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The Least, the Last and the Lost should include the long-term unemployed

I was recently recommended Mez McConnell’s latest book, The Least, The Last and The Lost (I think that’s the right order!). Church Action on Poverty were kind enough to buy a copy for their library and let me read and review it for them.

It’s a long but easy read and I found I managed to swim through it in three days (ignoring the forewords, introduction and appendices). The book is essentially in two parts, with a mini theology interlude in the middle.

The first part is an overview of poverty in the UK. McConnell presents some basic data on the nature of poverty in the UK, as a background to the rest of his book. He talks a little about the loss of major industries and the rise of council estates and schemes, along with the unintended negative consequences of these policies. Many of the UK’s poorest and most deprived areas are areas where major industries collapsed under post-1980 government policy, or where people were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in newly-built estates that provided better housing but at the cost of community. “Community living took a back seat to social policy and many hundreds of thousands of people were left lonely and isolated in these [new] buildings.” (pg43).

McConnell reminds us that the experience of poverty isn’t simply an academic, financial matter but also a matter of deep emotion. Poverty changes how people think and feel about themselves, and those of us who are not in poverty need to listen to those who are. When one lives in poverty in a deprived area, the ‘sensible’ thing to do can be very different to what seems ‘sensible’ to a middle-class person who has more than enough and has never had to worry about where their next piece of enjoyment in life might be coming from, let alone their next meal.

McConnell supplements his writing with stories from people who grew up on or still live in council estates and schemes, giving us a much-needed emotional insight into life behind the numbers. These stories make up some of the best parts of the book, helping us to understand what life feels like in these places and how this contributes to the choices that people make.

These stories and McConnell’s descriptions of council estate and scheme culture are important for McConnell’s second message, which is that more Christians should be moving into these areas to live and share community. Just as any overseas missionary seeks to understand the culture of the country they are moving to, so Christians moving into different cultures within the UK should seek to understand those cultures.

McConnell makes a great case in the third part of his book for why Christians should be moving into council estates and schemes, and why church denominations should be funding pastors and churches in these areas. As he points out, there is no ‘trickle down’ of Christianity from the middle classes to the poor; rather, the teaching of the Bible shows clearly that the gospel ‘trickles up’ from the poor to the rich. If we want to reach all classes of people, we should start at the bottom.

The second part of the book is a brief theological interlude of fewer than 30 pages. Here McConnell presents what is largely a series of bible verses relating to poverty. As this is more like a footnote sandwiched between two different books than a detailed theological treatise, there is no space for a consideration of the principles that these verses demonstrate or how they relate to or can be applied in the modern day. That is understandable if a theology of poverty is not what McConnell’s book about, and given the length of the book already (it’s essentially already two books in one: one on poverty, and one on church in poor areas) then it is reasonable that this section touches only lightly on a subject (the Bible) which one would hope Christian leaders would already know quite well.

Where McConnell does less well is in understanding some of the current causes of and contributors to poverty. He too readily buys into worn-out tropes regarding people who are not in work, and even blames the welfare state for the issues he believes exists. It is ironic that these negative stereotypes have been around for hundreds of years, well before any welfare state existed, and yet still people will point to any form of support for the poor as ‘the’ reason why some people aren’t in work. It is disappointing that McConnell doesn't actively inform his reader - people whom he wants to see move onto council estates and schemes, presumably without a further-developed sense of anger against the sick and unemployed - about the importance of structural factors like the level of equality in a country, access to good education and healthcare, and the role of the government in sustaining good jobs in the economy.

Worklessness has persisted across a range of policies, including no welfare state at all, whilst in countries with decent job markets a good welfare state boosts employment.[1] In the UK, this was seen in the post-WW2 ‘golden era’ when the modern welfare state was first set up and genuine full employment was achieved alongside the new NHS and social security system. Since the 1980s this state has been steadily eroded, albeit with some attempts at replenishment by 1997-2010 Labour governments, and as a consequence unemployment has risen again. McConnell’s claims about unemployed people therefore betray a deep lack of knowledge of the UK social security system and the people who depend upon it to live.

