“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life……..nothing else will ever be of any service to them…..Stick to Facts, Sir!”
These are the opening sentences of the Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ - a novel depicting the savagery and squalor of the Victorian town ‘Coketown’. He condemned the treatment of the ‘poor’ in not only their economic situation, but also in the prevailing social attitudes towards ‘the poor’. This social category –the poor’ and their ‘home’ - ‘poverty’ (after all, that’s where they live!), are still the subject of much argument and discussion as to ‘who they actually are and what they actually do!
Researcher after researcher, policymaker after policymaker, firstly identifies their defining characteristics, counts them, then creates a social category -‘ the underclass’, the ‘deserving poor’ , ‘the claimant’ , ‘ the feckless’, the socially excluded’, ‘the immigrant’ -anything which distinguishes ‘them’ from ‘us’. To support their assertions social scientists and policy makers come up with numbers, characteristics, indices which are presented as ‘facts’. Counting the poor is a ‘factual’ exercise to determine how many and, the most important ‘fact ‘of all –how much this category is costing the ‘rest of us? The latest ‘fact’ is from David Cameron’s policy initiative –Helping Troubled Families:
“Half a million problem families are costing taxpayers more than £30billion a year, according to a major study which reveals for the first time the true extent of the rise of Britain’s underclass.
Hundreds of thousands of households are causing a serious drain on public resources with ‘off the barometer’ dysfunctional behaviour.”
It is not that they are a problem to themselves but more importantly they are a ‘problem for us’- ‘they’ hold a mirror up to us’ and we say ‘there but for fortune or the grace of God, go you or I’. But this is not true –it is not a question of fortune or God’s grace but of choices that governing systems make. And it is always a question of ‘blame’ - whose fault is it? The ‘fact’ that ‘these people are in ‘this situation’ is a question of the process of the construction of ‘social problems’ -what and who defines ‘these’ people and what and ‘who’ defines this situation - what on earth is ‘off the barometer dysfunctional behaviour’? Could going to war be described in this way? Is not the carpet bombing of populations not off the barometer dysfunctional behaviour? We blame them for the choices they make and we rationalise it -as Zoe Williams cogently argues: and challenges us :
“Underlying all this is the insistence that poor people are poor because they are worse at life. They may not be able to help it, they may be so inadequate that you cannot technically blame them for their lack of self-control. Nevertheless, there it is: the root of all their troubles is their inability to discipline themselves….. Politically, it is wonderful. It makes the feckless instantly identifiable and simultaneously proves how feckless they are. I understand completely why the right loves it; what I do not understand is why there is no push back from the left.” (The Guardian 18/8/14)
Our first response from Christianity and the Left must be to challenge all the assumptions and facts which masquerade as ‘truth’ in the discussions of social policy and problems. The underlying reality of many social categories discussed here is that they are poor – they are not a ‘problem if they have the material wherewithal to buy their way out of trouble. For example to identify a child as suffering from ADHD or dyslexia is not in itself a ‘problem’ It is exacerbated if the family cannot buy appropriate education or treatment –if they are poor! And yet there is something more profound behind the idea that behaviour can be diagnosed and thereby ‘treated’. It is to assume that all human activity can be subject to scientific analysis – that there is a ‘norm’ against which all behaviour can be measured. But who constructs ‘the norm’? Of course we construct it in our own image, after all aren’t we perfect –aren’t we normal? But who is the ‘we’? There is much discussion about equal pay for women so that men and women can be equal, so the norm is male –it is women who must reach the norm. In this debate, heterosexuality is ‘normal and everything else isn’t. Yet ‘we’ know how complicated and complex sexuality can be, don’t we? People talk about the work/life balance as if there is a ‘norm’ which involves complete control of all aspects of our lives –if we only organised or managed ourselves better we could work 11 hours per day, do the shopping, go to the gym or for a run, have quality time with the family and still be up for any new challenge that comes along! We ‘know that this is impossible, but in the need to move the discussion on, we must make some choices and accept some things as facts. In the very process of doing so, we lose the argument. We are all subject to ‘oppressive’ forces and here we might begin to see the root of the ‘problem’.
Dickens talked about the subjugation and subjection of the ‘poor’ –subjugated to lives of misery and subjected to study after study and economic experiment, masquerading as ‘fact’. They are ‘problems to be solved’, ‘illnesses to be diagnosed and treated’ either physically or mentally, ‘categories to be managed’. In Western Society we are all subject to these same ‘facts’ -If some people are poor and some are rich what must we do –as Zoe Williams suggests
This is just the start of a battle that will intensify approaching the election. Whose fault is poverty? Is it the consequence of human uselessness, or is it the result of a useless system? Pointing out the holes in the data is not enough; we have to be clear about the systemic causes of poverty: low wages, insecure jobs, deliberately insecure benefits, high rents, and impossible energy costs. Everything else is window dressing.
I want to suggest that the discussion can start with what it means to be a ‘human being’ –we are not just a collection of needs or wants – not subject to Maslow’s hierarchy which was devised as a management tool, not to be the pattern of our lives. We are not to be categorised and labelled as a collection of ‘problems’ but are equal in value and status. Our response to the question of helping troubled families must be another series of questions – Are these families my family also? Are these children my children also? Am I my brother/sister’s keeper? If so, we must go to any lengths to create a healthy, safe and secure environment for us all? Any lengths -For as much as you do for each one of these you do for me.
The Rev John Richardson is a member of COTL - He is married with two grown up daughters and a grandson. He has recently retired from a working life in the Youth, Social and Community Work field as a practitioner, lecturer and parish priest. As someone who was born in poverty, he has spent his life working and supporting communities who experience all kinds of oppression and deprivation. He is now a volunteer involved in local community groups and local politics.
Some of the great recent research on scarcity shows it’s debilitating effect on cognitive function and self control, so creating an environment in which people can flourish and have sufficiency is the most significant thing we can do.
I am always struck by Scandinavian social welfare. If our society was more equal the clusters of high cost social breakdown would be fewer and further between. By failing to tackle inequality of income and opportunity we bear he greater costs of trying to address the problems it causes in public services.
Of course, the poor will always be with us, but a
Society where everyone has the opportunity for gleaning, nobody in debt through need is charged interest, vulnerable individuals are connected with supportive families and wealth levels revert to an equal share each generation would make for a very different public service and community challenge.