A Review of “Getting By” and the ‘Culture of Poverty’ theory
There is an old cartoon depicting Jesus’ final words which has being doing the rounds on Twitter recently. In the image, Jesus expressly states that he doesn’t want ‘anyone to go twisting what I’ve said into an excuse for a load of right wing bullshit’. In the UK at the current time, one cannot help but think of our Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his belief that it is ‘a sin’ if people do not take up work and the role his Christian beliefs play in his punitive welfare reforms.
I have no doubt that Lisa McKenzie won’t enjoy the link I’m about to make between her and Jesus, (so apologies), but she expresses similar concerns about the potential for her words to be twisted in her fascinating and thought-provoking book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. In telling the story of Ayesha who spends £25 on some Gucci sunglasses the day after she told Lisa her kids had to eat cereal for their dinner McKenzie acknowledges that the vignette ‘plays into the hands of those who think that living on benefits is an easy option, or a lifestyle choice (2015: 110). She goes on to state that:
“I have had sleepless nights while writing this book, worrying about what the Daily Mail or the Centre for Social Justice (the think-tank set up by the Conservative Party), or Iain Duncan Smith would use these stories for. However, this is an important story of council estate life” (2015:110).
Lisa contextualises this story by highlighting the immediate and positive impact the sunglasses had on Ayesha’s mood and how the continuous process of being devalued by ‘outsiders’ for, amongst other things, where you live and for not being able to consume high value branded items can lead to people wanting to feel good about themselves. The informal economy of the estate that Lisa details simply redresses the exclusionary practices of wider society and allows people this opportunity sometimes.
One of the most important elements of the book, in my opinion, is the engagement with the ‘culture of poverty’ theory, proposed by Oscar Lewis in the 1960s following some initial small scale studies of Mexican families, followed up with work in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Lewis would also have a strong claim that some of his writings have been twisted in right wing propaganda which seeks to blame poverty on the behaviours or cultures of the poor and McKenzie and others make this point (see also John Welshman’s book Underclass). McKenzie highlights how US policy-makers and academics, such as Charles Murray (perhaps the most influential and enthusiastic cheerleader for the ‘underclass’ thesis) have ‘mis-read’ Lewis. She also accepts that there are elements of it which didn’t require too much mis-reading, but Lewis was basically attempting to highlight how some differential behaviours and norms exhibited by people on low incomes were a result, not a cause, of those incomes and represented an adjustment to the conditions and environment experienced as a result of living in poverty. Since his writing was published in the 1960s, a lot of academic work has been directed at simply resisting the dominant narrative of the ‘culture of poverty’ myth, by demonstrating time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, how people on low incomes have the same conventional hopes, fears and social norms as ‘the rest of us’. A large volume of work has also demonstrated the effects of poverty on things like educational attainment, health, life expectancy and potential future earnings. But, because of the dangers associated with engaging with a ‘behaviourist’ thesis, much less work has examined if and how poverty might affect people’s behaviour and vice versa.
McKenzie’s work represents, I think, a bold attempt to re-appropriate the ‘culture of poverty’ from the right wing protagonists who have misused it for the best part of half a century. She also offers a perspective that is often missing from some academic narratives which, it has been suggested, have been unable or unwilling to find anything but misery when documenting the lives of people living on low-incomes. In short, McKenzie lays out a revealing and often uplifting picture of life on an estate in Nottingham in the current economic and political climate, drawing on its history to understand its present. Some of it is unsettling, but in a good, challenging way.
In many respects, the characters that McKenzie presents are like many of ‘us’ who wouldn’t think of ourselves as ‘poor’ or ‘disadvantaged’. If some of them do a bit of fiddle work, or benefit from such work, maybe not paying the full amount of tax that might be expected from their labours, then that simply fits in with Lord Fink’s assertion that tax avoidance is normal in Britain and it surely falls in ‘vanilla’ end of the colour chart. Some of the characters, like Ayesha, spend money on ‘luxuries’ that they don’t really have, but then our #longtermeconomicplan is predicated on such consumption practices isn’t it? And who hasn’t made an ‘impulse’ buy, knowing they probably shouldn’t have done it? So far, no real deviance from societal norms, you can argue.
It is in the book’s title – ‘Getting by’ – that we can perhaps find the biggest deviance from widespread societal norms which urge people to ‘get ahead’ instead. McKenzie highlights how people on St. Ann’s prioritise being accepted and valued by people they live among, people that mean something to them (this is referred to as ‘being St. Ann’s’), over and above trying to impress or outdo people who they don’t know and who they have never met. The people that she meets make friends with others based on the kind of people they are, not what they have or what they have access to. The friendships often help residents of St Ann’s to ‘get by’ together, helping one another out when circumstances necessitate it and generally being there for each other over a sustained period of time. ‘Solidarity’ was a word that kept coming to my mind when I read the book – not necessarily the formal, organised solidarity of a trade union, but an informal, unspoken, implicit appreciation of shared interests and values.
This ‘culture’ appears to be the embodiment of ‘the Big Society’ and us ‘all being in it together’ and yet these people are effectively ‘othered’ and stigmatised as skivers by many politicians from different political parties. But scratch the wafer thin political guff about us ‘all being in it together’ and ‘governing in the national interest’ and one realises that this rhetoric barely masks an underlying individualistic framework which encourages us to compete against each other in all areas of life, not least in the education and jobs ‘markets’ and whose obsession with ‘social mobility’ encourages young people to treat the social class and status of their parents as something which must be bettered.
If the people that Lisa McKenzie writes about are different from many people on higher incomes, it is perhaps the lifestyles, behaviours and ‘choices’ of the powerful and affluent that deserve more critical attention than those who have traditionally been cast as the natural objects of research. In order to complement the work of McKenzie and others like her, researchers – and society more generally – should begin to concern themselves with the effects of a ‘culture of pointy elbows’ theory, or the ‘culture of entitlement’.