McConnell says of short-term unemployed people that they lack the ability to take orders and commit to a time structure. He basically says that people who experience short-term unemployment are people who voluntarily quit perfectly good jobs, for no reason other than not having a good attitude towards the necessity of work. Yet in reality these people experience short-term, temporary, insecure job offers which at some point come to an end and throw them back onto the unemployment heap until their next insecure job offer comes along. These patterns persist over decades of a person’s working life, with insecure jobs failing to act as a stepping-stone into stable employment despite the desire of the worker for such a job.

Simon, for example, had started work at 16 and by age 30 he had had 12 different jobs in areas like food processing, electrical assembly, shop assistance, cleaning, fast-food restaurants and call centres. The majority of these had been temporary positions and he had experienced 9 episodes of unemployment. He had also taken part in 4 training courses. Simon did not need to be taught a work ethic. He did not need yet another low-level training course or temporary job. He needed a permanent position in a job with a career structure.

A small number of people in the low-pay/no-pay cycle occasionally manage to obtain higher-paid work in the skilled trades. This lifts them away from poverty for a short period of time, but these jobs are still insecure and always came to an end, returning them to poverty. Earning £1200 in a good week does not get you very far in supporting your family if you only have a handful of such weeks each year, and spend the rest of the time in unemployment or minimum wage work.

A minority of people in the low-pay/no-pay cycle are people with drug addictions and criminal behaviour. But instead of portraying this negatively – people aren’t sticking at jobs and are choosing to take drugs – this can easily be portrayed positively: even those addicted to heroin and shoplifting to fund the habit still never fully separate from the job market, and still want to work and have a stable life. The negative portrayal also fails to consider the chance events and single mistakes that lead young teenagers into the serious drug abuse which the majority of their peers avoid. When your school is useless, your career options non-existent, and your life one of unremitting boredom then cannabis can become insufficient, and it takes only a handful of goes at heroin to lead into addiction and a path of criminality. Young men in their early twenties reap the consequences of decisions they were too young to fully understand – indeed, which no-one except an addict who has been clean for years may fully understand – when they made them, but which have chained them to a desperate life.

Shildrick et al., contrary to McConnell’s unevidenced claims, say of their work that “one of the strongest, single findings of the study was that interviewees, who had been caught up in the low-pay, no-pay cycle for years, expressed great personal commitment to employment… [there were] deeply embedded [working-]class cultural expectations and attitudes about the necessity of working for a living.”[2] Furthermore, “resigning was a relatively rare explanation for how employment ended in these low-pay, no-pay work histories.”[3] This was despite resigning being “one of the only forms of resistance available” to workers in such poor jobs.[4] When resignation did occur, it was often a ‘forced’ choice, such as those caused by work-related injury or other pressures from managers. In these instances, “resignation seemed more like self-preservation than either active worker resistance or lack of employment commitment.”[5]

As for people who are long-term unemployed, some of these are people from the low-pay/no-pay cycle who are enduring a lengthier-than-usual stretch of unemployment. As people approach middle-age and start to accrue work-related injuries and the wear-and-tear caused by jobs at the bottom of the labour market, the prospects for re-engaging in work – let alone establishing a stable career – get less and less. These people may spend six or seven years gradually increasing the length of time that they have to spend on sick leave in-between bouts of work, whist their body tries to recover and finds it harder and slower each time. Eventually, people reach the point of being unable to work – but all too often, they are not yet sick enough to qualify for long-term sickness benefits. This can force them back to the labour market, breaking their bodies, minds and health even further as they desperately try to earn a little money until such time as the government deems them broken enough to merit financial support without conditions.

These people are perhaps the most likely to be accused of being ‘fake’. They are people whose health problems have been stigmatised as ‘common’ – back pain, arthritis, generalised pain, fatigue, depression, anxiety – and therefore assumed to be mild and non-problematic for work. They are also people with energy-limiting chronic illnesses like lupus, Chrohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, thyroid problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, fibromyalgia and Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. They are my people. And it hurts.

