How do we explain the long term decline in UK Poverty rate, and its more recent increase?
The UK has seen significant falls in poverty over the last 20 years, HOWEVER, this progress is now at risk of reversing as poverty rates have been increasing in recent years. This blog posts summarizes the 20 year trend in UK Poverty according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2017 Poverty Report. Specifically it looks at:
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty
poverty among pensioners and children
Three drivers of the reduction in poverty rates
Three threats to the continued reduction in poverty rates
NB I’m using the same information from the report, but I’ve changed the order in which it’s reported and summarized it down further. Personally I think my version is much more immediately accessible to your ‘non-expert’: IMO the ‘JRF have a tendency to ‘over-report’ reams of nuanced data, and the overall picture just gets lost. The detail’s important if you’re a policy wonk, but probably going to get lost on the average, interested member of the general public.
Before reading this post you might like to check out my ‘what is poverty?‘ post which covers the basic definition of some of the terms used below.
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty….the fall and rise of UK poverty rates
20 years ago, in 1996, nearly a quarter (24%) of the UK’s population lived in poverty. By 2004, this had fallen to one in five (20%) of the population. However, by 2016, the proportion had risen slightly to 22%.
*Relative poverty is when a family has an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.
Children and pensioners living in poverty
As the chart above clearly shows, the biggest success stories in the long term reduction in poverty over the last 20 years are the numbers of pensioners who have been taken out of poverty and (to a lesser extent) the number of children.. As the chart above shows:
In 1995, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty, falling to 13% in 2012, but rising to 16% by 2016.
In 1995, a third of children lived in poverty, falling to 27% in 2012, but rising to 30% in 2016
However, during that time the proportion of working age couples without children in poverty actually grew slightly, from 16% to 18%.
Factors correlated with falling poverty rates
The report notes three main factors which are mainly responsible for this long term overall decline in poverty:
Rising employment, linked with higher wages due to the minimum wage, and better education.
Increased support through benefits, especially the increase in the state pension age, but also out of work benefits for working age people with children
Housing benefit and increased home ownership containing the impact of rising rents.
Factors explaining the long term decrease of UK Poverty in more depth
It seems that the main drivers behind the long-term decrease in poverty in the UK are the ‘positive’ economic factors such as improvements in the employment rate, pay and conditions, rather than increases to benefits.
Below I select what appear to be the five most import factors from the report which explain the long term decrease in poverty.
The increase in the state pension
The most significant reduction in poverty has been achieved with pensioners, and according to the JRF report, the main reason for this was a one off increase in the state pension at the beginning of the century:
NB – there is a lot of variation in pensioner income, which I may explore in a future post…
The employment rate has increase from around 71% in 1996 to around 75% in 2016…
NB – while you are statistically more likely to be in poverty if you’re not in-work, being employed it itself is not sufficient to avoid being in poverty. Both the introduction of the minimum wage, and changes to in work benefits for lone parents have been essential to making sure that a higher proportion of people in employment are also not officially in poverty. While work today is more likely to lift you out of poverty than in 1996, it remains the case that a large percentage of those in poverty are in-work (typically in part-time jobs).
Earnings are up for people with all levels of qualifications…
Obviously higher earnings are more likely to lift people out of poverty, HOWEVER, at the bottom end of the income earning scale, and especially for those with children and in part-time jobs, the increasing cost of living, especially rent (but also childcare and even food and utilities) has negated much of the above increase in wages, hence why government support in the form of child tax credits and housing benefit remains important.
The number of people with degrees has nearly trebled in this period: from around 12% of the UK population to over 30%
Those with degrees earn approximately twice the amount of those with no qualifications, so it would seem that New Labour’s focus on ‘education, education, education‘, and their push to get more people into higher education has had a positive impact in poverty reduction. However, with the introduction of tuition fees and with increasing competition for highly skilled jobs coming from abroad, it’s not clear that this trend (of more and more people getting degrees) is set to continue.
The introduction of the national minimum wage has resulted in a 46% relative pay increase for the poorest 10%, compared to a 40% median national increase
Both the introduction of the minimum wage and its subsequent increases seem to have been one of the most important factors in tackling in-work poverty. However, even with the minimum wage, a possible future barrier to further poverty reduction lies in the growth of precarious jobs leading to ‘underemployment’ – where people get too few hours to earn a decent living. For more on this, see my summary of the RSA’s report on ‘Future Work in the UK‘.
The increase in out of work benefits for people with children
Basically, there has a been a very slight long-term increase in out of work benefits for people with children, who are now slightly better off than 20 years ago, while poor people without children have seen no change, or are slightly worse off.
I guess this leads to an overall reduction in the poverty rate simply because there are more people per family household rather than just couple or single person household.
You can see from the above chart, that lone parents claiming JSA and child benefits were briefly lifted to 60% of median income (just on the poverty line) – sufficient to take them out of poverty, however, you can also see that benefits are again being cut back, so we can probably expect poverty rates to increase again in the future!
