The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “poverty”

The role of capitalism in mental illness

Those who know me know will know how passionately I will agree with this article from Red Pepper: we are in an ‘epidemic’ of mental illness and the cause is the caustic society in which we live.  The greed and isolationism caused by the capitalist system serves an infinitesimally small number of people at the top of the tree who benefit financially from the ever increasing flow of goods and money around the world.

But as we have known for quite some time now, the acquisition of yet more goods has not brought the rest of us happiness that lasts longer than the addictive rush of a new purchase, or the advert telling us we need to buy some other new thing which will miraculously turn our lives into utopia.

Having travelled extensively in developing countries where this obsession with possessions has not yet achieved the grip it has in the so-called developed world, I have seen that this type of ‘poverty’ has not yet destroyed their families and communities.  They are relatively poor in that they don’t have the latest wide-screen TV or iPhone; their lives are not perfect, but they still have homes and shelter and warmth, they still have food, and they still have their relationships with their friends and families.  (Note I am not talking about communities and countries where poverty is causing real physical hardship and starvation.)

This transition began in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution, of which Britain was one of the forerunners, but the real shift came at the beginning of the 20th Century, with the work of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, from which developed the modern advertising industry.  It’s a long watch (nearly 4 hours) but the documentary, The Century of the Self is enlightening.

But the question for all of us is how we can use this research, this knowledge, to overcome our own mental health frailties and support others who are also struggling.  We cannot turn the clock back.  We cannot undo what has been done.  We won’t get rid of the over-production and over-consumption of goods that is destroying our planet as well as our mental health, not to mention the lives of the oppressed workers in slave labour factory conditions.  At least not quickly, easily or without a lot of pain.

But we can start to understand the impact of our consumption led, consumerist world, challenge our own lives and work to help others to understand.


Poor white kids fail to get the most out of school

There has been enough anecdotal evidence that children from certain ethnic minorities do better in our education system than poor white kids (and good for them too).  Now we have the evidence.  And it might be worse than we thought.

The Centre Forum opportunity think tank has published it’s first annual report, “Education in England Annual Report 2016” showing that poor white kids who start school above average and with good achievements still leave 11+ years later with below average attainments.  By comparison, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) make significant progress during their school years.  Three groups do worse than white poor kids – they are White Irish travellers, White Roma and mixed-heritage Caribbean children.  Four groups do better: Black Caribbean, White Irish, Chinese and Indian children.  Two other features also leap out of the report: there is a north/south divide with pupils in the north generally achieving lower standards and pupils in coastal areas are also similarly disadvantaged.

But why?

Paul Mason, writing in the Guardian, makes some very relevant observations as he tries to make sense of the causes of this trend.  Referring back to the messages of the 1969 film Kes, about a working class boy learning to love and train a Kestrel, and the purpose that gave to his life, Paul Mason describes the annihilation of the ‘life story’ of the working classes in British society that started with Thatcherism and continues today.  Mason writes:

“It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.

By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.

Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.”

As I look back over my memories of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and since, I recognise the changes Mason is describing.

But what is the answer?  If you agree with Mason then it’s not entirely in the education system.  The education system has been tinkered with in so many ways over the years, and the debate between selection and non-selection continues in some parts of the country.  Academisation (or privatisation) has been declared as the way forward, even though many academies continue to ‘fail’.  University education for all has been heralded as the answer, even though clearly that cannot be achievable.  The raising of school leaving ages to the point of legal adulthood is considered by some to merely infantalise our young people and delay emotional and experiential adulthood. Our children have been ‘tested’ beyond endurance over recent years, resulting in league tables and a different kind of segregation.  Our education system has had so much attention lavished on it, yet still the ‘problems’ are not going away.

Mason concludes his piece with these words:

“To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.

If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.”

We can’t go back, and for plenty of reasons we wouldn’t want to.  We have to find a way forward that enables ALL our children to have a decent education and access to opportunities.  As Mason says, it’s not about league tables, as useful as they are as measures.  Having taken the time to travel in other cultures I can step back and see what our society has lost, and it’s not education.  Identity and narrative, through culture, work, family and community are what gives children the framework on which to build their lives.  It’s what social workers do for individuals they work with.  It’s what society now needs to do for itself.

Does the suit and tie matter?

Poor old David Cameron’s the butt of a few jokes at the moment, for his comment about Corbyn’s dress sense.  But he got it wrong.  He told a man to do up his tie when that man’s tie was perfectly neat and fastened at the time of the jibe. The comment showed Cameron’s prejudice and fear. And although not a standard suit, Corbyn’s jacket and trousers were a perfectly acceptable alternative.  In a world where few people have jobs that require the wearing of a suit and tie, the comment also made Cameron look a bit out of touch.

