YouGov regularly tracks public opinion on social mobility and according to their last three years of data, young people especially think that equality of opportunity in the UK is on the decline.
The trend is DRAMATIC…
In January 2022 68% of 18-24 year olds thought that their life chances were ‘broadly determined’ by their parents socio-economic background – this is up from 59% when asked the same question in August 2019.
Only 13% of 18-24 year olds said there are equal opportunities in January 2022, down from 23% in August 2019.
In just two and a half years, these are pretty large changes in opinion with lots more young people supporting the view that social class has an impact on life chances.
Interestingly the trend for all age groups is much more stable…
This suggests that young people’s views are shifting away from older people’s – meaning there is an increasingly different perception in life chances.
NB this survey tells us nothing of the actual social reality – it doesn’t tell us which perception is correct – I’m inclined to think this radical change is down to the restrictions placed on society due to the government’s chosen response to Covid-19 (‘Lockdown’ and school closures).
Maybe those 18-24 year olds are more in touch with younger people who were hugely impacted by these restrictions and this is them expressing that difference.
Whether or not there really has been such drastic reduction in equal opportunities for young people we will have to wait many years to find out, unfortunately.
However I am reasonably certain that equal opportunities haven’t improved over the last three years!
People from working class backgrounds who are socially mobile and make it into middle class jobs are less likely to feel they fit into those jobs than those from middle class backgrounds.
This is according to some contemporary sociological research which suggests support for the view that lack of cultural capital not only hinders working class children in education, but this carries on into the workplace…
Cultural Capital effectively means that the middle class who get middle class jobs just feel like they fit – the subjective experience for them is more natural, and less stressful because there is more of a fit between their home lives and their working lives.
But for the socially mobile working classes, the differences between their home lives and new middle class working lives means they find work more challenging.
The researchers first sent out a survey to 161 participants in a variety of sectors – both private and public. The survey asked about their subjective perceptions of their class background and their levels of engagement at work. 20 respondents were then interviewed in more depth – 12 of whom were women with an average age of 47.
Some working class respondents talked of not feeling like they fitted in – and felt under pressure to change their working class mannerisms and habits – such as switching to drinking wine rather than beer at work social events.
One respondent reported that she was actually ridiculed for her accent by colleagues – one had put in a formal complaint about the way she spoke to clients as being ‘unprofessional’ – she just thought it was due to her working class speech codes (effectively).
Some also felt the need to conceal their background from their colleagues, resulting in them having less to say and engaging less.
At home there is also less of an advantage to being socially mobile for the working class – their peers either aren’t interested in or don’t understand (the two are related) their jobs and so there is less to talk about there – essentially the working class are less able to ‘celebrate’ their social mobility because it means less to others in their home lives.
In contrast the middle classes moving into middle class job just felt ‘authentic’
When social mobility can work…
Some who were socially mobile felt they had learned new skills from the challenge and it had broadened them out as people and employees.
Finally, one crucial factor that made mobility work was the support of employers and colleagues, which is hardly surprising!
Whether or not we regard Poverty as a social problem depends on:
how we define and measure ‘poverty’
the extent to which we think individuals are responsible for their own poverty
our perspective on what we think the consequences of other people’s poverty will be for society as a whole
Whether we ‘care less’ about other people’s poverty.
In this post I’m going to focus on one definition of poverty: ‘destitution’, as defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (source below)
Is destitution problem in the UK?
The JRF defines destitution as when an individual cannot afford the basic material essentials which are necessary to leading a secure life. These essentials include housing, food, weather appropriate clothing and footwear, heating, electricity and basic toiletries.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.5 million people in the UK were in ‘destitute’ at some point in 2017, the latest figures available.
It’s worth noting briefly that nearly everyone who was (and probably is currently) destitute was either homeless or in temporary or sheltered accommodation.
Destitution in the UK is a social problem…
If you believe that everyone has the right to the basic material necessities of life, then you’d probably regard the fact of such a huge number of people being destitute as a social problem. This certainly seems to be the view of those at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
If you watch the video below in which the JRF define destitution there are lots of references to how it’s not acceptable for people to be destitute today.
If you’re the kind of person that’s upset by other people’s suffering, then you’d probably also regard this number of people as being destitute as a social problem – it doesn’t take that much empathy to realise that the state of destitution is extremely unpleasant.
