So, the government has revealed it’s plan to deal with all those anti-social, work shy, boozing and school absconding families that are the scourge of our towns and cities. Hear what a rather belligerent Eric Pickles had to say about it all on the Today programme here.
It is the latest in a long line of government attempts to intervene in the lives of those who have fallen through the holes in our society. We used to talk about social class of course, but this has been out of fashion for some time. The last Labour Government used the language of ‘social exclusion‘, and poured resources into education and measures to deal with child poverty. There is some evidence of success, in that by the end of their term of office, 900,000 children appeared to have been lifted out of poverty- see this article in the Guardian for some discussion about this.
Since then, austerity has opened the door to widespread reductions in benefit, an undermining of family support services, and now, the measures to help ‘problem families’. Note the subtle change in emphasis. No longer is poverty, crime and family dysfunction a matter of economics or a measure of the failure of society- rather it relates to the failure of individuals. We are using the language of blame.
But what can be done, particularly in these times of austerity, to change the lives of those people in our society who are most vulnerable? Might Pickles’ policy of identifying these ‘problem families’, then bringing to bear a wide range of support along with some targeted spending actually help? Is he not just applying good common sense?
By the tone of some of Pickles’ comments over the past few days, it is clear that he has little interest in learning from those of us who have been trying to work in support of the poorest and most broken in our society. They are fluent in social work he said. The Daily Mail loved it;
‘Sometimes we have run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame,’ he said. The Government is spending £450million to try to lessen the problems these families cause, which are calculated to cost taxpayers £9billion a year.
The problem of course, is that in the UK (as in the USA) poverty is politics. And politics loves to simplify and make one dimensional protestations. Often there are scapegoats.
Again, what can be done about these ‘problem families’?
It seems we have two broad approaches, which I will characterise as ‘Pickles’ and ‘Politically correct’ (or ‘PC’.)
Poverty is a matter of morality. It is about poor choices made by people who are a drain on everything that is good about our society.
There may be some who are the deserving poor- Tiny Tim on his crutches, the elderly yokel who has run out of turnips. For these people, the parish has its Poor House.
However, there are also those who have found a way to sponge of the system. What is worse, there is a whole industry of people whose job appears to be about supporting them in this.
These people are a threat to middle England- to those of us who do work hard, cut our front lawns and live prudently within our means. They are the source of disease, crime and noise pollution.
What is needed is a good sharp shock, delivered in a targeted way.
All this liberal research about the causes of poverty is left wing twaddle dressed up as ‘science’.
Poverty is about economics. People are shaped by the place in society they are born into- their opportunities and life chances are largely given to them, not matters of choice.
There are huge vested interests in society that keep things this way.
Poverty brutalises. If you live in a survival economy, and have few opportunities for escape, then small wonder that you will be more likely to find release through drugs or alcohol. Why are we surprised too that some turn to crime?
The human spirit is unquenchable – after all, many still escape the poverty trap – but many others need nurture. They need hope, not condemnation. To blame poor people for poverty is like blaming Jews for the Holocaust.
People do not chose to be poor. Neither (with a few exceptions) do they chose to live on benefits. They do this because they do not have hopes for a real alternative. This is a failure of society, and one that any good society should try to change, no matter how difficult this might be.
The most effective means of changing the lives of the poor is to raise their income.
In the absence of this, a whole range of community based activities are required, guided by careful research, learning from previous interventions so as to avoid the many mistakes of previous attempts at social engineering.
Regular readers of this blog will already suspect which of the two camps I belong to.
But they might also be surprised to hear me say that I believe that both have merit. There is a moral dimension to all of life that we ignore at our peril. Remember Durkheim and his Anomie? We all have personal responsibility for the choices we make, even if for many of us, these choices are limited by our experience.
There is that old parable that Jesus used in Matthew 25- another one of those passages where Jesus was trying to explain something about the Kingdom of God;
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This parable always seemed so unfair and cruel to me- un-Jesus-like. I have heard it used as a capitalist manifesto, but I do not think it has anything to do with money- I think it is something to do with wasted lives though. We have a call to live abundantly- not in terms of how much we gain and consume, but rather in terms of how we love and create.
However, there is more. Jesus had much to say about our duty towards the poor. He was never into the blame game. He seemed to prefer the company of those who had little. He seemed to invite his followers to do the same;
Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
These are not easy issues. They can not be dealt with by one dimensional politics, or well meaning liberal intentions.
Ultimately, the success or failure of Pickles’ latest pet project will not be at his cost- it will be felt by those most vulnerable people in our society.