Updated: May 3, 2022
As of April 2022, the UK is entering a cost of living crisis estimated to impact up to 90% of households (Thomas, 2022). However, for working-class families choosing between heating and eating has been their reality for almost a decade (Dastidar, 2022). It is only now that middle-class families are starting to feel the pinch that the cost of living in the UK has pushed its way to the daily newsrooms. Why then, if all households can slip so easily into poverty, are certain groups shamed and targeted more than others? How have vulnerable families been cast in such a light that they appear proportionally as the source of the UK’s financial difficulties?
In this article, we will discuss the situation of working-class families in the UK and the ways in which they have been, and are continued to be constructed as a societal problem. In doing so we will use fundamental social science theories which help us explore the underpinnings of these constructions. More specifically, we will take into account social constructionism and neoliberalism calling briefly on the ‘troubled families’ policy (TFP). This policy came shortly after the 2011 London Riots and marked the beginning of intense policy intervention into the lives of working-class families which were seen as the product of a broken society (Parr, 2017). The TPF was widely influenced by the neoliberal ideological persuasion of the UK state. Neoliberalism is understood as an economic system that prizes individuality, the privatisation of public services, and operates under the impression that you get what you work for. Of course, the last point assumes that everybody has equal access to education, extracurricular, and community activities, as well as work prospects. In other words, such a narrative fails to account for the institutional inequalities that ‘individuals’ have to navigate based on their socio-economic backgrounds.
Social constructionism is a social theory based on the principle that all knowledge is socially constructed and is not simply a natural, objective fact that is presented to us (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). As a result, to come to terms with our experienced reality, we need to unpick the influences behind this construction (Andrews, 2012). To simplify, everything about the world we experience has been made by us and has been subject to our own biases and experiential knowledge which has led us to form those particular conclusions. Let’s take a small segment of David Cameron’s speech from August 2011. Post the 2011 riots before the TFP was implemented, language describing working-class communities in the press, and in speeches from the country’s leader displayed the growing contempt for these families:
‘Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged - sometimes even incentivised - by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised…I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home…we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids.’ (Cameron, 2011)
As the example above illustrates, these realities are largely constructed through language (Galbin, 2014), and even everyday words, or ‘what everybody knows’ is subject to its own logic (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Social constructionism can be used to address assumptions rooted in the labeling process, emphasising how these labels can come to be considered natural or social facts (Clarke, 2001, in Lister, 2010). Britain has always been a country with a deeply rooted idea of class, but traditional class markers have begun to dissolve. Derogatory labels such as ‘Chav’ and ‘dole-scroungers’ have become synonymous with working-class families and communities (Lewis 2004, in: Tyler, 2008).
Language as a means of constructing our reality has the unique ability to bridge different islands of reality within the every day (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). In this small segment of Cameron’s speech, the message being communicated is that this ‘societal breakdown’ is a result of an overly-generous welfare state, poor parenting, and anti-social families (Crossley, 2015). Here the influence of neoliberalism is evident, since these vulnerable families are blamed for accepting welfare help they need, and all responsibility is placed upon the parents. Importantly, as indicated before, such analyses fail to account for the structural deficiencies which produce these behaviours.
Social problems which place a target on a particular group are ideologically motivated and in this case, can be seen to be constructed with a divisionary aim. In its simplest form, British families are divided into two categories: ‘Strivers’ and ‘Skivers’ (Valentine & Harris, 2014). ‘Strivers’ are the hard-working families who are seen to suffer as a result of the ‘Skivers’, considered those who are unemployed and live primarily from state hand-outs (Coote & Lyall, 2013). The construction of these two categories readily exonerates the state from taking responsibility for either group. The strivers cannot reach their full potential or fully enjoy the fruits of their labour as their hard work simply serves the skivers. The strivers, are lazy, unmotivated, and have a whole host of individual deficits which have resulted in their social and economic situation (Valentine & Harris, 2014). There is a willingness to demonise the poor at times of economic uncertainty; thus, these communities become a scapegoat to a system that is indeed broken, but broken because it keeps those vulnerable in poverty (Jones, 2012). The neoliberalist state has ensured that these families have been declared responsible for their own shortcomings. There is rarely a mention of the failure to address long-term structural issues that have prevented these families from improving their circumstances (Crossley, 2016). Austerity measures and welfare reforms are structural ways of dealing with disparities in resources and wealth and a way to build toward an equitable future. These measures however are treated as a favour to those in need paid back in their supposed complicity of their own demonisation.
The TFP then can be seen as a culmination of all the factors described above. One of the main aims of the policy paper is to reduce the cost of these families to the taxpayer (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2015). Moreover, throughout this policy, it is clear that there is encouragement for these families to go from ‘troubled’ to being part of the ‘hard-working majority’ (Parr, 2017). Ultimately, the austerity measures, reforms, and reduction of local services that would hit the most vulnerable the hardest were routinely ignored (Crossley, 2016). The policy claimed it wanted to help ‘turn these families around’, but it merely wanted to put the moral responsibility on these families to conform to the neoliberal status quo (Parr, 2017; Crossley, 2016).
To refer to the current cost of living crisis, the advice is to do everything within our power to cut the cost. Turn off all electronics at the plug, only use our heating in an emergency, reduce the use of cars and try public transport (the price for which has also increased). A common theme emerges it is our responsibility to reduce these costs as there is no additional help to manage these price increases.
So, moving forwards into one of the most uncertain economic times we have faced in Britain, after almost a decade under austerity policies, consider the impact of the derogatory headlines. The working class will no doubt come under fire once more as times get increasingly tougher, tactics which are now notorious within political discourses (Gorski, 2012). Our message - next time you see an article discussing the problems caused by working-class families, maybe approach it with a more critical lens.
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Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T., 1966. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Anchor.
Cameron, D. 2011. Pms speech on fightback after the riots. UK Government Cabinet Office, Date Accessed (28.04.22)., Accessed via [https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-speech-on-the-fightback-after-the-riots]
Coote, A. and Lyall, S., 2013. Strivers v. skivers: the workless are worthless. The New Economics Foundation.
Crossley, S., 2015. The Troubled Families Programme: The perfect social policy. London: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
Crossley, S. 2016. 'Realising the (troubled) family','crafting the neoliberal state'. Families, Relationships and Societies, 5(2).
Dastidar, S., 2022. ‘The cost of living crisis has been going on for decades - just ask families like mine’. The Guardian, Date Accessed (29.04.22)., Accessed via [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/13/cost-of-living-crisis-working-class-families]
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Jones, O., 2020. Chavs: The demonization of the working class. Verso books.
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Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government., 2015. 2010 to 2015 government policy: support for families. Date Accessed (28.04.22) Accessed via [https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-support-for-families/2010-to-2015-government-policy-support-for-families]
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Thomas, T., 2022. Single-parent families ‘most exposed’ to cost of living in Great Britain’. The Guardian, Date Accessed (29.04.22)., Accessed via [https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/apr/30/single-parent-families-most-exposed-to-cost-of-living-crisis-in-great-britain]
Tyler, I., 2008. “Chav mum chav scum” Class disgust in contemporary Britain. Feminist media studies, 8(1).
Valentine, G., & Harris, C. (2014). Strivers vs skivers: Class prejudice and the demonisation of dependency in everyday life. Geoforum, 53, 84-92.
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The Greco-Northern Research Hub is an independent research blog based in Durham, North-East England. The aim of the hub is to make social theory more accessible and use these theories to explore current events. The GNRH team is looking to create a safe, interactive learning space for all.