Not only can being destitute involve being hungry and cold and being excluded from many aspects of social life (because you’ve got no money!), it can also mean living in a state of anxiety over the future if you can’t afford to pay the rent, and maybe depression that your situation has no end in sight.
Destitution today might also be the breeding ground for future problems for individuals and society – a hungry child not concentrating in school will get lower educational outcomes and be less employable in the future; someone living in a cold damp house now is more likely to develop long term chronic health problems – both situations which could mean those people being a long term drain on the nation’s resources in the future.
A further reason you might regard destitution as a problem is because of the non-necessity of it! We clearly have the resources in the UK to ensure that every single individual at least has the basic necessities of life, and yet there are 1.5 million people who lead lives so insecure that they’re not having their basic needs met!
People are probably more likely to think destitution is a problem if the reasons for it are not the fault of the individuals experiencing it – if they have fallen into destitution because of ill-health, a relationship breakdown, abuse, losing a job, or even something as basic as a high cost of living (rent, bills etc.). In such situations, maybe it is desirable that the benefits system kicks in and acts as a safety net.
The extremes of destitution existing alongside extremes of wealth might bother some people because of the social injustice of it, especially if they believe that destitution exists because of the means whereby the rich have got wealthy.
Finally, destitution might well lead to crime and social unrest. If people are hungry they might turn to crime to feed themselves, and if they collectively come to perceive their situation as one that is not fair or just, social unrest may be the result.
So it would seem that there several reasons, emotional and rational for why you might perceive destitution as a social problem!
Destitution in the UK is NOT a social problem…
Firstly, if you’re being hard-nosed about it you might point out that 1.5 million people is not that many – it’s only 2.5% of the population. And according to the JRF 2018 report into destitution, this number is declining.
The definition/ measurement of destitution used by JRF is quite ‘soft’ – someone only had to go without two of those basic needs above for a month in 2017 and they were counted in the statistics. You might think it’s not that bad going hungry for one month in a year, it’s not starvation, it’s unlikely to lead to long term malnutrition.
Then there’s the fact that you simply might not believe in individual rights. You might believe that individuals are not ‘entitled’ to anything, and if they fall on hard times it’s tough luck.
Or you might believe in radical individual responsibility and think that if individuals are destitute, for whatever reason, it is their job to lift themselves out of it, in which case the problem of destitution isn’t a social problem, it’s an individual problem, although this particular view point is quite anti-sociological, in fact it’s possibly the very opposite of the sociological imagination.
Even if you’re more left-wing and believe that the individual is NOT entirely responsible for their own poverty, but rather it’s something to do with the system, then it’s not poverty as such that’s ‘the real problem’ – it’s whatever you believe has caused poverty.
Finally, even if there are identifiable correlations between destitution and crime/ social unrest, it might be that with more measures of control (e.g. harsher penalties, more police, as right realists suggest) we might still be able to mitigate the worst effects of destitution.
Whether you think destitution in the UK is a social problem very much depends on your values.
If you’re leaning towards the left you’re more likely to believe that povert has social causes and that more equality is good, so are more likely to perceive destitution as a social problem with social solutions.
If you’re more right leaning, you’re more likely to frame destitution as an individual problem, have less of a problem with higher levels of inequality and think that individuals and society can and should adapt to cope with a certain degree of destitution, which individuals largely bring on themselves.
Finally, whether you think it’s a problem or not depends on your definition and measurement of it, and TBH with the soft definition used by the JRF I’m actually finding myself leaning to the view that destitution in the UK is NOT a serious social problem.
In mid December 2017, The U.S. Senate voted through a tax-bill which will deliver a dramatic reduction in America’s corporate tax rate – from 35% to 20% – along with a reduction in inheritance tax which will allow the America’s wealthiest individuals to pass more tax-free money to their children (or other heirs). This Guardian article provides further details.
For A-level sociology students studying global development, this represents yet another example of a neoliberal policy – cutting taxes is a key aspect of the economic doctrine of neoliberalism.
The supposed rational behind the bill is to stimulate economic growth, but it is also likely to widen inequality and the bill is also predicted to add $1 trillion to the national debt
It’s also interesting to note that Donald Trump ran for president as an outsider who would stand up for the working people, but now it seems that it’s the wealthy, share-holding corporate class that’s going to benefit most from this policy.
