I wrote a tweet that pissed some people off, so I better expand upon it, as I knew at the time the fact that I couldn’t fit in “more often than not” would push buttons. But I was in that kind of mood.
It’s because of the latest round of Jamie Oliver bashing, which happens whenever he resurfaces to promote his new book/show/whatever – which is what celebrities do. It’s their job. It’s how they earn a living. Yes, he’s worth millions now but not everyone wants to just sit back once they’ve achieved that, so I don’t really see a problem simply with being a self-publicist.
I’ve defended him before because even though he’s obviously got his flaws – latest comments being no exception – at least he’s tried to do something to help children eat better in the UK. And that is no small thing.
What I’d like to say, though, isn’t really about him, but about some people who have a go at him, and others, when they talk about UK poverty (<60% median income). It’s a complicated topic, and it’s easy to end up with your foot in your mouth, but I do think this is one of those cases where a lot of people throwing stones may also be living in glass houses.
There are, as with most social issues, many angles from which to look at low-income families. It might be that your family is – in which case this post isn’t really aimed at you at all, but equally such families may not even have access to the internet, which is probably a genuine sign of poverty at present, and won’t be reading anyway. Or your family struggled when you grew up some years ago – again my rant isn’t really about you, and I hope you can relate to some of my points – feel free to comment.
As I have tried to articulate before, it is much easier to analyse other people’s lives when you’re very far removed from them. The left suffers from this in a similar manner to the right, often, but with different consequences. The broad solution posited by the left is generally one of support and aid to solve underlying problems (a more sensible view, I feel) while the right would advocate punishment for the inevitable negative outcomes of inequality, all the while increasing that causal inequality – a system that benefits only those blessed with a good start in life.
While people of certain political persuasions no doubt come from many different walks of life, it is natural that the right harbors more well-off individuals and families, while the left appears more of a mixture, but (I would guess) is mostly populated by the middle class* and politically-active others.
I say both the left and right suffer from distance-based judgments because, if you have the luxury of time to think about and means to research political issues, you’re probably not falling within the poverty brackets. If you are, you’ll likely have bigger things to worry about – like putting food on the table.
Oliver commented that he found it hard to reconcile seeing people eating very badly, while also apparently having personal wealth in the form of new technology. Now, there may well be simple explanations and reasons to dismiss this as a crass and unthinking statement on his part – TVs aren’t that expensive now; television is an information-rich medium; people who don’t particularly like or care about their kids may find it a worthwhile investment to distract and/or educate them; TV is now an essential item for social reasons; how people spend what money they do have is no one else’s business, etc.
However, I’d advocate for a bit of understanding here. Oliver’s parents run a pub in an Essex village, he’s grammar school educated (like me) and might be fairly sheltered – but he has at least made an effort to understand and help people less fortunate than himself. I’m not saying his comments aren’t worthy of analysis and correction at all but I think he has a point, it just didn’t come out well.
For my part**, I can completely see how hard it is to fit together the ideas that people are poor and disadvantaged with them having a lot of things. Before I managed to get to a good school, I attended my local primary on a council estate. I spent a lot of time with people less privileged than me – mainly because their parents left education early and in many cases had personal problems ranging from drug addiction to abusive partners, leading to general neglect of said peers. From a distance, it’s easy to have sympathy for these people and their situations, to see the big pictures and underlying social problems that should be addressed if people know how.
But in proximity? Not so much. When people suffer first-hand the social effects of local poverty it can be nearly impossible to be understanding and to reconcile these conflicting images of apparent material wealth (or at least a seemingly reasonable standard of living) and being seriously disadvantaged. Troubled childhoods create bullies and class troublemakers, which are not fun to be around, to put it mildly. Un-cared-for children exhibit antisocial behaviour and make neighbourhoods unpleasant to be in: visually, physically, in many ways.
Out of sight, out of mind
If someone has never actually heard someone say “If I have a baby I’ll get a flat” then of course they’re unlikely to believe it ever happens. Of course it’s very rare in the grand scheme, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real phenomenon. It’s genuinely difficult to see your own family work hard for what little you have and others, who (in your immediate view) cause problems, receive things like furniture and TV or a place to live that you cannot afford, despite your best efforts. So I can completely see why it’s perplexing to know that families are feeding their children badly and expensively (although there’s evidence that eating well is too expensive for many, so those kinds of comments may well be ill-advised) while seemingly affording other things.
People who have never lived in such a community, or had such problems in their family, generally won’t understand. They’ll see a right-wing commenter make a sweeping statement about benefit frauds and say “it doesn’t happen!” and “they’re so prejudiced”. Of course it’s rare, but if you’ve seen it, you’re more likely to be angered or at least confused by it. They might talk about all the big issues like teenage pregnancy and domestic violence but they won’t have experienced the results, first or second hand.
I’m not in any way trying to imply that living around people with problems is worse than actually having them yourself, that would be ridiculous***. But I’m trying to point out that commenters on either side – whether it’s misunderstanding the effects of poverty or complaining about that misunderstanding – probably don’t have a particularly deep grasp of any of it.
Again, of course some people will have grown up with just those tough decisions; whether you can afford to eat a meal or if you have to give all of the allowance to the kids’ budget, whether you have to get a loan to fix something that’s broken in the house and then can’t afford the repayments. Whether you can afford to stay in your house at all. But there’s also a spectrum to consider here; with the poverty line starting at 60% income, those at that margin are likely to have less difficult decisions to make than those further down the scale, who have every right to dismiss criticism aimed at them. We can’t choose what we’re born into.
But for my part, most of the criticisms I see come from people who have never had to deal with these problems first or second-hand, but instead criticise everyone but themselves without thinking where such views might come from, and perhaps whether their criticism could be better placed.
Yes it’s a bit hypocritical of Oliver to point at people’s spending on food when his restaurants are pricey and his products aren’t exactly budget. The criticism is not undeserved. But there is a problem to address – people don’t know where to buy food, how to cook, or what a balanced diet is like. That’s both a problem with education and access (physically and financially) so I’ll direct most of my anger there, I think.
There’s a McDonald’s at the ground floor of Guy’s Hospital. Happy Meals are still a thing. There are people who give their children money for takeaways at lunch times. More children are having to undergo treatment for obesity-related health problems. Children and families are also suffering with malnutrition.
These are problems the government must address, however many inches of television can be found in each household, but the people with the power to change things are generally even less likely to have first-hand experience. Would it help if they did?
*I have very little idea about the class system, it’s never been particularly relevant to my life. I suppose the idea of social mobility is, since my generation is the first in my family (immediate family… that we know of – we’re not particularly close) to have people go to university, or indeed get two degrees.
**Given both my parents had manual jobs and my late father could have gone to university, I find the definitions very fuzzy and have never really identified with any particular class. The fact that they worked hard suggested to me working class would be a suitable label if one had to choose.
***I didn’t get the option of designer brands, we didn’t have a satellite subscription. We couldn’t afford it. So yes it was unpleasant to have to put up with bullying because my clothes weren’t good enough or I was too clever, but in the end my parents loved me and supported me, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the people I grew up with, who were put down by parents who didn’t have much opportunity before them anyway.
I’ve refrained from anecdotes that are too specific because I don’t think it would be fair to the subjects of the stories. I’ve no doubt others have far worse to tell, anyway, but the severity isn’t really my point. It’s that we are all sheltered to some extent… and that’s about it.
Edit: some more links
Oh dear, I appear to agree (for the most part) with Grace Dent. Not that he’s “earned” the right to say those things, necessarily, but yes, the impoverished resent each other as much as anything else, because it’s what is closer to home. It’s what the news rags marketed to them promote.