Wednesday, 11 August 2010

"Toerag parents" or, the art of blaming the poor for capitalism's ills

New research by the Prince's Trust has found that young people from jobless families are more likely to grow up feeling talentless and expecting to end up on the dole.

In it, we read that 16 to 24-year-olds whose parents did not work were twice as likely as their peers to feel they had no skills or talents. 20% expected to end up on benefits. One in 10 claimed to struggle at school as a result of their parents' unemployment, and they were more likely to leave school at 16 because their family and friends did the same.

As chief executive Martina Milburn commented;
Too many young people are facing a cycle of worklessness and can’t see a way out. It is a tragedy to think that so many feel condemned to a life on benefits.
However, she stresses the need to "giv[e] young people skills, confidence and positive role models" in order to "stop these disadvantaged young people becoming disadvantaged adults."

This reflects the fact that "young people want to work, with more than three quarters (76 per cent) saying that finding a good job is their main priority for the future and nearly two thirds (65 per cent) stating that their main aim is to support their family." And "more than six out of ten (63 per cent) say that having more volunteering opportunities in their local area would give them the skills they needed to find a job."

The problem is that entire communities find themselves abandoned by the wheels of capitalism. In many areas, well-paid, unionised workplaces have disappeared to be placed by demoralising, low-wage McJobs for with little scope for development in a disposable workforce.

This is why the research also found that more young people in Liverpool and Manchester grow up in jobless households than anywhere else in the UK.

77% of young people in the north west of England had struggled to find a job, while 9% end up on benefits because those around them have. Looking at the places where this problem is most endemic, it is easy to see why.

In a previous article dissecting the snobbery of Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell, I cited a Times Educational Supplement assessment of Knowsley;
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.
As I said at the time, "working people have been abandoned ... with money spent on corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich instead of industry and infrastructure."

People on benefits "want to work and are prevented only by the availability of jobs with a sustainable income." Which, of course, is the conclusion of this new Prince's Trust report.

But, as ever, politicians have ignored the facts in order to fit their own agenda. Employment minister Chris Grayling insists that "our plans for a national work programme and benefit reform are the only way to start to make a real difference." Those plans being the same ones which will drive the disabled even further into poverty and attack those most in need of welfare.

To add insult to injury, Labour MP Frank Field has laid the blame for the "vicious downward spiral" of "permanent squalor, chaos and hostility" at the feet of "toerag parents who haven't got a clue how to raise children, and delegate the role of breadwinner to the social security system."

As he puts it in the Daily Mail;
A deepening sense of malaise hangs over our society. Violent crime is widespread, family breakdown endemic.

Too many urban areas are scarred by anti-social behaviour, binge-drinking and drug abuse.

Standards of educational attainment remain stubbornly low, while the vast welfare system provides perverse incentives towards mass idleness and irresponsibility.

Some commentators argue that it was always like this, that modern Britain is no more chaotic than it has been in previous centuries.

And there is an element of truth in this.

I am no nostalgic, wide-eyed romantic. Indeed, from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century, Britain could be a pretty nasty place in which to live.

But it cannot be denied that during the Victorian age, the social fabric of our country underwent a remarkable transformation as all classes embraced the ethos of self-respect.

As a greater emphasis was placed on thrift, decency and social responsibility, rates of crime and illegitimacy both fell dramatically.

Rising standards of living partly explain this shift.

But even among the poor and badly-paid manual workers, living in dismal, often overcrowded conditions, there was a growing desire to behave respectably and with dignity.

It was an attitude reinforced not only by strong family structures, but also by a powerful network of civic institutions, including working men’s clubs, trades unions, churches and youth clubs.

Yet that culture, which prevailed in Britain until the early Sixties, now seems a world away.

In the past five decades, this positive social outlook has been largely eradicated.

The results can be seen all around us, whether it be in the growing number of fatherless, jobless households, or the failure of more and more parents to rear children properly.
All of which reactionary drivel could as easily have come from the pen of Mail columnist Mad Mel Phillips as from the Labour MP for Birkenhead.

The erosion of community solidarity in fact derives from a combination of the casualisation of work and the increasing frequency of home moves. The latter being driven by a decline in social housing and a bubble of inflationary pressures which have relegated more people to tenants rather than homeowners.

The economic deprivation which I described above is the real reason for the spiral of despair and helplessness which has gripped the poorest areas. And whilst lack of sustainable income traps people on welfare, a whole host of financial and social factors impede peoples' ability and/or willingness to move out of deprived areas.

But that is too complex for Field. Scapegoating single mothers and harking back to the cruel discipline and obscene class inequality of the Victorian era is apparently the easy way out.

More job losses are on the way, and the government is set to send more people and communities into unemployment and even deeper poverty. Blaming us for their actions - from the Thatcher era and beyond to the present "austerity" - may soothe their consciences, but it does nothing to address the real problems.

If we want to reverse the situation, we need direct action and militancy - on the streets and picket lines - to repel the attacks on our class. The ruling class will not change direction out of the goodness of their hearts, but only if we can force them to do so.

Meanwhile, now is the time to rebuild and strengthen the institutions of mutual aid and solidarity which have held working class communities together in spite of state and capital. We need to build the bonds of the society we desire within the shell of the society we live in.

We cannot wait for politicians of any stripe to draw back from cheap gimmicks and economic dogma. We need to take the initiative for ourselves. It's time for the "toerags" to fight back.