And one factor which doesn’t seem to explain the overall reduction in poverty… changes to in-work benefits…
With the exception of single parents who are better off over a twenty year period, every other household type seems to be worse off! Thus I can’t see how this variable would explain the long term decrease in UK poverty.
Potential barriers to further reductions in poverty
All three of the main drivers of poverty reduction mentioned above are now under question:
The continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty.
State support for low-income families is falling in real terms, and negates the gains made by increasing employment and wages.
Rising rents, less help for low-income renters and falling home ownership leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing.
Professor Green’s fronted an excellent recent documentary on the lives of 6 white working class men for Channel Four, which aired in January 2018.
In an interview with John Snow (about the documentary), Professor Green (who is himself white working class) says the show was born out the fact that only 10% of white working class men will go to university, and this show sets out to explore some of the problems 6 of these men face in just ‘getting by’ in the world today.
It’s well worth a watch: in the first episode he follows one young man whose parents both died when he was 17, and documents how he’s effectively slipped through the welfare net; another guy whose living with his nan, and is something of an entrepreneur, and a guy who has an offer from Cambridge, and has basically re-crafted his entire image so he looks and sounds ‘posh’.
Possibly the most depressing moment is when Professor Green attends a Britain First Rally.
He says of the experience that he didn’t want to give them a voice, but how else can you understand the white working classes without at least listening to them…. at one point he says in the documentary that maybe the reason for the growing popularity of Britain First is that ‘whiteness’ is all working class men have left, and thus they cling to it?
From a methods point of view, this is also an excellent example of Interpretivist style unstructured interviews, boarding on participant observation.
Venice is a city of 55.000 inhabitants, which is swamped on some days by more than 40, 000 cruise ship passengers, and many of the residents aren’t impressed at their transient visitors, as many of these ships dwarf the architectural marvels of the ancient city, and spew toxic fumes in their wake.
And Venice is far from the only place affected in this way – the Orkney Islands play host to over a quarter of a million visitors a year, with a population of just over 25 000.
The Cruise ship industry has grown rapidly since the 1960s as prices have come down – Americans and the Chinese are the most avid cruisers, but 2 million Brits are also predicted to go cruising in 2018.
The largest ship is Harmony of the Seas – it is a quarter of a mile long, weighs 227,000 tonnes and carries up to 6780 guests with a crew of 21, 000, and there are scores of ships sailing the oceans which have a capacity of over 3000 passengers.
What can we make of cruise ships sociologically?
As with many current trends Zygmunt Bauman seems to be the best sociologist to go to in order to make sense of their growing popularity:
Bauman argues that what distinguishes social class today is relative mobility – the global super rich have jets and suites in many parts of the world and can afford to be instantly globally mobile. At the other end of the scale are the global poor – who are ‘doomed to be local’ in Bauman’s words, and are effectively stuck in the barrios with no way out.
So where do cruise ships fit in? Basically I see them as somewhere in the middle of this – they allow the relatively well-off in the West as well as in developing countries like China to get a taste of this mobility, so maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much that cruises are a ‘good holiday’* but they allow us to tap into that unconscious desire to join the ultra-rich super-mobile global elite?
*Given that the objective truth about cruises is that, technically speaking, they’re just a bit shit, why people ‘choose’ to go on them needs some deeper level of explanation.
The chairman of the Social Mobility Commission, Alan Milburn, accused the government of being so preoccupied with Brexit that were failing to address the poverty and lack of mobility that led so many people in poorer areas to vote for it in the first place!
Earlier, the commission’s report had identified 65 social mobility cold spots, of which 60 had voted to leave the EU.
400, 000 more children have fallen into poverty since 2012 to 2013, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is a direct effect of Tory benefit cuts: when you are suffering material deprivation and having to do your homework in cramped conditions then it puts you in no position to be able to compete with richer kids who will have their own private study space at home.
Then there’s the fact that kids from richer households are twice as likely to get into outstanding schools as kids from poorer backgrounds, suggesting that this route to social mobility is ineffective, while Oxford remains an institution which seems to perpetuate class privilege.
So, if we’re judging Theresa May’s and the Tory’s commitment social mobility on their social policies, they clearly are not committed, which suggests they don’t give a stuff about the poor.
The Week (Print Edition, 9th December 2017)
(1) An alternative interpretation of why they resigned is that they all spontaneously realised the methods behind the report were a bit rubbish (the technical term escapes me). In that it didn’t actually measure social mobility, as such! OOPS!
Here a few visual updates and links which highlight the extent of class inequality in the UK today…
1.In Education… 3 year olds from the richest fifth of households are twice as likely to be ‘school ready’ than 3 year olds from the poorest fifth of households
2, by health – This is a nice, if dated article which reminds us that Based on 2007-2009 mortality rates, a man aged 65 could expect to live another 17.6 years and a woman aged 65 another 20.2 years. This graphic demonstrates that men and women from routine manual backgrounds are twice as likely to die before the age of 64 than those from professional backgrounds(my title is clearer than that in the picture!)
