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Poverty is not a safari

As 2017 draws to a close, John P. Houghton says that it’s time to end Victorian depictions of those living in poverty

George Orwell critiqued Charles Dickens for taking delight in ‘describing scenes in which the “dregs” of the population behave with atrocious bestiality’. In Orwell’s eyes, the Victorian author presented himself as an advocate of the poor, while titillating his audience with the sordid antics of ‘submerged populations whom he regarded as beyond the pale’.

I was reminded of Orwell’s words recently when parts of the media promoted Darren McGarvey’s new book Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s Underclass.

Framing life in a deprived area as an experience akin to a safari is loaded with negative and unfair connotations: that it is dangerous; that the poor are a different species to be observed warily and from afar; and that bravery is therefore needed to go on such a dangerous adventure.

It’s a familiar trope. In The Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison ridicules the visiting missionaries who had been ‘convinced by what they had read in charity appeals…that the entire East End was a wilderness of slums: slums packed with human organisms without minds and without morals, preying on each other.’

More recently, the author Nicks Davies compared his role research for Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth about Hidden Britain to that of a ‘Victorian explorer penetrating a distant jungle’.

The author knows this. It’s a reference to the controversy provoked by proposals for an arts project in Glasgow. But the association between poverty and danger is still made.

This message is reiterated by the choice of both ‘anger’ and ‘underclass’ in the sub-title. Underclass is a hugely loaded term. US sociologists like William Julian Wilson have abandoned it because it has become associated with a moralistic, and sometimes genetically-based, analysis of the ‘undeserving’ poor who are ‘hooked’ on welfare.

In the UK, here is the LSE’s John Macnicol, writing just last year:

There is no doubt that proponents of the underclass concept have operated from a contentious evidence base, one that relies upon impressionistic and composite definitions – which in practice generally consist of vivid descriptions of degraded social life in a kind of ethnographic overload…It is to be hoped that there will be no revivals of the broad ‘underclass’ concept for a very long time.

Underclass, undeserving, unwilling to work. The words are different, but the message is the same. The poor exist as a sub-stratum, in seething slums ‘packed with human organisms.’

The members of this angry and amoral underclass must be incapable of speaking for themselves, if they can speak at all. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back, the author therefore seeks to ‘give voice to [the] feelings and concerns’ of ‘deprived communities all around Britain’.

On the surface, this is a noble-sounding endeavour, but it assumes that people living in poverty cannot speak for themselves. If you’re seriously interested in tackling poverty, the task is to help people speak for themselves about their own experiences, to amplify that voice, and to help ensure that others are listening.

The words we use when talking about poverty matter enormously. A team at Glasgow Caledonian University surveyed media reports of deprivation and concluded that they focused on ‘extreme cases’ and ‘the inherent “failings” of undeserving people’.

I grew up in a council house in Kirkby in the 1980s and I’ve lived and worked in many deprived neighbourhoods. It’s no stroll in the park, but it’s not safari either. I’m with John Macnicol. Let’s hope it’s a long time before we see the word ‘underclass’ being used again.

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