The poor: deserving or not?

This post on the BBC website got me thinking. The latest recession has re-polarised talk about class in British Society. In particular, emphasis has fallen upon one particular section of society: ‘the poor’. The semantics are important – the proletariat, the plebians, the working class, and so on are all names for the lower rung on the ladder of society. Most of them constructed and imposed from above. But do the poor deserve to be poor? Do the deserve help? Are the rich undeservedly rich? I spent three years at Uni looking at ideas of class, and what were are hearing now is all too familiar.

I don’t think it would be remiss of me to state that of the population at large, the poorest have the most to lose in any recession. Their jobs are always the first to go. People who generally make ends meet without any luxury will suffer the most from losing their jobs – mortgages unpaid, food and fuel bills struggling to be met, etc. The working class are also the kind of people who have the most to lose when services are cut – such as state education, healthcare and social services – because in most cases they lack the resources to go private. Middle and upper classes, however, can well afford to pay for private education, private healthcare, etc etc. And why should they care if other people cannot look after themselves? Now, more than any time since the Second World War, our senior Ministers are made up of people who know nothing of how the majority of the population life from day to day.

Most of these services, provided by the state, are still relatively modern. State education for all only developed in the very late Nineteenth Century, while the modern welfare state was born out of the Beveridge report during Second World War. So, state help for those in society who are struggling is a relatively modern theory. And I cannot help but think that there are plenty of people – namely those who are doing very well for themselves – who would be quite happy to take things back to the Nineteenth Century way of doing things, the ‘fuck you I’m alright Jack’ approach. For hundreds of years the upper classes held the view that the poor being poor was their own fault. I’ve never read a satisfactory explanation as to why this should have been – after all, until perhaps the Twentieth Century the opportunities for poor people to advance themselves were virtually nil, class barriers being all but impermeable. One of the most important ways that poorer people can get on life is via a University Education. Until soon, when the ConDem‘s policies will restore Higher Education to being a privilege of the few.

Talking about class, is class as a term still relevant in modern society? I think so, its just slightly different to our old ‘working-middle-upper’ constructions. You could almost argue that there is a ‘non-working’ class, of people who, for whatever reason, do not work. Either they are long-term unemployed, disabled, or haver simply made a life choice to not bother. In my experience, working people tend to have more disdain for non-working people than anyone else. Why should they have the same standard of living as me, they might wonder, if I work and pay taxes, and they don’t work and receive everything for free?

This brings up the theme of ‘work’. Work does seem to be the gold standard for whether somebody is deserving of help from the state. I find it hard to argue with the idea that somebody who loses their job through no fault of their own deserves help. Also, people who have worked, but become ill or for whatever reason cannot work. Or people who cannot work at all, through no fault of their own. But I cannot help but feel that all the time working people are being squeezed for taxes and facing the threat of redundancy, it is not quite right for people who have no intention of contributing anything to society to take out of society. The problem is, those looking on the lower classes from above tend to lump everyone in this bracket. But does the working class exist now as it did 60 or so years ago? I feel not, as work itself is such a different term, what used to be the working class is now so much more fracturous.

Norman Tebbitt famously said that the unemployed should ‘get on their bikes and find a job’. Expect to hear more patronising headlines like that in the next few months. Whilst there are plenty of people out there who are content to sit on their arse at home doing nothing and getting paid for it, many thousands of people are going to find themselves out of work, looking hard for work, but finding nothing. Telling them to ‘get on their bikes’ when there arent any jobs to pedal after in the first place shows how out of touch some politicians are. The phrases might be different, but the mindset is the same.



Filed under debate, News, politics, social history

20 responses to “The poor: deserving or not?

  1. Great post. Quite interesting to see how you face extremely similar issues in your country as here in the US.

  2. x

    Which class do you think you belong to JD?

  3. James Daly

    Interesting question x.