4. Births outside of wedlock (not that I think the decline in marriage is a bad thing!, unlike the author of the post where I got the info!
The chart below shows the proportion of kids who are born outside marriage by social class in Britain. Its quite a short period of time, but you get the general idea. At the top, things haven’t changed much. At the bottom, having children inside marriage is not the norm, and increasingly rare.
White working class underachievement is persistent and real, but contemporary government reports are potentially biased in that they might fail to take seriously critical (left wing) analysis of issues such as this. Students might like to read the summary below, and check out the actual full report and consider whether or not this report provides a full picture of the causes of white working class underachievement, or whether its agenda is limited by ideological (neoliberal) bias…
A summary and sociological analysis of a recent government report on white working class underachievement….
Summary of the Government Report on White Working Class Underachievement
The summary below is taken from the House of Commons Education Committee on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children, First Report of Session 2014-15
The possible causes and contributors to white working class underachievement are many and various, and include matters in home life, school practices, and wider social policies. We received evidence on a broad range of policy areas and relevant factors, many of which fell outside education policy. Our report holds a mirror up to the situation—it does not attempt to solve the problem on its own—but it is clear that schools can and do make a dramatic difference to the educational outcomes of poor children. Twice the proportion of poor children attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools, whereas the proportion of non-FSM children achieving this benchmark in outstanding schools is only 1.5 times greater than in those rated as inadequate. Ofsted’s inspection focus on performance gaps for deprived groups will encourage schools to concentrate on this issue, including those that aspire to an “outstanding” rating.
Our inquiry focused on pupils who are eligible for free school meals, but there are many pupils just outside this group whose performance is low, and it is known that economic deprivation has an impact on educational performance at all levels. Data from a range of Departments could be combined in future to develop a more rounded indicator of a child’s socio-economic status and used to allocate funding for disadvantaged groups. The improvement in outcomes for other ethnic groups over time gives us cause for optimism that improvements can be made, but not through a national strategy or a prescribed set of sub-regional challenges. Schools need to work together to tackle problems in their local context, and need to be encouraged to share good practice in relevant areas, such as providing space to complete homework and reducing absence from school.
Policies such as the pupil premium and the introduction of the Progress 8 metric are to be welcomed as measures that could improve the performance of white working class children and increase attention on this group. Alongside the EEF “toolkit”, our recommendation for an annual report from Ofsted on how the pupil premium is being used will ensure that suitable information on how this extra funding is being used.
An updated good practice report from Ofsted on tackling white working class underachievement would also help schools to focus their efforts. Meanwhile, further work is needed on the role of parental engagement, particularly in the context of early years.
The Government should also maintain its focus on getting the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and should give more thought to the incentives that drive where teachers choose to work. Within a school, the best teachers should be deployed where they can make most difference. Schools face a battle for resources and talent, and those serving poor white communities need a better chance of winning. White working class children can achieve in education, and the Government must take these steps to ensure that that they do.
While the summary recognises that a number of factors contribute to white working class underachievement, including policy and home based factors it basically (obviously?) ends up concluding that the problem can be fixed by individual teachers and schools within the existing system, without making any major changes to the current system.
The evidence cited to support this view is that ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds do not significantly underachieve compared to their richer peers (the message being ‘if they can do it, so can poor white kids); and the fact that ‘schools can and do make a difference’.
The suggested strategies to improve the standards of white working class kids include:
Schools dealing with the issues in their local contexts (fair enough I guess)
Schools ‘sharing best practice’
Getting the best teachers to where they are needed the most – which mainly means coastal areas (although there is no mention of how to do this)
Yet more monitoring by OFSTED (into how the Pupil Premium is being used)
Doing more research on how to engage parents, implying that they are somehow to blame.
What is NOT considered is the broader social and cultural inequalities in the UK and the possibility (some may say FACT) that the education system is actually run by and for the middle classes and white working class kids just see it as ‘not for them’, as this research by Garth Sthal suggests:
Garth Stahl worked as an educator in predominantly white working-class and boy heavy schools in London for nine years and recently spent one year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided to them.
He argues that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, which plagues the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class.
A summary of his research is as follows:
Schools negatively label white working class boys as ‘lacking in aspiration’ and write many of them off before the enter the school building, putting them in lowest sets and paying less attention to them, as they believe they have no chance of achieving 5 A-Cs.
White working class boys are well aware of how they are negatively labelled in educational environments, and the poor quality of education they are receiving, and also the constraints of their social class position.
In response, they often excluded themselves from the school’s neoliberal “aspirations” agenda of university entrance and social mobility
They preferred employment that was ‘respectable working-class’ such as trade work which they considered for “the likes of them” and where they would feel comfortable.
