Friday, 30 April 2010

Vicious, self-serving snobbery is a solution to nothing

In January, I wrote The mainstream media and the snobbery doctrine. Highlighting the Daily Mail's Amanda Platell in particular, I explained the propaganda function of tirades against the poor;
As the ideological defenders of the capitalist system, they are invested in convincing the rest of us that it works. Poverty is the fault of the poor, and those who would take welfare to keep themselves and their families alive rather than dying in a ditch as the wretched should are filthy scroungers to be mocked and scorned.
Platell, the champion of this ideological snobbery, has come out with another corker today.

Titled "The town that marriage forgot: My journey to single mother central," it's remarkable for having a pop at single mothers, the poor, the unemployed, unmarried parents, and the North West of England in a single article. It caught my eye because Knowsley isn't that far from Liverpool, and it's where my dad grew up in a working class household with ten brothers.

Here is Platell's opening gambit;
Step outside the comfort zone of your own community for a moment and imagine what a society would look like in which 75 per cent of all children are born outside marriage.

That's a projection by the Office of National Statistics which suggests this could become a reality in as little as five years' time.

It offers a profoundly disturbing vision of Britain with its social fabric torn away: the stability of the nuclear family all but lost, the discipline and love of a father absent in so many children's lives. 
Let's ignore the fact that, not being a Mail reader, you know being born out of wedlock doesn't automatically equal having no father. Let's also ignore that, again because we're not Mail-reading Little Englander fuckwits, we know single parents can be male as well. Even without those two pieces of (quite frankly obvious) information, does anybody really think that society will collapse if couples don't seek sanction for their love from the state? Or that your parents can only love you if they wear a ring on a specific finger?

Platell admonishes us. "You may like to think it just won't happen, that such a prediction is simply too extreme." Or that it's really irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. "But the truth is that, give or take a few percentage points, it already has. Nationally, the number of children born out of wedlock has risen steeply to 45 per cent  -  with 30 per cent of those being born to unmarried couples and 15 per cent to single mothers."

Oh dear. Start the sirens, the apocalypse cometh. The way Platelly phrases it, it sounds as though 55 per cent of children born out of wedlock were born neither to unmarried couples nor to single mothers. That leaves far more single fathers than we can possibly believe, or babies popping out of thin air.

However, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she meant 30% of all babies were born to unmarried couples, and 15% to single mothers, to make a total of 45% of babies born out of wedlock. Even so, single mothers remain a minority. It's just people raising kids without bothering to go through the expense and the hassle of marriage.

Clearly, even Platell can't drag a half-baked attack on the poor out of that, so it's over to Merseyside;
There is, however, one town in this country where the number of lone-parent families is nearly twice the national average, where residents claim the second highest Jobseeker's Allowance, where 25 per cent of people claim long-term sickness benefits, and where in some areas nearly half of all people smoke. 

The place is Knowsley on Merseyside, which  -  with a shade under 70 per cent of children born outside marriage  -  might better be labelled Single Mum Central. It is, in short, the town that turned its back on marriage. 

Of course, those figures include children born to couples who cohabit, but spend any time here and it's clear that thousands of children are being raised without a father in their lives.
By "spend any time," I'm going to assume she means "drive through as fast as possible with the doors locked and take some stock photos to aid the mocking of people less fortunate than yourself."

The first thing you learn by dissecting these facts is that the headline is a lie. With 70% of children born out of marriage, with "twice the national average" (30%, then) born to single mums, you still have 70% of children born in a two-parent household. So much for "Single Mum Central."

But, says the reactionary who's parachuted in to admonish us, "To anyone who thinks that marriage doesn't matter any more, I would say this: look for the legacy of this seismic social change in the schools of this once genteel town." Leaving aside the use of the word "genteel," and the Middle England nostalgia for a time that never was, we are supposed to blame the fact "that these secondary schools are the worst in the country, bar none" on who these kids' parents do (or don't) live with.

Luckily for us, Platell manages to uncover the real reasons behind the levels of unemployment and the condition of the school system herself. Of course, since it doesn't fit her ideological by-line, it is buried within the article somewhat;
Thanks to this Government's determination to pour money into the North, hundreds of millions of pounds  -  some say more than £1billion  -  has been spent on regenerating Knowsley, so it is as far from the stereotypical sink estate as you can imagine.

But as far as I can see it is essentially an elaborate facade, concealing some of the greatest social deprivation in this country coupled with an abject lack of social responsibility and a benefits culture that is shocking to behold.
Did you catch that? That's right, "social deprivation." Platell tries to disguise this by going into detail over six paragraphs about how Knowsley is "as far from the stereotypical sink estate as you can imagine," before having to admit that this is a sham to disguise rather than alleviate the problem. Then, having admitted the reality, she hastily adds that it's probably the locals' fault for claiming too many benefits and being irresponsible. Because, of course, it can't be the deprivation that led to mass unemployment and required people to claim benefits, can it?

