Mythbuster 6: The White Working Class, the Forgotten Minority?

Mythbuster 6: The White Working Class, the Forgotten Minority?

When conducting a Google search with the words ‘white working class’ a whole wealth of headlines were brought up on the first page, mostly from the Daily Mail, including ‘White working-class boys are already at the bottom of the class aged just five‘, Poor whites ‘feel like they are last in line for council housing‘. A BBC headline from their ‘White season’ read ‘White working class “voiceless”’, another from the Telegraph reads ‘Private schools failing to recruit working-class white boys‘. And the reasons? Well if you believe the right-wing rhetoric – refugees get priority in housing, poor white pupils are failing because funds go to ethnic minorities, white patients get reduced services because the NHS can’t cope with the pressures caused by migrant ‘health tourists’; white workers’ wages are undercut by migrant workers who are prepared to work for less; and so on. Statistics show that the white working class has indeed suffered over the past two decades, but the debate on this tends to put forward the view that this is primarily the fault of immigrants or the so-called special treatment of British ethnic minority groups as opposed to policies and a system that have negatively affected the working class as a whole.

A photo of a busy London street
London by Andy Roberts

When speaking about access to services or of job availability for the white working class many important factors are often excluded from the debate, most notably, the policies over the past two decades that have hit the poor the hardest. The Thatcher period saw the destruction of the trade unions and the closure of manufacturing industries which once sustained thousands of decently paid jobs and were the pillars of many working class communities; over the last decade there has been a loss of about 1.5m jobs in manufacturing industries. The de-regulation of the labour market has allowed a short-term contract hire and fire culture creating less job security. Possibly the most significant, The Housing Act 1980 allowed house tenants the right to buy their home, (a third of all those sold are now owned by rich private landlords) and has subsequently created a shortage of houses and concentrated the most disadvantaged in deprived estates. The white working class has indeed lost out in the struggle for scarce resources, jobs and decent pay, but then again so has all the working classes irrespective of ethnicity. For example, the wealth of Britain’s top 1000 increased by a fifth in the biggest increase recorded in 2010, whilst pay for the working classes had stagnated since 2007, well before the recession.

It is interesting to see the paradoxical way in which the ruling classes speak for the white working class and how they speak about them. Middle-class pundits will gladly defend the white working class from apparent ‘political correctness gone mad’ in the form of minority favouritism, and then in the same breath condemn them for lack of motivation and their milking of the benefits system.

A photo of teenage students

Let’s take one example; periodically newspapers will pick up on the issue of low educational achievement among white working-class boys. These boys are then portrayed as victims of ethnic diversity. A presenter on the Breakfast Show reading out a listeners’ text message on the topic of educational failure said: “White youngsters fail because PC [politically correct] teachers and the media are more interested in Black and Asian children”. Yet official statistics reveal that most groups in poverty achieve relatively poor results regardless of ethnic background. Around 24% of White British boys on free school meals (FSM) get at least 5 A-C GCSEs, this is compared to 26.8% of mixed raced students on FSM, 27.1% of black Caribbean students on FSM and 33.1% of black African students on FSM, yet over 56% of White British boys not on free school meals achieve 5 A-C GCSEs. White working class boys may be victims but clearly not of ethnic diversity but a system that works against poorer children.

Which begs the question as to why the working classes are being divided by race in this way, by whom and for what purpose? Is it divide and rule by the ruling classes? Is it simply to gain readership by targeting those who feel ‘voiceless’? Is it to promote a sense that there’s a ‘them’ and ‘us’ by the far-right – the view that working class white Britons have ‘greater ethnic entitlement’, ‘priority citizenship’ or that they ‘”should” be doing better than other ethnic groups.’?

Within the remit of the white working class however, lays an underclass that may well be an unrepresented minority. This group is often differentiated by politicians as the ‘undeserving poor’ as opposed to ‘hard-working families’ who they believe are blameless for their disadvantage. This subgroup is also often referred to using slurs such as ‘chav’, ‘asbo’ and ‘pramface’ and portrayed as a workless Burberry wearing underclass.

Members of this group have described the feeling of ‘being looked down on’ by the general public, being subject to constant visual assessment; when they entered a ‘posh shop’ for example or speaking to staff at the Jobcentre.  Programmes such as Shameless, Little Britain and The Jeremy Kyle show can morph “a very broad and diverse group of people… into a deficient ‘social type’: as a council estate dwelling, single-parenting, low-achieving, Rottweiler-owning cultural minority, whose poverty, it is hinted, might be the result of their own poor choices.”

A cartoon of a Chav
Caricature of a ‘Chav’

Newspapers are never short of demonized figures to portray this underclass; previous examples include Karen Matthews and Jade Goody. Extreme examples of ‘benefit fraudsters‘, rare examples of ‘spongers’ including Mick Philpott and unusually large families are often hunted down and sprawled across pages along with assertions that they are representative of a wider culture within their class. This is coupled with statements from the ruling classes and right wing media that there are plenty of jobs available if only those people ‘who still have their curtains closed when you’re going to work’ or those with over three generations of coach potatoes would ‘get on their bike’ and look for it. These particular statements came at a time when figures showed that there were 23 jobseekers in the UK chasing every job vacancy. In some communities the picture was bleaker; in Hull, there were 18,795 jobseekers chasing 318 jobs. Research carried out by the Guardian and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also disputed this so-called ‘culture of joblessness’ where over three generations remain willingly unemployed.

This subgroup can also face the harshest criticism from within their own class. Nothing infuriates sections of the working class more than the thought that people in the same circumstances as them are ‘living it up’ at their expense. Despite the fact that many are actively seeking work and benefit fraud represents less than 1 per cent of total welfare spending; up to 60 times less than tax avoidance. The demonization of the underclass from within the working class also stems from insecurity, or trying to distance oneself from those in superficially similar circumstances. BritainThinks revealed that people from groups most likely to be classified as chavs by others were more relentless in their ‘chav-bashing’. One long-term incapacity benefit claimant criticized chavs who were milking the system; so did two unemployed teenage mothers. This, some suggest, comes from a fear of being within the stigmatised group themselves.

A common myth propagated states that the white working class hardship is down to working class British ethnic minorities’ so-called special treatment or wholly down to the previous government’s failure to control immigration levels. The fact is the working classes of all colours have faced hardship, decreased wages, rising rents and long waiting lists for social housing. Moreover, these problems may have been exasperated by the large influx of immigration, but began well before it, as a direct result of policies. There are however, groups that have been affected disproportionately. For example, young black men have experienced the sharpest unemployment rise since 2010. And indeed, there is also a subgroup within the white working class that faces demonisation and prejudice from politicians, the media, the general public and even from those within the working class; maybe they are the unrepresented or the forgotten minority.

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