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.