The Two Nations


 

Recently, taking advantage of the summer weather, I spent a lazy Sunday on Hampstead Heath.  As I made the short walk from my home in Archway to the park it became increasingly clear to me there was defacto segregation in effect in north London; that it was possible for people to live in very close proximity to each other, but to live completely separate lives – working, shopping and socialising in two different worlds.

 

Of course I am talking about social class – which has become a dirty word under New Labour.  Inequalities of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are currently in, while talking about class gets you labelled a dinosaur.  However, social class is still a central concept in understanding society today, with numerous studies showing how the class a person is born into influences many aspects of their lives, and directly affects a person’s life chances.  But what does it mean to be on the wrong side of this class divide? 

 

Poverty is seriously damaging to your health. Studies overwhelmingly show that for most health conditions, those with lower incomes have it much worse than those who are rich. Respiratory diseases, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, tooth decay and suicide are all more prevalent among the poor. Fat is also a class issue. Recent figures from the Department of Health show that the rate of obesity for girls in the most well-off quintile was 4.5 per cent, doubling to 8.8 per cent in the most deprived quintile. One of the reasons for this disparity might be nutritional. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) notes "the poorer you are the worse your diet", with surveys consistently showing poorer families tend to consume less fruit and vegetables, and more fats and sugars.[i]

 

According to Office for National Statistics figures the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is at an all-time high.  Women living in Kensington and Chelsea can expect, on average, to live 12 years longer than their counterparts in Glasgow City, while men born in Glasgow City face a worse life expectancy level than developing nations such as Algeria or Vietnam.[ii]

 

Children from poorer families tend to do less well at school than those who are richer, with less staying on after GCSEs.[iii]  Indeed, the attainment gap tends to widen as children progress through the education system.[iv]  Those children from poor families that do make it to university can expect more debt than other students, and by taking part-time jobs to ward off this debt, tend to depress their final degree mark.[v]

 

Oblivious to all the evidence I have just presented, recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about attitudes to poverty found "the public are largely unaware or in denial of its existence."[vi]  When poverty was admitted many put it down to "bad choices and wrong priorities", "laziness or lack of will power".[vii]

 

These individualistic explanations mirror what many of the privileged say about poverty: "Yes life is unfair, but if you work hard, you can make it". This meritocratic myth is a convenient justification for gross social inequality. However, as well as being an insult to the millions of people who work tremendously hard just to survive, this argument is becoming increasingly dated. Over the past twenty years, social mobility has ground to a halt, with the gap between rich and poor actually widening. Today, a middle-class child is 15 times more likely to stay middle-class than a working-class child is likely to move up into the middle-class.  "By 18 or 20 your life is largely mapped out for you", argues Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at University of Sheffield.  "Youll either have interesting jobs where you use your mind your whole life or your life will be working in a servile occupation."[viii]

 

The system works by exploiting the many to create wealth for the few, not by rewarding hard work in and for itself. Interestingly, it is the countries with the least amount of social mobility (the US and UK) that have the strongest myths about working your way to the top.  A coincidence?  I think not.  However, there are nations that do have a far greater amount of movement between the classes (and importantly, far less poverty) than BritainSweden for example.

 

Although New Labour has made some progress in reducing child poverty, the recent news that the number of children living in poverty actually rose by 200,000 in 2005/6 demonstrates the Government is not doing enough to achieve its publicly-stated aim of halving child poverty by 2010.[ix]  "Reducing child poverty will require much more investment and a broader strategy", says CPAGs Chief Executive Kate Green.  "Its time address the structural causes, including Britains dependence on poverty-pay jobs and the high levels of inequality It will need an extra £4 billion annual investment."[x]

 

Confined by the straightjacket of neo-liberalism and happy to bank roll imperialist wars and Trident replacement, it is unlikely Gordon Brown is going to significantly reduce poverty further. 

 

 

Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected]

 





 



[i]  Elizabeth Dowler, Sheila Turner and Barbara Dobson, Poverty bites: food, health and poor families, (London: Child Poverty Action Group, 2001).

 

[ii]  Edmund Conway, ‘Where to live if you want a healthy old age’, Telegraph, 25 November 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/11/22/nhealth22.xml.

 

[iii]  Malcolm Dean, ‘Social mobility is still an unequal struggle’, Guardian (Society), 3 May 2006, http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/comment/story/0,,1765869,00.html. 

 

[iv]  Jo Blanden and Sandra McNally, ‘Mind the gap: child poverty and educational attainment’, Poverty.  Journal of the Child Poverty Action Group, Issue 123, Winter 2006, p. 11.

 

[v]  John Crace, ‘Students set sail on choppy waters’, Guardian (Education), 19 September 2006, http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1875318,00.html.

 

[vi]  Sarah Castell and Julian Thompson, Understanding attitudes to poverty in the UK.  Getting the publics attention, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007, p. 7, http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/eBooks/2000-poverty-attitudes-uk.pdf.

 

[vii]  Alison Park, Miranda Phillips and Chloe Robinson, Attitudes to poverty.  Findings from the British Social Attitudes survey, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007, p. 3, http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/eBooks/1999-poverty-attitudes-survey.pdf. 

 

[viii]  Mary O’Hara, ‘Vital statistics’, Guardian (Society), 8 February 2006, http://society.guardian.co.uk/interview/story/0,,1704223,00.html .

 

[ix]  Ashley Seager, ‘Blow for Brown as poverty figures increase after years of decline’, Guardian, 28 March 2007, http://society.guardian.co.uk/socialexclusion/story/0,,2044236,00.html. 

 

[x]  ‘CPAG press release: Complacent strategy risks not working for children as child poverty rises’, Child Poverty Action Group, 27 March 2007, http://www.cpag.org.uk/press/270307.htm.

 

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