The Financial Times has a fascinating article based on a Soros-funded study of Britain’s white working class. The same Soros Foundation previously funded a similar sociological study of Britain’s Muslims. There are some interesting data here, as Simon Kuper writes in his portrait of one working-class town near Manchester:
Higher Blackley (pronounced “Blakeley”) is mostly inhabited by the white working class, a poorly understood group across western Europe. It’s a class hit by deindustrialisation, economic crisis and the crumbling of the welfare state. It’s the class that supposedly backed the anti-immigration populists who dominated last month’sEuropean elections. It’s a class typically depicted either as a joke or a threat. The caricature: half-witted racist scroungers in tracksuits milking the welfare state from their sofas.
A common rightwing response to people like David comes from the 1980s Conservative Norman Tebbit: “Get on your bike!” Iain Duncan Smith, Britain’s welfare secretary, has also proposed moving unemployed council tenants to areas with jobs.
This is to misunderstand something about Higher Blackley: how dependent people here are on family and neighbours. “Community”, an overused word, actually exists here. As Britain’s welfare state retreats, the locals rely ever more on each other. Often people will collect a neighbour’s child from school. David says that if he can’t go out because of his caring task, his neighbour will fetch him bread. David Cameron, the prime minister, talks of a “Big Society” of people helping each other without the state interfering. Higher Blackley looks like that.
Conservatives often complain about working-class family breakdown. However, that misunderstands the nature of family in places like Higher Blackley: close family here can include great-aunts, cousins, even longstanding neighbours. One difficulty the OSF found in organising focus groups of people who didn’t know each other is that almost everyone in Higher Blackley knows each other. Often, much of the focus group was spent catching up on local chatter. Family is arguably more present here than in middle-class neighbourhoods where people can afford nannies and old-age carers.
Members of the over-50s group at the Higher Blackley community centre
In Higher Blackley, community can provide a roof, a loan, or updates on job vacancies. But it also provides happiness. Many locals don’t want a well-paid job in London. They want a job that pays a living wage here.
Please read the whole thing. It’s well worth your time. There’s far more to it than I’m going to post here. I’m not sure to what extent these findings correspond with the situation among the white working class in the US, but I’m guessing they do to a meaningful degree.
The bit I’ve quoted above indicates how little the standard views of Labour and the Tories (or Democrats and Republicans in our country) can help these people. To tell them to leave for where the jobs are makes sense at one level, but the Soros study reveals the irreplaceable social goods they would be leaving behind — that is, their community, and how it helps them survive, and find happiness. It turns out that not everyone wants to join the rootless professional class.
(Side note: the clip above reminded me of a story my friend David told me back in the 1990s. He worked in an office at one of Washington DC’s universities, and his supervisor was an older black woman. One day another older black woman stopped by the office, and was surprised to see David’s supervisor. Turns out they had been neighbors in their youth, and had lived in a relatively poor neighborhood that had been demolished by Great Society do-gooders, and replaced with a housing project. Listening to the two women talk about all the people they used to know, and what those people did for each other, David said he learned how important those webs of community were, and how far more than substandard housing was destroyed in the name of urban renewal.)
The UK study found that every single white working-class person interviewed wanted to work, but either could not find a job, or the available jobs were barely enough to make ends meet. In one case, the woman interviewed worked at a job that paid her less than she would make if she stayed on welfare, but “pride” (her word) made her work for a living.
It also found that in Britain, the white working class is a prime target for media mockery. “Chav” (the slang term for white working class) culture is routinely made fun of in the UK media, but Kuper strikes a sympathetic note for it. Imagine growing up too poor to buy nice clothes, he says, then one day finding the money to afford an expensive piece of clothing, only to be made fun of by the media for your taste.
Kuper writes that wealthy whites of his acquaintance have little sympathy for white working class people, saying that they ought to go out and get jobs, because society can’t afford to support them on the dole forever. To this, Kuper points out that the money the British taxpayer paid to bail out banks — that is, members of this “get a job” class — dwarfs the money spent annually in welfare benefits. Because there is not a direct payment to the wealthier white people, unlike to the welfare recipients, these rich folks don’t see that they are essentially getting far more in welfare benefits than the poor.
What’s more, says Kuper, the well-off don’t understand how psychologically debilitating poverty and joblessness can be. In the current economy, when many of the jobs available offer few or no benefits, and are highly insecure, the constant anxiety over whether or not the job will be there tomorrow wears people down. At least with the dole, you have a sense of regularity and the security that comes with that.