The boys were also haunted by a fear of academic failure – they realised that they would be blamed for their failure and thus be made to feel a sense of shame because it (Even though deep down they knew they had less chance of succeeding than their middle class peers).
On the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter into areas that felt foreign, such as university, where they potentially would be made to feel uncomfortable.
Application and Relevance
Taken together these two items show how research which implies that we need system-level change will not be considered in government education policy – and serves to show up the bias and limitations of government reports which feed into social policy.
Being in poverty has a negative affect on an individual’s life chances. Being poor means you’ll struggle to make ends-meet, you’ll be stuck renting rather than buying your own house, you’ll probably be in stuck in a debt-cycle, your kids are more likely to fail their GCSEs, you’re more likely to a victim of crime, less likely to feel like you’ll belong, you’ll feel more miserable, and suffer more mental health problems during the course of your life. You’re also much less likely to save sufficient money towards your pension, but fortunately that won’t matter, because you’re also likely to die younger, so at least you won’t suffer for too many years in old-age.
This post explores some of the statistical evidence on the relationship between poverty and life chances, looking at a range of evidence collected by the office for national statistics and other agencies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The point of this post is simply to provide an overview of the statistics, and offer something of a critique of the limitations of these statistics. I’ll also provide some links to useful sources which students can then use to explore the data further.
Most of the statistics in this post use a relative measurement of poverty based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s definition of a low income household which is defined as one which has income of 60% of the average income, roughly equivalent to £7500 for single person households and £11000/ year for two person, or couple households in 2014-15.
According to this measurement there were 13.5 million people, or 21% of the U.K. population living in low-income households in 2014/15 (1).
Life chances simply refers to your chances of achieving positive outcomes and avoiding negative outcomes throughout the course of your life – such as succeeding in education, being happy, or avoiding divorce, poor health and an early, painful death.
How poverty affects life chances – in six statistics
One – the poorest fifth are at least FIVE times as likely to be able to keep up with paying bills compared to the richest fifth
Almost half of all families with children in the poorest 20% find it ‘difficult to make ends meet’. A fifth are unable to keep up with bills.
This compares to 10% and approximately 3% respectively for the richest fifth of households.
Two – Housing: people renting are 3-4 times more likely to be in poverty than owner-occupiers
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that ‘11% of owner-occupiers live in poverty after housing costs, over two in five (42 per cent) of all social rented sector tenants and over a third of private rented sector tenants (36 per cent) live in poverty (DWP, 2015b). The extent to which housing costs contribute to poverty levels is particularly acute in the private rented sector with poverty levels in this tenure doubling from 18 to 36 per cent when housing costs are taken into account.’
Rent accounts for at least a third of income for more than 70% of private renters in poverty.
Three – poor people are FOUR TIMES more likely to be in debt
Living in a ‘low income’ household (or being ‘in poverty’) is strongly correlated with being in debt – in 2014/15 20% of people in poverty were behind with a bill (excluding housing costs), compared to only 5% of households not in poverty.
Where a pupil’s family have claimed eligibility for free school meals in the School Census they are defined as eligible for Free school meal (FSM).
In 2016, 13.4% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were eligible for free school meals, compared to 13.8% in 2015.
Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they are known to have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years (from year 6 to year 11), if they are recorded as having been looked after for at least one day or if they are recorded as having been adopted from care.
In 2016, 27.7% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were disadvantaged, 0.4 percentage points higher than 2015 (27.3%).
There was a 12.2 and 12.6 attainment gap between ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘Free School Meals’ pupils respectively in 2016.
The condition of not having access to those things considered ‘basic’ or ‘normal’ within a society (1)
Origins of the Concept
The academic use of the concept can be traced back to Seebohm Rowntree’s (1901) study of Poverty in York, which set the tone for much later work which sought to uncover the extent of poverty in society.
In the late 1950s Peter Townsend developed a relational concept of poverty based on lifestyles, from which he distilled 12 recurring items, such as ‘household does not have a refrigerator’, into a poverty or deprivation index. This is a relative, rather than an absolute concept of poverty.
Later studies have used questionnaires to find out what people themselves define as necessities in order to measure ‘relative poverty’.
Today national governments also use ‘poverty lines’, which is usually set at 50-60% below the national average household income.
Absolute and Relative Poverty
Sociologists generally recognize two definitions of poverty – absolute and relative
Absolute poverty is grounded in the idea of material subsistence -the basic needs which must be me in order to sustain a reasonably healthy existence, mainly food, shelter and clothing. By these standards, there are still hundreds of millions of people around the world who live in absolute poverty, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and rural India.
However, the problem with the concept of absolute poverty is that there is no universal definition of it, and definitions of need are culturally variable: for example the !Kung bushmen do not regard themselves as living in absolute poverty, but many people in the West may define them as suffering from this condition.