In fact, yes, it can. Ethel Austin, the NHS, News International, and Delphi have all shed jobs in the area over the past few years, and these are just a few recent examples. Mass unemployment first hit the region forty years ago. A report from the Times Educational Supplement offers a far more realistic analysis of this than any Mail writer ever could;
Best known for its safari park and stately home, the Liverpool suburb is an idiosyncratic mix of urban decay and royal golf courses, and according to government GCSE league tables, it is officially the bottom of the pile.
Barely more than a third (33 per cent) of pupils in the Merseyside borough achieve the Government's target of five A*-C grades, including English and maths.

But, as is so often, the figures do not tell the whole story. Formed in the great local authority reshuffle in the mid-1970s, Knowsley suffers as so many like it for being on the periphery of a major city.

But as Liverpool played the role as the country's poorest son, Knowsley was equally affected by deprivation and neglect.

Even as money in its billions was poured into the regeneration of Liverpool's city centre thanks to private investment and the huge cash bonanza that accompanied the European Capital of Culture, the city's suburbs saw little of the good times.

But vast swathes of Liverpool's outskirts still sit bereft of investment and direction. Whole housing estates stand vacant, while roads such as Edge Lane, which feeds into Knowsley, are lined by boarded-up council houses.

This is the backdrop for Knowsley's startlingly poor statistics and it explains why it was one of the first local authorities to be handed cash from Building Schools for the Future. The borough received more than £160 million from the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of the first wave of BSF in a bid by the Government to "bring England's schools into the 21st century".

It is now officially the first to have rebuilt every secondary school within its boundaries. Part of Knowsley's plan was to improve the schools to ensure it keeps its young people in them. One of the main reasons for its poor GCSE results is the way it loses young people like a leaking tap to schools around the area in neighbouring Liverpool and Sefton.

Like the majority of local authorities in the first wave of the school rebuilding programme, Knowsley's schools were the depressing 1950s and 1960s blocks, crammed with asbestos and so much glass that they would act like a chiller cabinet in the winter and a green house in the summer.
No talk of social irresponsiblity or single mothers from people who've actually visited the area and don't have an agenda of snobbery, then. But whilst the TEC took the time to go around the schools and to learn what was really going on, Platell took the opportunity to find several random single parents, offer leading questions, mock them as hard as she could from a position of privilege, and derive half-baked conclusions she already knew she was going to end up with.

Perhaps the most enlightening quote she gets is from a woman called Kate;
I'd happily go back to work if I could work between the school runs. But there are no jobs like that which pay more than my benefits.
The conclusion of the right-wing reactionary is that "such is the bloated level of state support the Government offers women such as these, there is simply no incentive for them to work." The reality, as anybody who has had to work in jobs slightly less accomodating than a national newspaper and anybody acquainted with single parents will know, is that the real problem is low pay - not high benefits. Platell's job may allow her to disappear for the school run and spend adequate time with her kids. Fast food chains, supermarkets, and other bottom-rung jobs will not.

After speaking to these women, and twisting their words to support her anti-welfare invective, Platell asks "how did this once respectable working-class area, where people did work and welfare was a dirty word, where marriage and the family were seen as the bedrock of the community, turn into a ghetto of dependency?"

She hits on the answer when she says that "The roots of its decline can be traced back to the Sixties and Seventies, when the docks closed and entire families become unemployed overnight." But a class analysis of how working people have been abandoned since that time, with money spent of corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich instead of industry and infrastructure is not forthcoming. Instead, she betrays her already obvious bias by quoting a Conservative parliamentary candidate and a priest in order to place the blame on sex before marriage and single parents.

This is precisely what is wrong with the reasoning of Platell and her co-thinkers. They try far too hard to place a moral judgement upon ultimately economic issues. People on benefits struggle to live day to day, as I know firsthand from the experiences of both friends and neighbours. More often than not, they want to work and are prevented only by the availability of jobs with a sustainable income. Nonetheless, all parties are promising to cut their benefits under the false pretence that refusing to accept an unsustainable income amounts to refusing to work.

She may be right that "drugs are a symptom of the hopelessness of youths without a decent education, born into families of third or fourth generation unemployed" and that "the only way out of this spiral of poverty and dependency is through education and employment." But this has nothing to do with marriage, sex, or morality, and everything to do with the economic system we live in where people are second-fiddle to profit.

If we want to change this, it will not be through deriding the poor in order to soothe the consciences of the privileged.