How UK Culture Keeps Poor People Poor

Living abroad for the past three years, I’ve had lots of opportunities to compare UK culture with that of my adoptive homes. The starkest difference has been the lack of social mobility in the UK.

I was raised on benefits (UK welfare). I am the first person in my family to gain a high school education, let alone a degree. My journey has given me a rare insight into escaping the poverty cycle. And I mean rare. In England naming your daughter Jade means she has one hundredth the chance of attending Oxford as a girl whose parents chose for her Eleanor. Similarly for Bradley versus Peter. Such is the depth of discrimination towards working class people.

As is often the case in life, it’s the things that people don’t tell you that matter most. Sociologists call this ‘cultural capital’. The requisite values, behaviours and actions that aid class accession.

The last paragraph is illustrative. My parents wouldn’t know the words requisite or accession. Or what Sociology was. They left school at 14. Apart from the Argos catalogue I can’t remember any books being in our house. Reading is a luxury when you work to survive rather than thrive.

Today I shudder when people assume because of my plummy accent, that I am privately educated and ‘raised properly’. As if to say a working class family cannot raise intelligent, happy and caring adults. As to insult generations of my family who have lived to experience joy, happiness and not domination. I was taught that people of character do not dedicate their lives to becoming better than other people.

I never understood why the values of the poor are so demonized, until I went to University. Prior to attending Warwick University I had never been in a competitive world, where the people didn’t accept and love me for being me. At University I learnt values that made me unhappy – love had to be earned through academic accomplishment, waist size and social prowess.

Now I live outside the UK, many of my family values return and my happiness has gone from floating around a 6 to a 9. What’s more, my companies have flourished financially.

I cringe when I see education touted as the mechanism of which to lift children from poverty. I feel like the admissions officer should sit the working class down and give them the 401. Don’t be fat – that’s a poor people thing. Don’t be lazy – that’s a poor people thing. Don’t show up without evidence or data – speaking from the heart – that’s a poor people thing.

It saddens me that unless you commit to a total values overhaul you won’t succeed in escaping poverty in the UK. As I adapted at University I gradually lost the ability to relate to my family. When I went home at weekends I didn’t want my mum to tickle me, I wanted to study and have serious intellectual debates that they were incapable of providing. In other countries you can escape poverty without having to change your accent, your values, your social activities – in the UK, you cannot.

When I graduated and joined London’s rat race. I saw a daily grind to grow in value. To me it seemed clear that we have been brainwashed into thinking ‘if I am valuable, people will love me and I won’t be rejected’.

I remember teachers laughing at my school clothes, being put in bottom sets because my shoes were thread worn. This institutional discrimination has somehow influenced the poor to believe that they should bow down to others.  Worse, this self-deprecation is encouraged; even seized upon by morally ambiguous companies to sell amongst other things: antidepressants, payday loans, catalogues, sugar stuffed foods and more.

‘Chavs’ have become the UK version of Roma gypsies. Persecuted. Laughed at. Their values sidelined. Put simply to get ahead you need to act middle class or face discrimination. I want you to know: working class values are not stealing, shouting or generally being unkind – despite what Jeremy Kyle would have you believe.

In my family I was taught it is better to give someone my last pound, than to keep it for myself; a foreign concept in our capitalist world, yet one that is the hallmark of my success.

A big part of my family life was being playful and silly.  As a child I never had an illness, but in my 20’s chasing success, I’ve been beset by illness. It is my belief than playfulness protects us.

These are not worthless ‘chav’ values. We are taught to believe they are, next to economic progress. But progress to what end? To sit in a huge house, alone and miserable. Can we even call this ‘progress’?

We must recognize that the middle class and the people in power are driving poverty, in much the same way drug dealers are. They are perhaps; I would even argue a larger part of the problem than drugs. It’s just we do not determine this type of discrimination criminal.

Britain’s structural problems are only one part of the story – welfare is a trap. Rail fares are a joke – which isn’t funny when you spend more to get to work, than you make. Not to mention the domination of London is all encompassing in all career specters.

A country that is run governed and financed by people with one value system, one educational background and one mindset and MOST importantly a country that mandates everyone else to morph into those values, is a country that, as my mum would say is ‘ass about face’.

The only promise of emancipation for the poor comes from within the very structures that oppress them. We cannot separate culture from economic structures, when those very structures are built and run by the middle and upper classes, whose culture teaches them to discriminate against the poor.

A good first step would be honesty. Currently you need a plummy accent, a nice suit and a degree from a red brick or better to escape poverty in the UK. I hope I live to see that change.

One thought on “How UK Culture Keeps Poor People Poor

  1. I can completely relate to your experience. I too came from a very poor family. Having studied for two post -graduate degrees, I became increasingly alienated from my own family, their perspectives and values. I imagine there are many working-class students who feel such dislocation.

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