Getting By is Hard Work

By Dan Silver

Last month SARF co-hosted a community debate on Lisa McKenzie’s brilliant book ‘Getting By‘ with the M13 Youth Project and local Longsight and Ardwick residents. It was also inspired by Dave Beer’s idea of punk sociology – drawing on a DIY ethos and the demand to be more inventive, bold and lively in how we approach public debates on issues relevant in terms of people’s everyday lives and wider social policy.

The evening involved local people who had reflected on Lisa’s work and interpreted it their own ways: stunning poetry by Gabriel on life growing up in Manchester, real life stories from young people of the M13 Youth Project, a film based on photos taken by four local seven year-olds, and people participating in a discussion with Lisa about the issues she writes so eloquently about.

Based on her experiences from St Ann’s in Nottingham, Lisa writes that: ‘While there is recognition that poor neighbourhoods and their residents have social, political and cultural needs that are often not being met, at the same time, there are local practices and processes that are working.” These thoughts echoed with what people from Longsight, Ardwick, Salford and Wythenshawe experience on a daily basis.

We also heard about the stigmatisation of places, and of the people who lived in them; this was beautifully encapsulated by a member of the M13 Youth Group who said that:

I didn’t know I was “deprived” until Blue Peter came and did a programme about Ardwick and told everyone we were.

The stigmatisation from ‘outsiders’ who have no knowledge or experience of an area can be damaging and fails to recognise the community strengths that do exist. Working class communities in Britain are becoming increasingly stigmatised and de-valued through distorted media representations that do not reflect reality. These portrayals are increasingly powerful as they are drawn upon by sections of the political elite to blame people in poverty as a cruel justification for the ideological project of austerity.

The truth is different than what we read in the papers or see on the television: social support and strong values are important within working class communities – humour, family values, community spirit and a keen sense of sharing are strengths that the upper and middle classes could do well to learn from.

Before the debate, Liz Postlethwaite had been working with four local children to take photographs of things around them, and spoke to them about what they felt was important. The film was premiered at the event, reflecting some of the themes that were discussed through a different perspective.


What came out really strongly with these children was the importance of family.

David Cameron has said that ‘nothing is more important than family.’  However, the policies that Cameron’s government have enacted suggest that many working class families are simply not valued by him in the same way. For instance – the bedroom tax punishes some families living in social housing and as  Alison Stenning explains, does so in a way that fails to value the place of embedded, long-term, local relationships and their contribution to people’s wellbeing. Furthermore, while there are tax breaks for married couples, Gingerbread have shown that single parent families are disproportinately paying the price of austerity. The evidence would suggest that some families are considered more worthy of support from this government, while others are apparently deemed deserving of punishment.

Lisa has written that in her community in St Ann’s there are strong, resourceful, ambitious people who are ‘getting by’ despite facing brutal austerity, and noted similar experiences in Manchester and indeed across the country.

It has become increasingly difficult for many to get by. If people can find work, it is often low-paid and precarious; finding a secure home is no longer guaranteed; people who need social security are becoming threatened by unjust sanctions; essential public services are being withdrawn with the most vulnerable people suffering the most, while a rising cost of living leaves little room for manoeuvre for people to be able to feed and keep their families warm on scant resources.

Much of the talk in this election has been about ‘hardworking families’. But the truth is that the struggle that many people go through on a daily basis to get by is much harder work than some of our more judgemental politicians will have done their entire lives.

Maybe after the election is done, we can begin a new conversation about what counts as hard work and start placing more value on a wider section of people within our society.

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