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TAI 2016 preview: Getting By – can policy change make a difference?

The St Ann’s estate in Nottingham has been stigmatised as a place populated by gangs, guns, drugs and single mothers. But Lisa Mckenzie, who lived on the estate for more than 20 years, found its residents faced austerity with resilience and humour.

Lisa (3)The voices of working class women have always been prominent in my life. They have been loud and informative, full of love and care, humour and laughter. My mother, aunties, cousins, friends and workmates have always been larger than life to me.

However, apart from crude and one-dimensional caricatures on television programmes like Benefits Street, the women who I love are rarely present outside of their communities. This is the backdrop to my research, and to my book: Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. Getting By is the culmination of a PhD, a Leverhulme research fellowship and a whole life of working class experience, and although it was published in January 2015, the political rhetoric around council estate as sink estates, and the almost saturation of poverty porn on our media channels means that sadly my book, and the experiences of the people in it never cease to be relevant.

St Ann’s: The neighbourhood

The St Ann’s estate is amongst the poorest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods in the UK today (ONS, 2010), and has a long history of social research, and community studies. Ken Coates and Bill Silburn (1970) first brought to light the poor conditions the people of St Ann’s were living in, raising their children, and working in during the study Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, which was undertaken during the early 1960’s. Ken Coates and Bill Silburn conducted this study in response to a paper published by Peter Townsend in the British Journal of Sociology in 1954 raising serious questions relating to government assurances that poverty had been eliminated in the UK during the 1950s through social policy, full employment for men and the welfare state (Townsend 1954).

Townsend and Coates and Silburn argued that instead of poverty being eliminated it was taking on new forms, through the tensions between the new demands of the individual consumer and the need for basic public amenities.

Those families who live in social housing like St Ann’s are the most vulnerable to unemployment caused by shrinking the size of the public sector and the global crisis of capitalism. Poor families were also the most vulnerable to the loss of the manufacturing industries in the early 1980s under the Thatcher Government. This has led to a situation where there are families living on council estates that have been outside regular and stable paid work since the early 1980s. Consequently there has been a significant change in ways council estates and working class people are represented within the wider culture. Typically council residents are seen as social ‘failures’ unable to participate in the wider consumer orientated economy. Being a resident of a council estate in the UK before the rise of neoliberalism was connected to the employed working class, keeping extended families close together, and allowing communities to grow around work, local politics and local services.

Over decades, this neighbourhood in Nottingham has been subject to harsh decline: an initial loss of manufacturing jobs in the city led to unemployment and insecure low paid work and a contraction in the provision of public and social goods such as housing and education. Locally, it has become stigmatised with a reputation as a ‘place to avoid’, supposedly full of crime and drugs, single mums, and benefit claimants. Through media reporting and the moral panics relating to criminality on the estate in recent years, and the perception nationally that council estates have become unsavoury and even dangerous spaces, St Ann’s in Nottingham has gained the reputation as both unsavoury and dangerous.

Authenticity, and speaking from the inside is what makes my research, and my book unique. It is rare that those who live at the very sharp end of inequality get to tell their own story, from their own lens. This is the narrative which weaves its way through the book, the people who live in this community in Nottingham constantly tell me of what it feels like to be ‘looked down on’, ‘ridiculed,’ ‘laughed at’ and ‘dis-respected.’ And why? Because they know they are poor, they live on a council estate, and they are working class.

Devaluing and dehumanising

I know first-hand the painful consequences of what happens when working class people are devalued and despised. It hurts, and it is damaging. It is also dangerous. The process of devaluing people has been at the root of social injustice and the neo-liberal project. It allows for the justification of the process and outcome of inequality, where some people can be treated badly, and/or cruelly while others receive equally unfair societal advantage.

The essence of this book is to show that the people who live on this council estate in Nottingham have been subject to unfair disadvantages because they are working class, because they live in social housing, because they are low paid, unemployed and precarious. The book also makes clear that this kind of disadvantage, and any systematic devaluing of groups of people is structural, purposeful and historical.

A question of representation

I have lived on council estates for all of my life and I am telling this story from the inside, from the lens of a working class woman, a mother and a precarious worker. Consequently it lays heavy on me that should I represent people who I think of as ‘like me’ fairly and accurately.

Does this mean that I show the people of St Ann’s in Nottingham as tireless working class heroes, chirpy in the face of inequality like the Downton Abbey servants? The deserving, humble, and not-angry-at-all working class? I’m sure those who are advantaged by our disadvantage would like that. Or do I represent them has downtrodden victims of the endless misery that class distinction, and class inequality produces, perhaps in the way the George Orwell does in The Road to Wigan Pier? I have written ‘Getting By’ in the only way I know how and that is from the lens, and experience of an ‘insider’ a working class woman, and I know that means being honest about the complexity of the neighbourhood.

Of course there are other ways to represent working class people and the neighbourhoods where they live: as one-dimensional ghettos full of gangs, drugs, sex, and violence. This view would definitely grab the headlines, but it wouldn’t be fair, and it would say nothing about the complexity of family life, community, and inequality in Britain today – or in actual fact ever. So what I have tried to do is bring to life the life, the people and the situations I have known and lived. They are all of the above – heroes, villains, victims – and everything in between.

The policy dilemma

The mixed feelings I expressed at the beginning of this article extend to the question I usually get asked at the end of any presentation: ‘And what are your policy suggestions?’

There was a time that I tried to answer this question with useful suggestions: more council housing, greater social mobility, stable and well paid employment. All of these suggestions are on my Christmas list for social justice. But I realise this is not the real question.

What I am usually being asked is for something quick and cheap that doesn’t offend the middle class. Everyone likes social mobility – giving poorer children the chance to overcome their backgrounds and ‘make it,’ perhaps like I have done.

However I know, I really know, that social mobility, a few extra housing schemes, pupil premiums and so on are not enough. Not nearly enough: we deserve better.

Working class people need to rise as a class; not through the concept of social mobility, which loses the essence of who we are. As academics we need to accept that the British class system unfairly advantages some and equally unfairly disadvantages others.

My policy recommendation is big: we need to stop turning a blind eye to injustice and inequality and to end this corrupt and neo-liberal system of capitalism, which hurts us, and is damaging.

Lisa Mckenzie is a fellow in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics. Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain is published by Policy Press. She will be speaking on ‘Housing’s role in tackling poverty’ on Day 3 of TAI

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