Friday, 17 November 2017

On safari with the poverty tourists

Since the Brexit vote in Britain and Trump's election in the USA, there has developed a genre of journalism that involves the writer departing from their comfortable, elite environs (London, New York, San Francisco) and venturing out into the badlands where people voted either the leave the EU or else for Donald Trump. On safari with their patronising pencils:
Hale, who is 65 and lives in San Francisco, is a career activist who got her start protesting nuclear plants and nuclear testing in the 1970s. In 2005, she was one of the founders of Third Way, a center-left think tank, and it was in that capacity that she and four colleagues had journeyed from both coasts to the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin, as part of a post-election listening tour. They had come on a well-meaning mission: to better understand their fellow Americans, whose political behavior in the last election had left them confused and distressed.
Or by the seaside smugly observing poor people struggling:
The elephants that lumbered up and down Blackpool’s beach have long gone. Britain’s political parties have stopped decamping to the town for their annual jamborees. Even the deckchairs have left: the local government sold all 6,000 of them three years ago to a company in the affluent county of Cheshire. The one thing that hasn’t disappeared is the people.
This sort of poverty tourism feeds a set of consumers eager for the latest instalment of voyeurism, the next explanation as to why these stupid people voted for Brexit or plumped for Trump. We get depressing descriptions of people's lives interspersed by showing how they're all bigoted, racist, misogynist, overweight and unhealthy. What there isn't is any attempt at all to understand why, at least not beyond glib, smug quips about "shit life syndrome" or lurid reporting on illiberal attitudes towards druggies, welfare queens and high school drop-outs.

The whole approach - whether it's a Financial Times journalist going to Blackpool, a Guardian writer venturing to Stoke, or some San Francisco researchers driving through rural Wisconsin - reeks of 19th century anthropology where intrepid researchers ventured into the dark jungle in search of lost tribes to write up in their next book - published to great acclaim and talk of how brave, how brilliant. What we don't get is any real sense of understanding as journalists turn for insight to the public sector elites that dominate many of these places - to the very people who are failing to turn them round.

It's no surprise then, that the descriptions focus on the dysfunctional lives of people who live in these places, on the drugs and alcohol, the depression and the sense of hopelessness. What's lacking from this poverty tourism is any sense of empathy, any appreciation of what having a shit life is really like. And why so many people with those shit lives are in Blackpool, Stoke and rural Wisconsin. It struck me as telling that the UK edition of J D Vance's gripping 'Hillbilly Elegy' describes it as "a great insight into Trump and Brexit" - it may be that but more importantly it's a revealing story of the struggles faced by the white working class in the deindustrialised Mid West. That Trump and Brexit were stuck on the book's front cover tells you everything you need to know about the interests and priorities of bien pensant bookshop browsers in London or New York.

What's missing is any suggestion as to what - other than familiar cries for more government cash - should be done to change shit lives into lives that are all right. We get little criticisms of government like this:
For Jonathan Portes, chief economist at the DWP between 2002 and 2008, the lack of a plan was, in retrospect, part of the problem. “There’s an argument for saying you can’t do [welfare reform] separately from having some sort of place-based economic strategy as well — and we never really had that,” he says. “Just telling them, ‘Well there’s 5,000 new jobs in London every week, and people seem to find it perfectly easy to move 600 miles from rural Romania to take one of these jobs, so why can’t you move 200 miles from Blackpool?’ — it’s true but it sort of ignores the social context.”
The truth, of course, is that we had decades of place-based economic strategies some funded through ERDF Objective One and Two, others by UK government funding (City Challenge, SRB, Estate Action - a potpourri of place-based regeneration) but, in the main, the places that were poorest in 1968 are more likely to be poor in 2018. And, while all this money helped, the economic fundamentals for places like Blackpool, Barnsley or Stoke haven't changed all that much.

When you read Vance's book, you get a little sense of the irritation many like him (hillbillies, rednecks, chavs, pikies - the white working classes of Britain and America) feel at the way they're portrayed in these poverty tourism pieces. We're given the idea that such folk are dull, listless, ignorant and essentially helpless, that only the intervention of bright, engaged, educated and empowered people from outside can resolve the problem. We're to say "there, there" and provide a big middle-class hug to all these sad, incapable poor people out there in the sticks.

Perhaps instead of that hug, we should try a little bit of understanding? Get underneath why their lives are shit? Maybe we can stop hassling them about lifestyle too and focus instead on the things that could help? But then, I've a suspicion, the journalists, academics and think-tankers believe they're done their job by pointing at Blackpool as saying "ewww, isn't it horrid" (albeit taking 5000 words to do so). After all their readers will now be armed with all they need to hold forth about the evils of capitalism, the failures of Tory welfare policies and the noble work being done by the public sector elites in these towns, people who are sacrificing the comforts of civilisation to do good work in these sad, broken places.


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