Most sociologists today use the concept of relative poverty, which relates poverty to the standards of living in a particular society. The main reason for using relative poverty as a measurement is that as societies ‘develop’, people tend to adjust their ideas of what counts as a ‘necessity’ upwards – for example in poor areas of less developed countries, running water and flush toilets are not generally regarded as necessities, while in more developed countries refrigerators and telephones may be regarded as necessities.
Critics of the relative poverty measurement argue that it detracts our attention away from the more serious issue of ‘absolute poverty’, which is potentially life threatening, whereas those living in relative poverty (in the UK and other developed countries at least) tend not to be starving.
However, measuring relative poverty is useful as it highlights injustice in society and groups which experience discrimination and marginalization – women, some ethnic minorities, the young and the old are more likely to be in relative poverty than other groups.
Individual and Social-Structural Explanations of Poverty
Explanations of poverty tend to either blame the individual (‘blame the victim’ approaches) or blame society (structural, or ‘blame the system’ approaches).
Blame the victim approaches tend to argue that poverty has always been with us, and always will be, they see society as generally fair and offering opportunities to individuals for advancement: if individuals fail to take advantage of these opportunities it is down to their own lack of effort, and those individuals who fail to ‘rise up’ in the system have no one else to blame but themselves.
Such ideas were popular in 19th century Britain, when work houses were developed to deal with the poor (the ‘failures’), and had a resurgence in the 1980s when New Right/ neoliberal ideas explained poverty as the fault of individuals themselves, probably the most classic statement of this being Charles Murray’s theory of the underclass in which he blamed persistent poverty on an over-reliance on benefits and an unwillingness to work on the part of the long term unemployed.
‘Blame the system’ approaches can be traced back to R.H. Tawney who argued that poverty is a key factor in explaining social inequality which results in extremes of wealth and poverty.
These approaches focus more on how the structure of society systemically disadvantages some groups rather than others – inequalities in class, gender, ethnicity and physical ability all make it more difficult for some to take advantage of opportunities, and this is no fault of the individual when discrimination or cultural capital possessed by the elite class effectively block opportunities for some while opening them up for others on an unequal basis.
Blame the system approaches also point out that major structural changes in society can also affect poverty levels – the decline of manufacturing in the UK from the 1970s for example led to declining job opportunities for large sections of the traditional working classes, while the flexibilisation of work patterns as part of neoliberal working regimes have locked millions of workers in the UK into temporary, low paid jobs during the 1980s and 1990s.
From this structuralist point of view, social policy is the solution to poverty, two recent examples being the introduction of the minimum wage and the expansion of in-work benefits.
Criticisms of the Concept of Poverty
Absolute poverty is difficult to measure because there is no universally agreed concept of ‘needs’, and the same criticisms can be applied to relative poverty – if we are to base the definition of this on not having certain items, then it is impossible to escape subjective interpretations of what the cluster of ‘necessary items’ should be.
The concept of relative poverty has also been criticised as only actually measuring inequality, rather than poverty, so the concept lacks clear meaning – – at least the concept of ‘absolute poverty’ helps us to identify people in real need, whereas it is not necessarily possible to say this about someone who is in ‘relative poverty’ when they level of it keeps rising with increasing standards of living.
Focusing on relative poverty detracts attention away from those in absolute poverty.
Some sociologists have moved away from the concept of poverty in favour of ‘social exclusion’ which focuses instead on the processes which deny poorer people access to certain citizenship rights.
Research on poverty has demonstrated that a substantial amount of people in both the United Kingdom and the United States are in poverty at any one time, and that there is a clear link between socio-economic structures and the persistence of poverty in modern societies.
(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology
In this topic we examine the relationship between social class and crime.
According to available statistics, class background is correlated with both the amount of and type of offending, but there are some significant limitations with the statistics on social class and crime and these limitations are the first thing we examine.
We then simply selectively apply some of the perspectives which we’ve already looked at earlier in the course: Consensus theory explains the higher rates of working class crime in terms of differential access the working classes and middle classes have in relation to the legitimate opportunity structure, which generates different cultural responses; Interactionism broadly rejects the consensus theory arguing that the higher rates of working class crime are a social construction; Marxism recognises the fact that the high levels of working class crime are a social construction in that emphasises the role of crimogenic capitalism in generating crime.
Finally, we look at the realisms – Right Realism focuses our attention on the underclass, rather than the working class as the main cause of crime in society today, while left realism sees crime as an outgrowth of inequality and marginalisation, without blaming Capitalism per se as Marxists do.
Consensus Theories, Social Class and Crime
Consensus theories generally accepted the fact that crime rates were higher among the lower social classes and set out to explain why – two theories which explicitly focused on the differences between working class culture and crime were Strain theory and Status Frustration theory.
Robert Merton: Strain Theory, Blocked Opportunities and Working Class Innovation
Robert Merton argued that crime increased when there was a strain (or gap) between society’s success goals (achieving material wealth) and the available opportunities to achieve those goals through legitimate means (having a well-paying job). Merton called this imbalance between goals and the ability to achieve them ‘anomie’.