I feel a little sorry for Cameron (hear me out). He’s clearly not the brightest of his bunch – average yes but not the brightest. I also don’t think he’s as evil as some of his colleagues appear to be. He’s had a privileged upbringing and knows nothing of the experience of the majority, and he hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of having the genuine charisma that enables him to put a smile on the face of a woman who has just lost everything in a flood by putting his arm around her shoulders and singing happy birthday to her. He genuinely doesn’t understand why he’s not winning the popularity stakes. And I think he really believes he’s trying to do the best for the country and the people; he’s just seeing everything through his own privileged lens and is not able to see or understand the real impact of Tory policies. He doesn’t know how to handle Jeremy Corbyn and he’s out of his depth. He’s tried to imitate Corbyn’s personable videos and just looks wooden. He can’t speak off script, as Jeremy can, and this foolish comment about Corbyn’s attire proves it. The more I look at Cameron the more I think he’s just a puppet, a front man.

It’s the evil ones behind Cameron that are dangerous – and the reason we need to get this bunch of Tories out. The commentaries on Cameron’s slipped mask of geniality (in ridiculing Corbyn for his dress sense and showing up his privileged background and lack of understanding) are a lighthearted diversion but let’s not get distracted from what else is going on – Tory cuts to the poor, disadvantaged, sick, disabled and elderly; rising poverty, dependence on foodbanks and homelessness; privatisation of the NHS, education (aka academies) and increasingly Social Services. And now there is an EU referendum coming up.

Whatever your view of Britain’s EU membership, be aware that Brexit is also a backdoor vote for the devolution of Scotland and the break up of the UK – if the UK votes for Brexit then Scotland will demand another referendum and almost certainly opt for independence so they can rejoin the EU. The OUTers talk of making new trading partners but who is out there to welcome li’l ole England to trade, and don’t think the EU will not beat us with the biggest stick it can find if we vote out of the club.

The official Labour line is to vote to stay IN albeit for different reasons to the Tory party – worker’s rights, human rights and employment protection for starters. What they don’t add is that the EU is also one of our few protections against our own (current) despotic government. While the EU is a cumbersome, often fragmented, and sometimes laughable institution, on balance I believe we are better off staying in than leaving. At 15 I was too young to vote in the 1970’s referendum but I would have voted to have stayed out if I had had the chance. And until fairly recently I remained an ardent Eurosceptic. Forty years on and we live in a very different world: a globalised society unimaginable to us in the 1970’s and one that’s changing faster every day.  As we think about what to vote, let’s ask the question the old indigenous tribal leaders used to ask: what best serves the interests of this and tomorrow’s generations?

So, let’s enjoy for a moment the discomfiture of a Prime Minister who doesn’t get it and has made a foolish comment as a result, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issues at hand.

Europe: why I’m voting IN

As a lifelong Euro-sceptic it pains me to say this, but come June 23rd I’ll be voting to stay IN the EU.  I was just two years too young to vote in the referendum in 1975, and I recall my dismay at both being unable to vote and the result.  And now I have to make a decision on how to vote, not on what I knew was right then, but on what is right for our country now. And there are many factors to consider.

The economics

I have always known that exiting the EU would lead to a period of economic turmoil as new trade agreements were negotiated and bedded in.  It’s not within the gift of the OUT campaigners to reassure me otherwise, and generally they try to dodge this question.  They point to Norway and Switzerland who have both remained outside the EU but negotiated trade agreements: the IN campaigners point out that those trade agreements are not exactly favourable and Norway at least has said we would be better staying in.  Few people talk of our Commonwealth partners any more. Either way, nobody can really know how easy or difficult it will be, or how long it will really take, to negotiate and build new trading relationships around the world.  But I was always willing to take that risk on the basis that things would eventually settle down. What I know this time around is that I do not trust our current government to have the economic understanding, nor the ability, desire or willingness to understand the needs of the common people, to undertake those negotiations in the best interests of the majority of the population. Austerity, privatisation and selling off the family silver in an ideologically driven laissez faire of economics has left many in a perilous state without any social safety net.  And based on how long it has just taken David Cameron to negotiate a watered down version of what he wanted as a condition for staying in the EU, I don’t hold out much hope for more complex negotiations.  And all of this in a world economic climate where another financial crash is imminently predicted.

Impact on society

Our country is in a highly weakened state.  Our NHS is falling apart at the seams, burdened by insufficient funding to meet the debt repayments of PFI’s (Private Finance Initiatives), the consequence of which is that even more of it is being piecemeal privatised under the provision of the Health & Social Care Act 2012. This is not in the interest of the welfare of the majority of the population.