I think Kuper is too quick to dismiss cultural factors in perpetuating poverty. Individual choices really do have something to do with whether or not you are going to remain stuck in the cycle of poverty, or not. Bearing children out of wedlock is not mentioned in the FT piece, but getting pregnant is the consequence of unwise decision-making by both partners, and it can have an enormous effect on keeping young women and their children in poverty. But as the study makes clear, it is inaccurate and morally wrong to say that it’s entirely about individual choices. When the barriers to choosing well are raised so high, it is unrealistic to expect people to choose rightly.
Here is a link to a short piece on the Soros study, from its website. Something else interesting they found: White working class communities are not as hostile to immigrants as they come off in the popular imagination, but to the extent that they are, some of that comes from the same sense of community cohesion that is socially positive. In other words, the strong social bonds within those communities also imply a distrust of outsiders. It also comes from the fact that there is so little to go around in the first place that there is natural resentment from the Britons who were already there against immigrants who are coming in to compete for those jobs.
Plus, the study found that across northern Europe, the stigmatization of talking about race has had several negative effects. For one, it has allowed those in power to dismiss legitimate white working class concerns as expressions of racism. For another, it has prevented an honest discussion of problems emerging from the presence of immigrant communities in white working-class areas. The study found that many white working-class people become far more accepting of immigrants once they come to believe that the immigrants share their community values. But the fear of being called a racist has chilled the willingness of these whites to talk about their fears, and to talk to their immigrant neighbors.
The entire Soros report is available in PDF format here. It examines white working-class communities in six northern European cities. It finds that they are demonized by the media and the overculture, and their legitimate grievances dismissed, ignored, or mocked, even as this same media, political, and educated class falls all over itself to understand and to help immigrants and ethnic minorities. These white working class people are treated as aliens in their own country.
It’s clear from the Soros report (it was funded by his Open Societies Foundations) that both the European left and the European right are failing the white working class — and failing them in ways that should cause us to question our similar failures in this country.
On the right, free market fundamentalism obscures the human costs unfettered capitalism imposes on vulnerable working-class communities left behind by globalization and deindustrialization. “Get a job,” is not an answer when there are few solid jobs available, and moving to where there’s work, even if you could afford it, would require cutting ties with the only social support network you know.
On the left, a preoccupation with multiculturalism and its dogmas obscures the legitimate complaints of white working class communities in the face of immigration. It allows elites to legitimize ignoring those communities by writing them all off as racist yobs. Plus, there seems to be an insufficient appreciation of the strong work ethic still existing in these communities. If the Soros team is right, most of them don’t want to be on welfare, so the standard left-wing strategy of increasing benefits is not a complete solution.
Among elites and even middle-class people of both sides, the implicit permission the culture gives to mock these people as chavs, or white trash, in ways that the media would never do to racial minorities, lets all of us off the hook for having to think about the lives they lead, and what the rest of us ought to be doing to help them.
One major fault with the Soros report is that it pays no attention to morals and personal culture. The only time it comes up is in this brief paragraph:
There is a link between economic deprivation and low educational achievement. This is not simply a function of poverty, but the result of a complex set of circumstances, including family instability, poor diet, etc.
“Family instability” linked to poverty and a lack of education. This goes back to what I mentioned above, about culture. When unmarried childbearing (or at least childbearing without a father in the home) becomes a cultural norm, poverty is likely to follow. Britain has one of the highest single motherhood rates in Europe, and a third of those women are unemployed. Note well, this is not to “scapegoat” single motherhood, but rather to point out that in communities where it becomes the norm to have babies outside of marriage, and for men to abandon their responsibilities to their child and its mother, there is a powerful, perhaps ineradicable, barrier to overcoming poverty.
For this project I’m working on, I interviewed an older black man who grew up in the Depression, and under Jim Crow. There was no social safety net back then. He explained to me how nobody could get by on their own, so the black community had to pull together to ensure its survival in the face of grinding poverty and discrimination. Today, he told me, the collapse of the black family is at the root of so many of the black community’s problems. He told me a story about a little boy from his neighborhood that he’s mentoring. Smart kid, desperate for a father figure. But the boy doesn’t know his father, and never did.
Good luck trying to get the American left to talk about cultural breakdown as a prime contributor to the plight of the working classes of whatever race. Good luck trying to get the American right to talk about the free market (e.g., trade agreements) as a prime contributor to the plight of the working classes of whatever race. When you only want to hear what you already believe is true, you become like the man whose only tool is a hammer, and who therefore sees all problems as nails.