A 2016 poll by Nationwide found that the average Brit spends £645 on Christmas. On average, people in the UK spend…
£117 on Christmas presents for their partner,
£145 on presents for their children,
£20 on their pet (lucky pets!).
This broadly corresponds with the Bank of England’s findings on Christmas spending which found that our spending in December increasing by around £500 per month. OK they’re not exactly the same, but in the same sort of ‘region’, and not crazily different (to use the technical term).
Looked at by household – A Survey by Go Compare (1) found that the average British household expects to spend £753 on Christmas festivities this year. Collectively that’s a staggering £21 billion splashed out on presents, food and drink, parties and decorations.
Regional Variations in Spending
Unsurprisingly, households on lower incomes spend a higher proportion of their monthly income on Christmas than – According to this BBC article, people in the North East spend around 26%, while in London the figure falls to around 16% of monthly household income.
The article also cites anecdotal evidence that people in poorer areas spend more on presents than people in richer areas.
Debt and Christmas
Again, according to the above BBC article, The Money Advice Trust, a charity which runs the National Debtline, polled 2,000 people and found 37% are putting Christmas presents on credit. NB As far as I can tell these are 2015 figures (it’s not that clear from the article!)
34 percent borrowed money to cover the cost of Christmas presents – figure equating to an estimated 16.9 million people.
More than one in five (21 percent) borrowed to put food on the Christmas table – equating to an estimated 10.4 million people.
All in all, it seems like there’s a lot of evidence that for the poorest third of households, it’s not so much Christmas, but more like Debtmass, which offers broad support for the validity of a Marxist theory of Christmas.
According to a report released today, social mobility is generally highest around London and lowest in rural areas…
How Social Mobility Varies by Local Authority in England in 2017
NB – There’s a nice ‘interactive’ infographic at the link above!
London and its environs (mostly Surrey) have the highest levels of social mobility, while rural areas generally have lower levels of mobility.
Interestingly it isn’t just deprivation and wealth which predict social mobility… some wealthy areas like West Berkshire and Crawley perform badly for social mobility – in these areas, it is very difficult for children born into poor backgrounds to climb the income ladder.
Conversely, some of the most deprived areas are “hotspots”, providing good education, employment opportunities and housing for their most disadvantaged residents.
These include London boroughs with big deprived populations such as Tower Hamlets and Hackney.
The main reason for variations in social mobility highlighted by the report is the lack of available jobs, especially well-paying jobs, which is a real problem in some of the more rural areas.
It might be interesting to… (and I might play around with this later)
Compare this data to deprivation indices and see how far wealth holds back social mobility.
Compare this data to population density… Just a hunch, but surely all other things being equal, the denser the population the more (realistic) job opportunities?
Compare this data to educational achievement and school type… to see if schools really do make a difference at the regional level.
Take a sample of the lowest social mobility areas and the highest (they’d need to be similar) and just find out as much as possible about both areas to try and explain these differences….
So, you’re a multi-billionaire, you have $450 million kicking about, but your’re bored of all the usual gaudy bling bullshit…
This poll was inspired by today’s news that Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, painting sold for $400m at auction today, with a grand total of $450 million once Christie’s auction house had added on its $50 million commission.
Now we may never actually know who bought this painting, but assuming it’s an individual (although it may have been bought by a company or conglomerate), this raises the question of how much wealth you must have to be able to spend this much money on a painting!
Surly we must be looking at someone worth over $10 billion, so probably someone from the top 100 or so wealthiest people, possibly one of these from Forbe’s rich list, given that it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to risk more than 5% of their TNW on one investment, unless they really LOVE renaissance art or of course.
Anyway, whoever the anonymous buyer is, all mega-purchases like this do for me is remind of the existence of the global super-rich – that handful of billionaires that make up the top 0.00001% of the world’s population – domains like Christie’s auction house are their’s, and purchases of items in the several millions of dollars a regular occurrence.
This event is just a painful reminder of how much of a toss the global elite don’t give about global poverty. Between them, those present at that auction house yesterday could have transformed the lives of so many. NB I know it’s not THAT simple – money for development often gets misspent, it has unintended consequences etc etc… so I am being a bit idealistic, all I’m trying to do here is get some perspective on the enormous sum spent on that painting.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really not comfortable with the co-existence of global problems such as lack of access to clean water and a global Eloi jet setting around the world buying high status items at luxury auction houses.
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