It had been some time since anyone had mentioned in my presence the idea that so-and-so is a malingerer. But three such instances have come in recent weeks. One is McConnell’s book, as he seems to love insisting that people who claim to have mental and physical health problems are in fact fit for work. A second is a person who is being supported by some people known to me. Despite this person's mobility and respiratory problems, this person is talked about to me as having merely a poor work ethic. The third is a neighbour accused of being a fake because she has been observed dancing whilst experiencing problematic back pain.

The frustration and the fear is that I know perfectly well that there are times when my neighbours could observe me and think that I am well. The issue is that they don’t see the internal exhaustion and pain; the dizziness and nausea; the fatigue that lasts for weeks because the heightened pain means I can’t get the sleep I need to recover from the activity that triggered the worsened symptoms. So when neighbour 2 sees neighbour 1 dancing, I immediately recognise the signs of someone who has major back pain and ought to engage in appropriate physiotherapy to support their back (e.g., appropriate forms of dance) and ought to refrain from inappropriate exercise (e.g. lifting and carrying; uncontrolled movements; or movements performed under constraint). Such a person needs to carry out therapeutic exercise at a time, in a manner and to an amount that is appropriate for their injury over the long-term and in the specific moment.

Dancing voluntarily may well be, for this person, an excellent example of such therapeutic exercise. It will also boost heart rate and blood flow (good for overall health) and endorphins (good for pain management and general wellbeing and capacity to engage in other activity). In contrast, engaging in paid work may mean that a person has to remain at a work station for a prolonged period and cannot move around (away from the workstation) or lie down as needed; may mean that they have to engage in movements and carry weights that are not appropriate for their level of ability; and usually means not having the flexibility to engage in activity according to one’s moment-to-moment ability. For these reasons, work can be terrible for people with injury or illness, whilst moment-to-moment engagement in therapeutic, carefully controlled, physio-led exercise is exactly what we should be doing if we are to have any hope of ever returning to work or contributing to society. So it is distressing, dispiriting and depressing when I hear people repeat the old tropes that bear no resemblance to those of us who are being castigated.

Overall, I don’t think I learned anything new from McConnell’s book. That’s to be expected when I already know poverty quite well both from my own work in this area and my experience as someone who has to depend on benefits. McConnell’s case for Christians moving into poor areas is one I already believe in and have acted upon, but I’m not a church leader let alone a denomination leader so the section on planting and sustaining churches in poor areas was less relevant to me. It was good to see the case being made and I enjoyed reading his insights, but I felt that the whole was marred by the way in which McConnell encourages his readers to believe that people on benefits are cheats, liars, malingerers and scroungers who know how to play and milk the system.

Further reading:

Benstead S (2019) Second Class Citizens. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform

Garthwaite K (2016) Hunger Pains. Bristol: Policy Press

MacDonald R and Marsh J (2005) Disconnected Youth? Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Patrick R (2017) For Whose Benefit? Bristol: Policy Press

McKnight (2002) Low Paid Work: Drip-feeding the poor. In Hills J, Le Grand J and Piachaud D (eds) Understanding Social Exclusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shildrick T, MacDonald R, Webster C and Garthwaite K (2012) Poverty and Insecurity. Bristol: Policy Press

Webster C, Simpson D, MacDonald R, Abbas A, Cieslik M, Shildrick T and Simpson M (2004)

Poor Transitions. Bristol: Policy Press

[1] (the two support each other: a decent job market means there are good jobs to look for; and a decent welfare state means you can afford to look for them, rather than taking the first thing that comes up even though it isn't a good fit. in contrast, a bad job market and inadequate benefits means that people are forced into unsuitable jobs, often only short-term, exacerbating the churn and low-productivity that has plagued the UK labour market for years. [2] Shildrick T et al (2012) Poverty and Insecurity. Pg87 [3] Ibid, pg 134 [4] Brook-Kelly (2005) Leaving and losing jobs: resistance of rural low-income mothers. Journal of Poverty 9(1)83-113 doi: 10.1300/J134v09n01_05 [5] Shildrick et al, pg 135

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