Friday, October 10, 2008

Class: A vicious spiral of poverty and culture

LibertyCat responded to James Graham's post about class. He wrote:
The reason why meritocracy doesn't work is that the social problems of poverty are caused by some poor people being lazy and feckless. There is no reason for someone who cares about their future to smoke. There are not many reasons for them to eat junk-food daily.

The story of how Jake turned bad is quite long, but only once was material poverty mentioned. The early interventions that might have worked don't involve dramatically improving Jake's standard of living... they involve giving him experiences which might cause him to change his behaviour for the better.
I don't agree material poverty is only a minor part of the problem when compared with culture. I think there is a messy spiral of poverty and culture, which need to be tackled together.

Our cultural norms are formed slowly by adopting the values of the people around us. A two-week jolly to teach Jake [what?] is not going to stop him becoming a criminal if he returns to a street where the 'cool' boys push drugs. And there's no point teaching Jake to cook with fresh vegetables if his area has 15 kebab and pie shops, a corner shop selling slowly decaying onions and no supermarket.

Unfortunately, Jake can't take a bus or train to buy fruit and vegetables even if he wanted to. He can't decide to buy a new cooker or something else to make his new lifestyle easier. Neither can he decide to move away. There is a reason for this - he's too poor. He doesn't have the capital to make choices that don't exist in the places he can afford. Surrounded by people who scoff at his fancy cooking and smoke like chimneys, he's unlikely to stick with the new things he's been taught. People who have fat friends are more likely to be fat themselves.

To make a real change to Jake's life, there needs to be a critical mass of people in his community who want to do something different and have enough money to make a change. Culture and money are both important here. You often need more money to make minority choices.

People who change also need to remain in their community to pass on the benefits. This is where housing policy comes in. Ghettos of the totally desperate are hard to change because, once people become slightly less down-on-their-luck, they don't stick around. This is why there are few places in London that feel as soul-destroying as large tracts of my home town of Hull. If you make it in London, you probably stay in your community and commute. You can't make it in Hull so you move to Leeds.

Once enough people in an area demand cheap vegetables, local shops will start selling them. People unprepared or unable to travel outside the area can now buy vegetables too. And once there's a significant minority of people buying vegetables, buying them doesn't make you a weirdo who should be beaten up. Hey presto! A cultural shift! 


  • At 2:51 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    You mean people in Hull don't go to giant Grandways in Willerby for their shopping anymore?
    Buses in Hull used to be free. They were blue and had a logo with three crowns on. What happened to that?

  • At 3:55 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Heck, I remember all that from my childhood!

    The giant Grandways became a Safeways which went bust. Now I think it's a Waitrose (Willerby and Kirkella being posh 'n all).

    The blue buses went bust. It's been just East Yorkshire Motor Services (EYMS) for a long time.

    I doubt the buses were ever free though! I remember having a bus pass when I went to senior school.


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