Confused Politics

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Posts Tagged ‘conservative

How to Deal with the Underclass?

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The London riots have triggered a lot of debate about dealing with the underclass. Yes we know that rioting is unacceptable behaviour, and that looting and arson is pure criminality, but right now I want to think about how to deal with the wider problem that has been highlighted by these events.

Every Western country has an underclass, although it will vary in size and nature from country to country. These underclasses are expensive, unproductive and occasionally lead to major social upheaval. So, if you were suddenly running your country’s government and had a decent amount of political capital to achieve your policies what would you do?

 Tony Weller

The problem in the UK is not one of absolute poverty, members of the underclass are not starving, they have adequate healthcare and housing. This is a situation that makes me happy to some degree. I think that in an extremely rich and ostensibly civilised country it is important to make sure that there is indeed a safety net. So what are the problems?

Here’s what I think:

– Education
– Discipline
– Prospects
– Poverty trap
– Culture

At the risk of sounding like some kind of unholy cross between a Leftwing stooge and a devout Big Society Cameronite (or is that exactly what a Lib Dem is?), I believe both views have partial solutions. I don’t think it’s possible to just talk about the oppression and neglect of society, resulting in their poor behaviour and disillusionment. People need to remember that even the most deprived citizens of this country still live somewhere that provides free education until they are 18, significant state assistance for further education, healthcare, housing, ensures that they do not have to go hungry etc. People have to take some level of responsibility for their own actions, for failing to take advantage of the opportunities that are offered to them. Throwing money at the problem or building more youth clubs might paper things over and prevent rioting, but it still leaves things simmering. Out of sight-out of mind is rarely a good strategy.

However, it also looks pretty clear to me that one can’t just take the self-congratulatory middle-class approach of announcing that these people are just welfare queens who don’t want to work and leach off the good hard-working citizens of this country. Sure, there are routes out of the underclass available for people, but to use them they have to get past a pernicious culture, unhelpful parents and a failing education system. It’s a cop out to announce that if people simply worked hard enough they could escape their situation.

This actually leads into my first point. Working harder. At the moment members of the underclass are surrounded by a culture of not working. Their parents don’t work, their friends and associates’ parents don’t work, their schools don’t expect them to work and our media seems to focus on and promote get-rich-quick methods of advancement. Solutions to these kinds of problems are difficult. However, I would say that schools have to be the key to it all. There is only so much that can be done to make bad parents be better parents, unless you’re willing to go into some seriously authoritarian behaviour (which I’m not). The school system needs to be used to provide higher expectations for deprived students. Many young people (and here I also include the middle classes) have never really been told ‘no’ in a meaningful way. Their parents want to be their friends and the education system is also unable to provide discipline.

So what is needed in education? I don’t want to go into it in too much depth, but my own instinct would be to say better staff and more disciplinary power for schools. One is likely to cost money, the other is a classic conservative policy. The ability of a teacher is the largest factor in the performance of pupils and children need to have limits laid down in their lives, either by their parents or by their schools. If they learn no limits then they’re useless as workers and effectively end up excluded from society. It might also be worth considering some sort of cash incentive for good behaviour, whether a carrot or a stick. But, rather than aiming it at pupils, aim it at parents. Anyway, sorting out inner city education is much too big a topic to deal with in any more detail than this without giving it its own blog post (which I may do).

Prospects are very heavily linked with education as an issue. However, it’s not the only issue, globalisation has seen outsourcing cutting a swathe through many career paths, and in order to have prospects it’s necessary to also have aspirations and ambitions that are achievable. Education makes things achievable, but those ambitions need to be given to people. Schools, parents and society in general need to be making sure that young people have a goal to work towards and that that goal is realistically achievable.

However, I’m not convinced by claims that there are no unskilled jobs available, from my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience in London there are plenty of jobs of these kinds around, and they often seem to be filled by immigrants who can barely speak English. I think there is a problem with British-born people seeing themselves as above minimum wage jobs, which ties neatly into the question of the poverty trap. By that I mean the situation where people choosing to work instead of claim benefits are faced by an extremely high marginal tax rate. In other words, if they choose to work they get very little or no extra money because they lose benefits as fast or faster than their income increases. There are two potential solutions to this. One is to cut benefits, then when people work there’s more to gain. The other is to increase the return from work, whether it’s by keeping benefits for higher incomes or by raising wages/reducing taxes. Being a wishy washy liberal type I prefer the carrot to the stick, but I’m willing to be convinced.

The final issue that I mentioned is culture. Among the underclass there seems to be a pernicious culture of glorifying illegal behaviour and rampant consumerism (which their incomes can’t support). There is a similar consumer culture across the whole of society and this combines with the promotion of get-rich-quick to present an unrealistic picture of how things should be to the young. When large numbers of people see mediastar/footballer as the only desirable career paths then society has a problem. Particularly when the popular image of those people hides the amount of work that one has to put in to actually succeed at them. Sadly, culture is one area that I don’t have many ideas about on the national level. Its sheer momentum and intangibility makes it much harder to change.

I realise that I have breezed over solutions to the problems that I’ve brought up, but I could write essays on each of them individually and this post has already gone over 1000 words, so I would rather leave that for debate and/or later blog posts instead of writing a thesis.


Written by Confused Politics

August 10, 2011 at 2:45 pm