There has been much discussion in the media this week after the Christmas cards sent out councils warning people not to ‘overindulge’ and to ‘pay their rent’. The Siren’s Oliver Treen shares his views following the controversy.
Where I live – away from University, that is – 1 in 5 people go hungry. Buckinghamshire is one of the most affluent counties in the UK, with High Wycombe – one of its largest towns – playing host to thousands of commuters to the capital, but the area is racked with inequality. In an area where the gulf between the rich and poor is so stark, it seems impossible to justify the claim that “we’re all middle class now”. This inequality breeds prejudice, and vice versa – a pattern of classism that we see repeated across the country.
Take for example the recent decision of Hammersmith and Fulham council to send council tenants Christmas cards that read “don’t overindulge this Christmas! Pay your rent.” A few people I’ve spoken to seem confused as to the controversy surrounding this campaign – after all, it’s sound financial advice, right? Rent arrears are a real problem in London, and it’s good of them to encourage people to think of their rent before they spend. Well, maybe. Maybe it’s sound advice, but to say so is to miss the point. The fact is that campaigns like this betray a certain level of class prejudice. It shows us that, when asked ‘why are people in so much debt?’, Hammersmith and Fulham council’s immediate reaction is to say ‘because they have overindulged’, or ‘because they cannot manage their money’. It feeds into a corrosive lie – that poverty exists as a sort of penance for those who do not work hard, or those who do not consider the consequence of their actions. This lie has a flipside – that social mobility is frictionless, that those who have sufficient aspiration, or work ethic, or skill will rise to the top unimpeded.
We baby the poor because we think that – to end up in such a state in the first place – they must be morally or intellectually lacking. We have to warn them about spending too much, and teach them how to be frugal, hard-working, aspiration middle-class folk like us. Hammersmith and Fulham is a Tory council, but the blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of the Conservative party. The previous Labour government’s attempts at social engineering – the idea that a mandarin in Whitehall can grant social mobility like some sort of grey-suited fairy godmother – is equally patronising, and it is a narrative that shares its intellectual base with that of the now-infamous Christmas card. Both treat the working class like children, and to them it is the burden of the middle class man and woman to teach them about the world, to help them grow up, sort their lives out and become like us.
It’s not that simple, it’s never been that simple and it probably never will be that simple. In real life, poverty is an incredibly complex issue, and sometimes people are poor because their parents were poor – much as Misters Osborne, Clegg, Cameron and Miliband are rich because their parents were rich. It’s sad, and it’s difficult to live with, but sometimes bad things happen to perfectly good people. Don’t let prejudice taint the way you treat those less fortunate than yourself – I can assure you that you are not helping.
by Oliver Treen