Poverty, class and blame

Again the media is full of stories about how we need to change our behaviours around alcohol. The feckless Scots (and I’m one of them!) seem to do nothing but drink themselves into oblivion. At the same time, I’ve been reading about youth in poor neighbourhoods…they’re to blame for teenage pregnancy, anti-social behaviours, drug misuse…Their parents are to blame for not enforcing strict codes of conducts, feeding or exercising their children properly. The schools, and therefore the individual teachers, in these poor neighbourhoods are to blame for not raising standards of academic achievement and encouraging aspiration. And of course black youth are to blame for being particularly out of control and dangerous.

In response, we professionals (myself included) trot out our list of risk and protective factors, with our aim of reducing the former and enhancing the latter. Most of these are about modifying individual behaviours – encouraging relationships with ‘non-deviant’ peers, building mentoring-type relationships with at least one adult etc…but there’s a constant, nagging underlying problem; the solutions focus on individual behaviours but in reality it’s in the same neighbourhoods that the problems of youth continue. And the common theme in these places is the existence of structural poverty over a long period of time. And unless we really tackle that, the problems are going to continue.

I recommend “Understanding Youth in Late Modernity by Alan France (2007):

“New Labour…believe in a society where merit has a critical role to play. Government must create a ‘ladder of opportunity’ by which social mobility is achievable for all. It is argued that, if barriers to participation are overcome and new opportunities are constructed, usually through competition and market forces, then ceilings will be removed and mobility will be open to all. In this sense New Labour have argued not only for the ‘expansion of the middle class’ as a core policy objective, but also that, given the right type of opportunities, this is achievable for all. As a part of this argument New Labour see the ‘blocks’ not as structural, but as institutional, individual and cultural. Schools fail to create the right sort of opportunities for young people or fail to raise their achievement levels, or individuals lack personal aspiration and self-belief, have personal failings or are held back by the ‘culture of poverty’ and their lack of self-responsibility. Within this argument poverty and structural factors are usually given marginal recognition.”

I’ve also been reading a lot about theories of ‘underclass’…it’s American terminology and in the UK there’s a debate going on among sociologists about whether it exists. It’s certainly morally loaded. In the USA it’s deemed to be a black phenomenon; here it’s more broadly judged to be a youth problem. A problem with poor young people to be more precise. People easily use language such as ‘underclass’ or ‘feral’ youth to label people who are less powerful than us. When the Daily Mail is describing youth out of control, I know exactly who they’re targeting and it’s not the middle classes. That’s why, for example, when we have a tragic middle class drug story it gets so much attention. In fact a constant tragedy is being played out in our poor neighbourhoods day in and day out.

 In poor neighbourhoods young people can make decisions which to the middle classes seem wrong – the 15 year old who gets pregnant, the young man who deals drugs on the street, for example. However, when poor young people make such decisions – note, not ‘choices’; to use that term you would really need to have an environment which made it possible – they often feel that they are empowering themselves, gaining social status and self esteem.

Over the last 30 years Conservative and Labour UK Governments have progressively cut welfare benefits for poor young people, reduced their power to influence their environment while encouraging or at least condoning  harsh and cruel public discussion about poor young people – the term ‘chav’, for example, is really offensive. Through ASBOs, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, intended to reduce anti-social behaviours, the routes for poor young people into the criminal justice system where they can build a life-long criminal career, have been made easier. And the problems for poor young people continue.


4 responses to “Poverty, class and blame

  1. Interesting observations Eric.

    I think you’re a bit hard on professionals, by which I mean I think we are all very aware of the environmental factors that go towards raising the risks for children and young people. However, making the sorts of structural changes needed to address those factors are much more difficult than addressing the individual needs of even quite big groups of people.

    There are of course, lots of people who are who campaign for, and develop policy which, they hope will work on cultural and environmental levels. I’d argue that child poverty campaigns, the infrastructure renewal of the last decade or so, and attempts to create neighbourhood renewal are all recognition of the structural flaws in society. The problem is whether the methods chosen are as effect as hoped for.

    But that’s not just a problem for these programmes or campaigns, it’s the same for individualised programmes too. You’ll have seen as well as I have programmes that appear promising in the design stages not live up to expectations once they’re asked to work at a population level.

    That said I’ve been heartened by some of the findings that I’ve recently been seeing in the literature about what sort of impact can be made on substance misuse, and indeed other risky behaviours, the trick is not to become blind to their faults I suppose.

  2. Thanks Andrew. I wasn’t suggesting that we stop interventions aimed at influencing individuals’ behaviours. More that it’s clear that we’ve failed to change the structural poverty in our poor communities and moreover some interventions just reinforce the blaming and stigmatising of poor people for this. Mark Easton picked up on precisely the same issue yesterday – 19 October – in his blog about educational underachievement – http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/

    Whether we’re talking about drug or alcohol misuse, other criminalities/anti-social behaviours, health problems, “poor” parenting, long-term structural poverty is the common theme – and under successive Governments poverty among our poorest young people has increased.

  3. No, I didn’t think you would be saying stop individual interventions.

    On the structural poverty, this from the IFS is interesting.


    They say:

    Poverty rates increased dramatically during the mid- to late 1980s and more slowly in
    the early 1990s, and then stabilised or fell from the mid-1990s onwards, at about the
    same time that the current Labour government came to power. To be more specific, in
    Labour’s first term, overall poverty fell by 2.1 percentage points (AHC) and by 1.0
    percentage points (BHC); it then fell slightly faster during the second term, falling by a further 2.6 percentage points (AHC) and 1.4 percentage points (BHC). All of these
    declines are statistically significant. The last three years of data put an end to this
    continuous decline in relative poverty, with cumulative rises between 2004–05 and
    2007–08 of 2.0 and 1.3 percentage points, AHC and BHC respectively. Although the rise in
    relative poverty between 2004–05 and 2007–08 has not completely undone the progress
    on reducing poverty in Labour’s first two terms, poverty is now higher than it was in

  4. “Underclass” is originally a translation of the German term “untermenschen”, which was adopted by the Nazis to mean anybody who wasn’t a so-called Aryan. We need to be careful about the language we use, some words have a lot of historical baggage.

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