Wednesday, October 08, 2008

In which the word "class" is used correctly by accident

An interesting post by James Graham points out three Guardian articles which touch on issues of class. The first is about the evils of right-to-buy, where James correctly points out that the lack of a land value tax is the real problem (although neither James nor the Guardian's John Harris talks about the artificial shortage of housing generated by restrictive planning laws, which affects all tenures). The second is about food, and the third is about smoking. Both of these make the same point.

James attacks the idea of meritocracy, defined as
The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it - unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with.

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 same issue came up when I went to a fundraiser for CHICKS (who are wonderful - you should send money). A social worker who sends children on CHICKS holidays went through a case study of how "Jake" turned into a criminal despite having £750,000 of taxpayer's money wasted trying to stop this. His argument was that the right kind of early interventions, such as identifying at-risk kids and sending them on country holidays, can stop this happening cheaply.

The story of how Jake turned bad was quite long, but only once was material poverty mentioned - Jake lived in cramped accommodation, which meant that he couldn't stay out of the way of his older brothers. Jake was one of five children and didn't live in a particularly cheap area, so even upper middle class parents would have trouble affording a room of his own for him. Jake's problems were caused by his mother having five children by multiple fathers, his father beating his mother, his older brothers abusing him, and his friends on the estate recruiting him into a criminal gang. And the early interventions that might have worked don't involve dramatically improving Jake's material standard of living (which is why they are cheap) - they involve giving him experiences that may cause him to change his behaviour for the better.

The Polly Toynbees of this world tell us that the reason why the poor don't cook real food (which is usually cheaper than junk) or take exercise is that they are too tired after working two hard manual jobs to put food on the table. How this explains the behaviour of Jamie Oliver's "star" pupil (who is long-term unemployed) or Jake's brother is unclear. In any case, if the Polly Toynbees were right and material poverty did cause all these social problems, then they would have been worse in the 1950's, when all classes were poorer than they are now.

When writing about "class", the Guardian writers are trying to suggest that these problems are caused by income inequality. But, as I have blogged before, class has several meanings, and the most common meaning in ordinary British English is about culture and values, not about income. This post is all about class in that sense, so the Guardian writers are right for the wrong reasons.

The social problems of poverty are intractable because they are about class (in the ordinary English sense), not about poverty. Changing class-based values is hard, and a lot of the interventions that work look like Guardian-reading middle class silliness because that is the whole point - to teach middle class values.

The problem is that the "respectable working class" has largely ceased to exist. It suffered a blow when the expansion of higher education turned a lot of its natural leaders middle class, and was systematically crushed by Thatcherism. Most of the people affected ended up lower-middle class (often as a result of right to buy), which is a good thing. The ones who didn't became the underclass, which is a bad thing, because they didn't have the social capital to stop their children growing up as chavs.

P.S. This post and the linked articles and comments are hinting at the same issue in America, and are heartily recommended.


  • At 12:37 am , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    Excellent post, but one point of issue:

    Are there no reasons to smoke or eat junk food?

    If A's life is less fun than B's then A has more rational incentive to trade lifespan for fun activities, than B does.


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