    My family history is very much working class, and at the lower end at that too. All of my family have been manual workers – sailors, dockies, etc. Theres never been any money, property or status around. I’m the first person from both branches of my family to go to uni. I would say that I subscribe very much to working class values – I abhor snobbery and pointless frivolity, I prefer old style pubs to fancy bars, I like hard work, and as a historian I try to work with a ‘bottom-up’ approach, because after all thats where I come from and its what I know. They’re my roots and I wont sell out on them.

    I guess there are two ways to think of class – what you perceive yourself as, and what others perceive you as, which are not always the same thing. Most people I went to school with would probably think me a toff for having a degree, yet many of the intelligentsia might think me a grockle for coming from what is known as a council estate. I guess that shows how class perceptions are by no means arbitrary.

    • x

      Um. I fell off my chair in one “early modern” tutorial when the tutor suggested “we” the middle-class had won…..

      • John Erickson

        Don’t know about Britain, but the US middle class didn’t win, it’s dying. Estimates show in about 20-30 years, there won’t be a “middle class”. There will be large numbers who are “very upper middle class” today who drive Benz SUVs to work and watch live Internet on LCD/Plasma TVs and smart phones, and even larger numbers who (like myself) are using 10-year old tech, living paycheck to paycheck until a major repair or medical expense hits, and will then plunge into the homeless/penniless group who will die before 65 due to no health care. Cheery outlook, ain’t it?

        • x

          Well when the NHS collapse we will probably in the same place.

          The class issue here is slightly more complex working-middle-upper. But to be honest I have stopped trying to worry about it!!!

          • John Erickson

            Well, X, you must remember, when we kicked y’all out 235 years ago, we were ALL unemployed! So, if you figure reported unemployment is teetering around 9-10%, and there’s another chronic 10% (like yours truly) out there, that means the US is 80% better off than in 1776, right? 😀 So when the NHS collapses, slip over the Mexican border and we can set up a deadbeat compound here in redneck Ohio! (And as an illegal immigrant, you’ll get benefits I can’t!)

            • x

              I hear you about the illegal immigrant business. On the few I tried to go to get a job in warehousing I always had to provide references and other stuff. If I were Eastern Europe or African references don’t seem to be a problem.

              Anyway you lot go to war with Mexico there will be plenty of employment….

              • John Erickson

                We can’t go to war with Mexico, X. Too many of our soldiers are Mexican! When’s the last time you saw a white US soldier from a well-to-do family, anyway?

  4. Surely you’re not syggesting that there is anything wrong about the country being run by Eton educated professional politicians?

    I think it is more about perceptions than anything else. Those who have never experienced unemployment or low paid and crappy jobs make assumptions about things they know nothing about. Likewise those who have never worked in [insert field of choice]/

  5. James Daly

    It does seem to be the thing with politics nowadays that you go into it as a career itself, rather than progressing to it after running a business, serving in the forces or even heading up a trade union. The result is a cabal of ruthlessly ambitious people with little life experience beyond politics, and no ability to empathise with the people that they supposedly represent. And I extend this to ALL political parties.

  6. Edna Cahill

    Non-workers are being urged to take any job going, to keep up ‘the habit of work’; but innumerable employers are reducing their own expenditure by closing down full-time jobs and replacing them with part-time (16-20 hours) contracts, on a three-month contract basis. this gives no security to the worker and, adding insult to injury, an inadequate wage to cover rent and food; even the ‘advantage’ of paying less income tax does not help this situation.
    The downside of this is, fewer workers equals less income tax paid, equals reduced income for the government ………… no comment. Edna

  7. John Erickson

    Apologies for my absence, my laptop had a nervous fit yesterday. Took a bit to get it to behave again.
    I’m not familiar with the structuring of British “public assistance”, but here in the States, there is a certain subset of the “on the dole” poor for whom it is more profitable to stay on public aid than to go out for honest work. In my area, people can do work for which they are paid in cash, therefore not being reported to the Internal Revenue Service. They can then claim government benefits, especially if they have children. Mind you, because no government authority recognises migraine headaches as a reasonable disability, and because I have no children, I am not eligible for ANY benefits, despite having paid into the system for almost 2 decades before I became disabled. The inconsistencies are the most frustrating part of the “aid for all” basis of governmental subsidies.

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