Saturday, July 27, 2013

Us And Them

According to the "independent think-tank" the Centre for Social Justice (tag-line: Putting social justice at the heart of British politics), there are Five Pathways to Poverty. These, especially potent where two or more combine, are:

Family Breakdown

Educational Failure
Economic Dependency and Worklessness
Serious Personal Debt

These are, indeed, serious issues facing Britain today, in need of consideration. But far from putting social justice at the heart of British politics, the Centre for Social Justice policy papers reinforce social injustice by refusing to recognise the role of income inequality - the five pathways, even in combination, are found across the socio-economic spectrum, with varying impact - and by failing to challenge demonstrably false popular perceptions concerning those in poverty (s
ee the Truth and Lies about Poverty Report by the joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches; and the CSJ response).

How are these five "Pathways" presented in public rhetoric, by politicians and the press?

When family breakdown occurs in a working-class setting, it is presented as evidence of fecklessness - and not only the fecklessness of the individuals concerned, but of an entire sub(human)-culture - and feral behaviour (as if the under-class grab opportunistic sex but the middle-class don't).

When family breakdown occurs in a middle-class setting, he might be a [insert expletive of your choice], or they grew apart, or such is the pressure of modern life, or it was a mutual decision without fault or blame, or it was very sad but we don't talk about it and of course everyone is entitled to a second chance (if we know them, or people like them). In any case, it does not reflect the broken values of a sub-culture, such as putting work before family or individual freedom before sacrificial commitment to others. And if, as the Centre for Social Justice asserts, family (as opposed to, say, the media) is where we learn the values that make us good citizens - where "we should learn unconditional love, understand right from wrong, and gain empathy, respect and self-regulation" - then it needs to be pointed out that the families - broken or otherwise - that the financial traders who brought down the economy came from were middle-class.

When educational failure occurs in a working-class setting, it is presented as evidence of lack of aspiration (a moral failing - and nothing to do with the lack of employment opportunities to aspire to), and probably evidence of a bred absence of aptitude, a community simply incapable of embracing the opportunity held out to them. Or it is a failure to provide "the gateway to social mobility" - a way out from being working-class to becoming middle-class.

When educational failure to meet expectations occurs in a middle-class setting, we get children assessed for additional support, or criticise teachers, or pay for private tuition, in order to give children the best possible chance of a university place that will saddle them with debt and not, without further training (and debt), give entry into employment. And while we prize aspiration, we don't interrogate our aspirations: if the height of our aspiration is to be rich, to accumulate possessions without needing to think twice, to be consumers-without-equal, our aspirations perpetuate social injustice on a global scale. Education does not transform us; it increases our capacity to impact the lives of others, for good or ill.

When economic dependency and worklessness occur in a working-class setting, it is presented as evidence of fecklessness, of scrounging, of an offensive sense of entitlement: "passed from generation to generation like a family business" with the collusion of welfare. Leaving aside those who have been entitled to support from the welfare budget (whether they have claimed it or not) because they are in employment which is low paid (and we will have to leave them aside, as they don't fit our picture) this is 'clear' because many communities had high employment during the boom years. There is no need to take into account an uneven distribution of employment. Those on incapacity benefit are a drain on resources - most are faking it. Benefit fraud (tiny) is endemic among the poor (of course, white collar fraud - much higher - is not presented as being representative of the middle-class as a whole; and, in particular, MPs who made fraudulent claims were in no way representative of Members of Parliament).

When economic dependency and worklessness occur in a middle-class setting, we hold out as especially virtuous the mother who stays at home with her pre-school children or the pensioner (pensioners account for almost half of the Welfare budget) who didn't fight in the War for the ungrateful shirkers we see today. When a middle-class man is made redundant and cannot find work, when his self-worth is eroded and his family home faces repossession, this is lamentable (at best; often hidden, by shame); but it is not evidence of a bigger picture that includes the unaccountability of global corporations, or the unsustainability of middle-class aspirations. When young adults from wealthy homes don't work, we say that they don't yet know what they want to be (spoiled for choice!).

When addiction occurs in a working-class setting, it is presented as evidence of self-destruction, of opting-out, of mis-using money. No matter what they might be opting-out of.

When addiction occurs in a middle-class setting, it is acceptable - recreational, a symbol of excess money; or self-medication, saving the NHS on prescription anti-depressants - or hidden. A rite-of-passage, addressed by rehab. A small problem, involving a very few individuals - not an entire under-class, where "Such abuse remains a shocking feature of life in many disadvantaged neighbourhoods and it entrenches poverty." Not an indictment on the emptiness of our values (why would someone opt-out of 'having it all'?).

When serious personal debt occurs in a working-class setting, it is presented as evidence of spending on the wrong things - why should they have a wide-screen TV (like I do)? (Let's ignore the thought that a TV is just about the cheapest form of entertainment and access to news available to us.) Why should they want what they see us have, but they can't afford? (Let's ignore the thought that we can't afford it either, but we just put it on the credit card.) Such debt is self-inflicted: it has nothing to do with income inequality, with spiralling costs of utility bills (with the worst tariffs for those who pay on a meter) and food (again, most expensive for those who can't bulk buy and freeze), or exploitation.

When serious personal debt occurs in a middle-class setting, it is not that we over-extended ourselves and lived beyond our means, but that life is expensive and that the European Union brought the economy down; while supporting those who haven't worked as hard as us is preventing our quick return to the lifestyle we deserve. "We're all in this together" but we are the ones having to pay the biggest price, and that is hardly fair.

There are no easy answers. As the Archbishop of Canterbury found out when he spoke out against loans given with excessive interest, we are often unintentionally and unknowingly complicit in systems of poverty: the Church of England's investment portfolio for its own pension provision included investment in the very loan company he had singled-out. This, of course, does not negate his argument; but shows how complex the situation we find ourselves in is. Change will require making potentially costly changes to our own lives. There is no room for self-justification, and the Church will get to lead the way.

I am not anti- middle-class, in some perverse rejection of my own background. I am not seeking to stereotype a whole middle-class; but to point out that we make one set of value-judgements about the poor and another altogether about the wealthy (not that we consider ourselves to be wealthy) - in relation to the same five indexes. It is very easy to pass judgement on people who are not like us, in ways we would never dream of passing judgement on people like us. And prejudice alongside self-righteousness leads to the making of scapegoats.

I am opposed to the large and growing gulf - not only in income, but also in understanding - between the wealthiest and the poorest in our society. I believe that every culture and sub-culture includes values to be affirmed, and assumptions to be confronted, by the uncompromising person of Jesus, who holds truth and grace together. Becoming middle-class will not save working-class people - it hasn't saved the middle-class! And I believe we need one another, not least so that 'our' values are questioned by 'them.'

Relational poverty (family breakdown), intellectual poverty (educational failure), physical poverty (addiction; worklessness) and financial poverty (serious personal debt; economic dependency and worklessness) are consequences of spiritual poverty: a poverty of justice, yes; of mercy, of compassion, of generosity, of imagination; of love of God and of our own group and of those who live alongside us who belong to a different group just the same as we love ourselves; of the ability to achieve even the good we want to achieve in our own strength - a poverty that exists in each and every one of us.

That is why our starting-point must be recognition of our own poverty, and need for God's forgiveness and transformation of our lives.

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those things that we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us sinners. Spare those who confess their faults. Restore those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to humankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may live a disciplined, righteous and godly life, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

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