The mortality rate is rising, particularly among our most vulnerable members of society – the old, the sick, the disabled – as they are finding that health and social care services are no longer available (care packages for vulnerable elderly leaving hospital after a major operation are no longer available in the area where I live – they either have to stay in hospital or pay for private care).  Our social housing is being privatised, with, for the first time since the 1960’s (and the incentive for the now classic film Cathy Come Home), some 50% of people in rented accommodation living in insecure private sector tenancies, while new rules will mean council tenants will be losing their right to lifelong tenancies. The so-called bedroom tax and caps to housing benefits are driving working families out of our cities, breaking up communities and families in the process. The rise in home ownership has stalled and is also dropping for the first time in 60 years.  Today’s young generation will, once again, be ‘generation rent’.

Private companies, such as Virgin Care, are taking over more and more parts of our children’s services.  Independent fostering agencies struggle with keeping costs down but provide an essential proportion of our foster care services.  Elderly care and children’s residential care services have long gone to the private sector.

The problem with privatisation is that it costs more to run services as profits have to be made to cover extra layers of costs in the roles of different companies and their shareholders, and fragmentation of hierarchies means it is impossible to readily identify and correct problems before they have catastrophic implications (as highlighted by Margaret Heffernan in her book Wilful Blindness).  I have seen this personally in the privatisation of social housing and fostering services.  The poor and the taxpayer pay the cost.

The news media is full of stories of the worsening plight of the disabled as they are being pushed into ‘proving’ they cannot work, sometimes even in the face of a diagnosis of a lifelong degenerative condition such as Parkinson’s, and even those quite literally on their deathbeds.  And yet still the present government wants to cut benefits for the working poor and disabled.  As long ago as January 2014 the British government was criticised by Europe for providing too low a rate of Welfare Benefits – things have only got worse since.

Access to legal aid and justice in the courts has been curtailed for the poor by the removal of financial assistance to seek justice.  Court costs to be paid upfront in tribunal cases discourages or even bars many working people from seeking justice in employment law.  The introduction of JobCentre advisers into foodbanks is an indicator of just how mainstream this charity service has become.

I don’t need to read the reports of an unprecedented rise in foodbanks to know how vital these services have become – in my own area, with a population of c.150,000 there are six foodbanks operating that I personally know of; there may be more.  Foodbanks are legally only allowed to provide tinned and packet goods and long term dependency on them does not leave much scope for healthy eating (in conflict with government targets to get us to eat more healthily).

This is all the result of the policies of our current Conservative government.  There are only two possible brakes that can be put on their continuing with these and even harsher policies – the House of Lords (who are limited by the powers of the House of Commons itself and the threat of being inundated with government sympathisers) and the EU (who have become increasingly alarmed at the impact of Conservative policies).

Scottish Independence

It was clear during the relatively recent Scottish independence referendum that Scotland wanted to remain in the EU.  A split UK vote, with Scottish voters voting to stay in the EU and English voters voting to leave would undoubtedly prompt calls for another Scottish Independence referendum.  The complexities of negotiating their own membership separate from the UK was probably a significant factor in voting choices for a number of Scottish voters.  If the UK has voted to exit the EU then a further Scottish referendum could well produce a different result.  This will cause further chaos as English, Welsh and Northern Irish links with Scotland are untangled alongside the even more complex untangling of UK legislation from EU legislation.

Wars and international relations

No-one can truly predict the future, but one of the OUT arguments is that with Turkey wanting to join the EU and Turkey and Russia on opposing sides in the complex Syrian / ISIS conflict, we, as members of the EU would be drawn into a ware with Russia.  That could happen anyway through NATO.  The OUT campaign talk zenophobically of closing our borders to refugees and asylum seekers, which will not put us on good terms with our European neighbours and does little to accept the reality of the fact that Western interference is what has caused the current crisis (killing despotic leaders thus creating a vacuum to be filled by even more despotic terrorists).  Becoming Little Englanders will not make these problems go away.

Tomorrow’s generation

Finally, what do today’s young people want?  Anyone under 40 has grown up only knowing Britain as part of the EU.  Younger generations are more likely to identify as European.  This is a part of their identity.  Typically, those in their late teens and twenties are the least likely to vote, yet they will be the most affected by this decision.  It’s an old (American) Indian position for the elders to make decisions based on the needs of future generations.


There will be talk of fear and safety versus forging a new brave way ahead.  The latter will feed into the sense of Britishness that has been our history.  But now is not the time to do it.


Conservative welfare “reforms” – the sound of one hand clapping

Politics – should social workers be involved in politics? Well, when your government is making policies that make your job even more necessary than ever before, then I think the answer has to be yes. Once again Kitty states the obvious:

“The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions.”

And the situation is just getting worse. “

Politics and Insights

1022654909“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.

Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric:  How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.

“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.


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