This essay, on the history of blaming the poor, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 2 August 2020, under the headline ‘Illness, obesity, racism; who gets blamed for our crises? The poor of course’.
The role of government, the US political scientist Lawrence Mead wrote in his 1986 book Beyond Entitlement, is to ‘persuade [people] to blame themselves’. Mead is the godfather of workfare (schemes that make welfare benefits conditional on the claimant working) and a key proponent of the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis – the belief that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty.
‘Persuading people to blame themselves’ could also be a good description of the government’s strategy through the coronavirus crisis. A key theme of the pandemic has been the recognition of its unequal impact; that the poor, the old and ethnic minorities are all disproportionately affected. Yet throughout, ministers have sought to distance themselves from the consequences of their policies – the failure to introduce a proper system of test and trace, the abandonment of care homes, the inadequate stocks of PPE – and striven to blame the behaviour of individuals, especially the poor and the working class.
At the start of the lockdown, ‘selfish’ individuals were admonished for panic-buying. Empty shelves were, in fact, the consequence of people being told to work from home, combined with a ‘just-in-time’ supermarket system.
Then there was finger-pointing at people cramming into London’s tube trains, the inevitable result of essential workers still having to travel to work even as Transport for London was reducing the service. Then came the rebuke of people crowding into parks and beaches, as if those without the privilege of gardens should remain locked in their rooms on the hottest days of the year.
When a rise in cases in Leicester for the imposition of a local lockdown, in June the authorities initially blamed the failure of people to socially distance. Leicester is one of the most deprived areas in England. The upsurge was probably seeded in its sweatshops. For years, campaigners have complained of the atrocious conditions but been ignored, partly because of cuts to health and safety inspections.
Then, as lockdown was being eased, the government reimposed the threat of benefit sanctions. Sanctions do nothing to help the jobless find work, but act, rather, as a form of moral punishment, as Mead proposes, to teach the unemployed ‘civic virtues’.
Now, new restrictions imposed on Greater Manchester and nearby towns have been blamed on ‘households meeting and not abiding to social distancing’.
At every point, the government has insisted that people must ‘blame themselves’. As the health minister Lord Bethell said last week, the ‘least advantaged in society are hardest hit by this disease’, for ‘behavioural reasons’ such as ‘the decisions [they] make about social distancing, about their own health decisions’, adding, almost as an afterthought, that there may be ‘environmental reasons’ too.
There is a long history of blaming the poor for their misfortunes, from the Victorian notion of the ‘undeserving poor’, to the 1960s ‘culture of poverty’ thesis, to New Labour’s crusade against ‘problem families’, to George Osborne’s condemnation of ‘skivers… sleeping off a life on benefits’. At the heart of this history is the attempt to view poverty and inequality as moral rather political issues, the problems of the individual rather than of society.
The latest campaign against obesity feeds into this history, too. Obesity is a significant health issue and an important factor in Covid-19 deaths. But the reason poor people eat junk food is not because they are ignorant or lack middle-class virtues. It’s because of the circumstances of their lives. Britons work the longest hours in Europe. Many are forced into two or more jobs. Few have the time or the resources to cook like Jamie Oliver.
For poor households, fast food is one of the few indulgences they can afford. ‘A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t,’ George Orwell observed in The Road to Wigan Pier, castigating middle-class homilies on working-class diets. ‘When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you… want something a little bit “tasty”.’ If we want healthier diets, we need not lectures on healthy eating but a serious attack on poverty.
Critics such as Mead claim that to stress policy over behaviour is to deprive people of their agency, to deny that poor people, too, are accountable for their actions. Certainly, poor people make choices just as rich people do and are responsible for them. The poor, though, are far more constrained in what they are able to choose – most don’t have the choice of working from home or the leisure not to microwave a ready meal. The aim of social policy should be to restore to people that freedom to be able to make reasonable choices.
Mead returned to the news last week. In a paper in the journal Society he claimed that in America, black and Hispanic people are responsible for their own poverty. America, he suggests, rests on an ‘individualist culture’. Racial minorities, though, ‘all come from non-western cultures where most people seek to adjust to outside conditions rather than seeking change’. Hence ‘blacks and Hispanics… respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas ’.
