument, backed up by powerful evidence, for ‘traditional’ community-based youth work, asserting quite rightly in my view, that “targets are not necessary for outcomes” (p266). I particularly valued his description of the youth and community worker as a ‘kink in the chain of command’ between those who fund and manage the work, and his explanation of the role of ‘coaxer’ in encouraging the young people to expand their horizons and overcome the derogatory reputations they gave grown up with. He writes convincingly about the strain of working in situations where divergent needs and values pull in different directions. Jeremy’s identity and accountability as a youth worker shifts subtly depending on circumstances, but his commitment to the young people and the people of Southmead is clear throughout. His untimely death in 2006 has been a loss to us all.
Searching for community is a valuable addition to the literature on ‘community’. It successfully combines grounded experience with academic, reflective analysis. I strongly recommend it to all students and practitioners of youth and community work.
Matthew Ryder is a 'national role model' for Reach, a government-supported scheme aimed at raising the aspirations and attainment of black boys and young men. In yesterday's Observer, under the headline 'The pursuit of riches at any cost is killing young black men', he attacks the prevailing 'get rich or die trying" culture. Ryder makes a clear connection between
'the teenagers I encounter and the likes of [disgraced banker] Fred Goodwin. Wider society, government included, has frequently championed the sort of role models whose ruthless pursuit of money at any social cost has set a dysfunctional template. It is an extreme ideology that spills from the City's boardrooms to south London's housing estates. That teenager will always believe that the pursuit of money is the key to happiness, if society constantly reaffirms that to be the case.'
Today Children and Young People Now reports Jon Coles, director general of schools for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, on research into Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) who had left the education system 10 years ago:
"They found one profoundly shocking thing, of their long-term Neets who had been out of the system for a long time," said Coles. Fifteen per cent of those young people had died within 10 years of leaving the education system.
'Lack of social networks among people with intellectual disabilities is perhaps a form of exclusion far more important than scattered cases of direct community opposition.' (1).
|'Children played with their brothers, sisters, cousins and friends and with other children in their neighbourhood. The majority of children in the group with learning difficulties stated that they played with their parents or siblings. Only a small number of these children claimed that they played with friends or neighbours. This may suggest that children with learning difficulties encounter some social barriers in their play experiences, as the group we spoke to seemed to spend less of their time playing with peers...' (2).|
The Social Exclusion Task Force in the Cabinet Office has published some important material from its work on 'Understanding the Risks of Social Exclusion Across the Life Course'.
It includes significant new emphasis on people of working age without dependent children. In terms of their perceived detachment from neighbourhood life, it's an important group to know more about.
I have two thoughts about the key findings (listed below). (i) What do they show that was not found in the Social Exclusion Unit's initial studies in 1998-2000, and the work of John Hills and co. at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion over the years?
(ii) By way of partial answer, the most interesting key findings are the last two, because they refer to older people, consistently overlooked in the policy effort over the past ten years. Among the risk markers identified for older people were those
'who had very infrequent contact with others, low social support, and felt that they don’t belong in the area where they lived.'
There's some emphasis on the social impact of becoming widowed, although my recollection from research a few years ago is that it's a negative impact for men, but tends to be positive for women (Perren et al 2004).
These findings point again to the simmering question of quite when policy will get hold of the issue of informal social care and start to do something about it. Given the difficulty I had in getting the ageing agencies interested in neighbouring I'm not sure where the impetus is going to come from.
Key findings from the research
There are a small number of families who experience persistent and chronic social exclusion – the study suggests 4% to 7%. (Some sleight of pen here - I agree it's a small percentage: but it's not a small number).
Families experiencing complex problems were more likely to be lone parent families, have four or more children, have a younger mother, have a mother from a Black ethnic group, live in rented accommodation and in the most deprived areas.
Higher self esteem in adolescence is a protective factor against disadvantage in young adulthood.
The proportion of young people most at risk of exclusion fell from 21% to 16% over the period 2001/02 to 2005/06.
Events such as becoming employed and finding a partner reduce the risk of falling into social exclusion.
The research highlights the importance of responding to the needs of working age adults without dependent children.
Working age adults without dependent children who are older, unemployed or inactive, living alone, have few educational qualifications, and are renting their homes have a higher risk of exclusion.
Around 5% of older people had multiple risk markers of social exclusion, including poor access to services and transport, physically inactivity, fear of their local area after dark, low social support, and poor general and emotional health. Older people in this group were likely to be aged 80 and older, have no qualifications, and live alone.
This image might look staged but it wasn't. A colleague and I were were running a session with a group of young Bangladeshi and Chinese mothers, and it was time to get them talking about their local environment.
So we spread the map on the table and instantly they all shot up out of their chairs and started pointing and talking.
In this case, it was particularly useful because it led to clarification of the extent to which the women remain in their houses even if they have friends on the same street; and the extent to which confidence that is undermined by inadequate english language skills can be further undermined by their experience of the built environment.