Merton argued that crime was higher among the working classes because they had fewer opportunities to achieve material success through legitimate means and were thus more likely to adopt innovative cultural responses in order to achieve material success through criminal means – through burglary or drug dealing, for example.
Merton saw crime as a response to the inability of people to achieve material wealth, emphasising the role of material or economic factors.
Albert Cohen: Status Frustration and Working Class Subcultures
Albert Cohen put more emphasis on cultural factors (values and status) rather than material factors in explaining working class crime.
Cohen argued that working class boys strove to emulate middle-class values and aspirations, but lacked the means to achieve success. This led to status frustration: a sense of personal failure and inadequacy.
In Cohen’s view they resolved their frustration by rejecting socially acceptable values and patterns of acceptable behaviour. Because there were several boys going through the same experiences, they end up banding together and forming delinquent subcultures.
This delinquent subculture reversed the norms and values of mainstream culture, offering positive rewards (status) to those who were the most deviant. Status was gained by being malicious, intimidating others, breaking school rules or the law and generally causing trouble.
This pattern of boys rejecting mainstream values and forming delinquent subcultures first started in school and then becomes more serious later on, taking on the form of truancy and possibly gangs.
The main piece of sociological research which has specifically examined the relationship between the police and the social class background of offenders is Aaron Cicourel’s ‘Power and The Negotiation of Justice’ (1968)
Cicourel argued that it was the meanings held by police officers and juvenile officers that explained why most delinquents come from working class backgrounds, and that the process of defining a young person as a delinquent was complex, involving mainly two stages of interactions based on sets of meanings held by the participants.
The first stage is the decision by the police to stop and interrogate an individual. This decision is based on meanings held by the police of what is ‘strange’, ‘unusual’ and ‘wrong’. Whether or not the police stop and interrogate an individual depends on where the behaviour is taking place and on how the police perceive the individual(s). Whether behaviour is deemed to be ‘suspicious’ will depend on where the behaviour is taking place, for example an inner city, a park, a suburb. If a young person has a demeanour like that of a ‘typical delinquent’ then the police are more likely to both interrogate and arrest that person.
The Second Stage is that the young person is handed over to a juvenile delinquent officer. This officer will have a picture of a ‘typical delinquent’ in his mind. Factors associated with a typical delinquent include being of dishevelled appearance, having poor posture, speaking in slang etc. It follows that Cicourel found that most delinquents come from working class backgrounds.
When middle class delinquents are arrested they are less likely to be charged with the offence as they do not fit the picture of a ‘typical delinquent’. Also, their parents are more able to present themselves as respectable and reasonable people from a nice neighbourhood and co-operate fully with the juvenile officers, assuring them that their child is truly remorseful.
As a result, the middle class delinquent is more likely to be defined as ill rather than criminal, as having accidentally strayed from the path of righteousness just the once and having a real chance of reforming.
Cicourel based his research on two Californian cities, each with a population of about 100, 000. both had similar social characteristics yet there was a significant difference in the amount of delinquents in each city. Cicourel argued that this difference can only be accounted for by the size, organisation, policies and practices of the juvenile and police bureaus. It is the societal reaction that affects the rate of delinquency. It is the agencies of social control that produce delinquents.
Marxism, Social Class and Crime
Marxists argue that while working class crime does exist, it is a rational response to crimogenic capitalism. Moreover, all class commit crime, and the crimes of the elite are more harmful than street crime, but less likely to be punished.
Capitalism encourages individuals to pursue self-interest before everything else.
Capitalism encourages individuals to be materialistic consumers, making us aspire to an unrealistic and often unattainable lifestyle.
Capitalism in its wake generates massive inequality and poverty, conditions which are correlated with higher crime rates.
Marxist Sociologist David Gordon says that Capitalist societies are ‘dog eat dog societies’ in which each individual company and each individual is encouraged to look out for their own interests before the interests of others, before the interests of the community, and before the protection of the environment. If we look at the Capitalist system, what we find is that not only does it recommend that we engage in the self-interested pursuit of profit is good, we learn that it is acceptable to harm others and the environment in the process.
Marxists theorise that the values of the Capitalist system filter down to the rest of our culture. Think again about the motives of economic criminals: The burglars, the robbers, and the thieves. What they are doing is seeking personal gain without caring for the individual victims.
The Capitalist system is also one of radical inequality. At the very top we have what David Rothkopf calls the ‘Superclass’ , mainly the people who run global corporations, and at the very bottom we have the underclass (in the developed world) and the slum dwellers, the street children and the refugees in the developing world.
The Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out that the super wealthy effectively segregate themselves from the wealthy, through living in exclusive gated communities and travelling in private jets and armoured vehicles with security entourages. If people can afford it, they move to a better area, and send their children to private schools. However, this doesn’t prevent the poor and the rich from living side by side.