It’s an argument as rational and as judicious as a Donald Trump tweet. Once, intellectuals argued that certain races are incapable of social progress. Culture now plays the role previously occupied by race.
Descendants of European migrants such as Italians, Irish and Jews may be surprised to learn that they embody ‘individualist culture’, when their grandparents were chastised for lacking such a culture, just as black and Hispanic people are today. On the other hand, contemporary hip-hop culture is, in many ways, the epitome of American individualism, as indeed is criminality in poor neighbourhoods. Far from a lack of individualism, it is the dislocation of communities and the growth of anomic behaviour that haunts both black and white neighbourhoods.
Mead’s paper has drawn much criticism. It is, however, in keeping with the whole of his work – a racialised version of the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis. It should remind us that racism and contempt for poor and working-class people have common roots. To challenge the one, we also have to challenge the other.
Well said, as usual.
I have been editorialising over the years, while teaching my brand of ‘human resources’, that biologists are correct when they say there no such scientifically accurate factor as ‘race’. There is, however, cultural racism. But to brand it as ‘racism’ is to set it aside without further discussion. It is to avoid its alter ego, tribalism. Us versus Them.
Marginalised people may be of any physical description. The sources of their marginalisation need to be the subject, not the essentially ad hominem argument of what they look like or how they behave. Keeping the discussion on track might eventually approach an understanding of where solutions lie.
I think there are two themes here which are being conflated. One is social responsibility and cooperation (or the lack of) regarding lockdown guidelines which is avoided by blaming the government for global shortages of testing equipment and materials and PPE along with the contentious decision to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an Italian like health emergency.
The other theme is individual responsibility and competition which is avoided by blaming the government.
What unites the blame the government thesis and the blame the individual thesis is resource scarcity whether it is the lack of medical equipment, lack of sufficient transport, lack of garden space, lack of hospital beds, lack of toilet roll, flour, hand gel, sugar, lack of specialised education and training, lack of dignified jobs, lack of health and safety officials.
Resource scarcity drives competition and so regarding disadvantaged communities, individuals are expected to embrace resource scarcity and improve their skills in order to better compete within the wider society. At least this is the perspective from the Right with failures to embrace resource scarcity and improve and enhance their competitive edge being blamed on the individual themselves.
The Left on the other hand blames the government or society in general for not being cooperative enough especially in terms of not providing sufficient tax subsidised resources to counter resource scarcities.
As such, racism and contempt for poor and working-class people have common roots. That being resource scarcity and the competition that arises between different groupings as a result of resource scarcity.
Any solutions therefore need to incorporate the importance of resource scarcity as a determining factor behind competitive social relations.
One solution is to encourage population degrowth so that available resources per person is increased. Clearly population growth has the opposite effect and therefore will increase competition.
Another solution is to artificially increase the supply of goods and services through increased taxation, Modern Monetary Theory or more dramatically, a socialist economic system. However this strategy will inevitably deepen our ongoing human growth crisis as a result in the race to the top in terms of human consumption expectations which will lead to the continued destruction and transformation of the ecological basis of our survival with increased pollution, increased biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore the Left approach of ‘maximising’ resource availability by which to lay blame on the government or society in general is deeply ecologically unsound.
This leaves the Right’s ‘rationalising’ approach whereby resource scarcity is generally embraced as an ecological fact of life which then requires the individual to skill up in order to increase their competitive edge.
The Centrist approach therefore is to accept significant aspects of esource scarcity, since the opposite is to promote ecological deterioration, but provide sufficient opportunities for individuals to skill up along with infrastructural upgrades to increase economic capacity and thereby enable individuals to better compete.
Consequently, it seems reasonable to accept that there is a balance to be had between individual responsibility and competition and social responsibility and cooperation which within a democratic framework would be mediated by political discussions and debate which will inevitably include blaming the individual and blaming the State or Society in general.