Marxists argue that the visible evidence of massive inequalities give people at the bottom a sense of injustice, a sense of anger and a sense of frustration that they are not sharing in the wealth being flaunted in front of them (the flaunting is the point is it not?) As a result, Capitalism leads to a flourishing of economic crime as well as violent street crime.
William Chambliss even goes so far as to say that economic crime ‘’represents rational responses to the competitiveness and inequality of life in capitalist societies”. As we have seen from previous studies. Drug dealers see themselves as innovative entrepreneurs. So internalised is the desire to be successful that breaking the law is seen as a minor risk.
Marxists hold that more egalitarian societies based on the values of the co-operation and mutual assistance, have lower crime rates.
The Crimes of the elite are more costly than street crime
Marxists argue that although they are hidden from view, the crimes of the elite exert a greater economic toll on society than the crimes of the ‘ordinary people’. Laureen Snider (1993) points out that the cost of White Collar Crime and Corporate Crime to the economy far outweighs the cost of street crime by ‘typical’ criminals.
White Collar Crime: Crimes committed in the furtherance of an individual’s own interests, often against the corporations of organisations within which they work.
Corporate Crime: Those crimes committed by or for corporations or businesses which act to further their interests and have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers and the general public. The drive is usually the desire to increase profits.
The Cost of Financial Crime (Fraud)
Organisations such as Corporate Watch and…. Multinational Monitor, suggest that Corporate Fraud is widespread. The General Accounting Agency of the USA has estimated that 100s of savings and loans companies have failed in recent years due to insider dealing, failure to disclose accurate information, and racketeering. The cost to the taxpayer in the USA of corporate bail outs is estimated to be around $500 billion, or $5000 per household in the USA.
Case Study – Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme.
The US district judge Denny Chin described the fraud as “staggering” and said the “breach of trust was massive” and that a message was being sent by the sentence. There had been no letters submitted in support of Madoff’s character, he said. Victims in the courtroom clapped as the term was read out.
Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud, theft and money laundering. The sentencing, in what has been one of the biggest frauds ever seen on Wall Street, was eagerly anticipated. Described by victims in written testimony as a “thief and a monster”, Madoff has become an emblem for the greed that pitched the world into recession. Nearly 9,000 victims have filed claims for losses in Madoff’s corrupt financial empire.
Madoff masterminded a huge “Ponzi” scheme. Instead of investing client’s money in securities, it was held with a bank and new deposits used to pay bogus returns to give the impression that the business was successful. At the time of his arrest in December, he claimed to manage $65bn of investors’ money, but in reality there was just $1bn left.
Right Realism/ Underclass Theory and Crime
Right Realists disagree with Marxists – Right Realists point to the underclass as being responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in society.
Charles Murray and the Underclass
Charles Murray argued that changes to family structure was responsible for much of the increase in the crime rate in the 1970s and 80s – he largely attributes the growth of crime because of a growing underclass or ‘new rabble’ who are defined by their deviant behaviour and fail to socialise their children properly. The children of the underclass fail to learn self-control and also fail to learn the difference between right and wrong.
The underclass has increased because of increasing welfare dependency. Murray argues that increasingly generous welfare benefits since the 1960s have led to increasing numbers of people to become dependent on the state. This has led to the decline of marriage and the growth of lone parent families, because women can now live off benefits rather than having to get married to have children. This also means that men no longer have to take responsibility for supporting their families, so they no longer need to work.
According to Murray, lone mothers are ineffective agents of socialisation, especially for boys. Absent fathers mean than boys lack paternal discipline and appropriate male role models. As a result, young males turn to other, delinquent role models on the street to gain status through crime rather than supporting their families through a steady job.
Increasing crime is effectively a result of children growing up surrounded by delinquent, deviant criminal adults which creates a perfect crimogenic environment.
Unemployment and Crime –
A recent comparison 4.3 million offenders in England and Wales whose names appeared in court records or the Police National Computer with separate benefits records held by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that more than 1.1 million of the 5.2 million people claiming out-of-work benefits had a criminal record, or 22 per cent. This means that people who are claiming unemployment benefit are more than twice as likely to have a criminal record as those who are not. (Source: More than a fifth of people on unemployment benefits have a criminal record.)
NEETS and Crime –
NEETS stands for young people aged between 16 and 24 Not in Education, Employment or Training. They first came to the government’s attention in the mid 2000s when they numbered 1.1m. At that time, a study by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) conservatively estimated that each new NEET dropping out of education at 16 will cost taxpayers an average of £97,000 during their lifetime, with the worst costing more than £300,000 apiece.
Their impact on crime, public health and antisocial behaviour was so marked that the study found that a single 157,000-strong cohort of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs would cost the country a total of £15 billion by the time they died prematurely in about 2060. They are, says the study, 22 times more likely to be teenage mothers; 50% more likely to suffer from poor health; 60% more likely to be involved with drugs and more than 20 times more likely to become criminals.
Left Realism, Social Class and Crime
Left Realists Lea and young conclude that they can explain this using the following key concepts; relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture.
Lea and Young argue that crime has its roots in deprivation, but deprivation itself is not directly responsible for crime – for example, living standards have risen since the 1950s, so the level of deprivation has fallen, but the crime rate is much higher today than it was in the 1950s.
Left Realists draw on Runciman’s (1966) concept of relative deprivation to explain crime. This refers to how someone feels in relation to others, or compared with their own expectations.
The concept of relative deprivation helps to explain the apparent paradox of increasing crime in the context of an increasing wealthy society. Although people are better off today, they have a greater feeling of relative deprivation because of the media and advertising have raised everyone’s expectations for material possessions – we are wealthier, but we feel poorer, and thus there is more pressure to get more stuff to keep up with everyone else, which generates historically high crime rates.
This is where people lack the power or resources to fully participate in society. According to Left Realists marginalised groups lack both clear goals and organisations to represent their interests. Groups such as workers have clear goals (such as wanting better pay and conditions) and organisations to represent them (such as trades unions), and as such they have no need to resort to violence to achieve their goals.
By contrast, unemployed youth are marginalised – they have no specific organisation to represent them and no clear sense of goals – which results in feelings of resentment and frustration. Having no access to legitimate political means to pursue their goals, frustration can become expressed through violence.
Left Realists see subcultures as a group’s collective response to the situation of relative deprivation, and they draw on Cohen’s theory of status frustration to explain how they emerge. There are many different subcultural adaptations to blocked opportunities, and not all result in crime – but those subcultures which still subscribe to the mainstream values of material wealth but lack legitimate opportunities to achieve those goals.
A recent parliamentary report has found that poor white boys and girls do worse in schools than children in other ethnic groups.
How much worse do poor white children do?
The report uses students who received free school meals (FSM children) as an indicator of poverty:
32% of FSM white British children get five good GSCEs, compared to…
42% of FSM Black Caribbean children
62% of FSM Indian children
77% of FSM Chinese children
The achievement gap between poor white children and rich white children is much larger than the corresponding gap between poor and rich children from other minority groups, and the gap widens as white children get older.
How has educational performance changed over time?
The achievement rates of poor white kids has actually improved signficantly in the last decade – in 2008 only 15% of white pupils on Free School Meals got 5 good GCSEs, which has now doubled – the problem is that pupils from more affluent backgrounds have also improved, meaning the ‘achievement gap’ has stayed the same for white kids – today 65% of better off white children get 5 good GCSEs compared to only 32% of FSM white children, meaning a and achievement gap of 33%.
This trend is different for ethnic minorities – poor minority children have closed the gap on their wealthier counterparts. For Indian and black students the gap between rich and poor is only 15%, and for Chinese students it is 1.4%.
This has led some to conclude that there must be cultural differences influencing the way poor white British children approach their education.
Do Cultural Differences Explain why White Working Class Underachievement?
The cliche is that the children of immigrant parents are put under greater pressure to study, and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England suggests some supporting evidence for this view:
White working class boys and girls are more likely to have anti-school attitudes than other minority groups, they play truant less, and they spend less time doing homework – an average of 2.54 evenings a week compared to 3.13 for black African and 3.29 for Indian children.
There is less support for the idea that white working class parents and their children lack aspiration – For a start, 57% of British people identify themselves as working class, while it is only the 12.5% on Free School Meals who are doing very badly at school – so it is more a case of there being pockets of underachievement rather than the whole of the working class underachieving.
There is also evidence that working class children, especially young children, have high ambitions.
Schools (and leadership) Can Make a Difference
There are plenty examples of academies which have been set up in deprived areas which have helped local working class kids get good GCSE results.
In 2003 New Labour launched ‘The London Challenge’ to drive up standards, and invested £80 million in leadership, targeting failing schools – about 80% of schools in London now have ‘outstanding leadership’ according to OFSTED and 50% of children in London on Free School Meals get 5 good GCSEs, irrespective of ethnicity.
The problem is that this initiative might not work outside of London – London has a prosperous economy which makes it easier to attract the best leaders and teachers, and also benefits from the positive impact of immigrant families.
The Geographical Aspect to Underachievement
In 2013 the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, identified a geographical shift in educational underachievement – away from big cities and crowded, densely packed neighbourhoods, to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous parts of the country.
Such towns suffer from fragile, seasonal economies, an inability to attract good staff, a lack of jobs for young people, and scant opportunities for higher education – all of which contributes to a vicious cycle of underachievement, perpetuated further by the ‘brain drain’ – anyone that does get qualifications leaves because there are no opportunities to use them in the local area.
In such areas, simply building swish new academies don’t seem to be enough to improve results – In 2005, the so-called worst performing school in the country, Ramsgate School, was transformed into the new, £30 million Marlowe Academy. SIx years later, it fell into special measures.