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Book review – Poverty safari: understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass

Book author: Darren McGarvey.

Poverty Safari is an award-winning book published in 2017 about the socio-economically disadvantaged communities and people found across the UK.

At first glance, Poverty Safari may seem an unusual choice of book for an educational psychologist (EP) to read. It’s not obviously about psychology; it initially appears far more relevant to disciplines such as sociology, economics, politics, or geography.

However, we (trainee) EPs are encouraged to approach the needs of children, families, and schools from a holistic perspective. The popularity of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model is a testimony to this holistic psychological way of working. It is within this bioecological paradigm that the importance and relevance of McGarvey’s book for EPs becomes apparent.

EPs serve many disadvantaged communities, and there is a correlation between socio-economic disadvantage and the prevalence of additional needs. We have an ethical duty to understand more about the communities that we serve so that we can work with and support them more effectively. This book provides a means towards further developing that understanding.

The book is divided into 32 short chapters, self-deprecatingly described by McGarvey as a “series of loosely connected rants that give the appearance of a book” (p. xxv). The result is a pleasingly accessible book for those pressed for time (such as trainee EPs) as each chapter does not take long to read.

Class Matters

McGarvey’s book is a social commentary on the pressures and difficulties facing the most socio-economically marginalised people of the UK. His primary argument is that class matters and is still alive and kicking. Society remains divided according to income and the associated variables of employment and education.

But this book is also an impassioned polemic about the structural economic and political injustices endemic within British society that render swathes of the population powerless and voiceless. Part of the power and impact of this polemical account stems in part from the inclusion of autobiographical material by McGarvey, who grew up in poverty, experienced neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and wrestled with his own alcohol and drug use.

The authenticity of McGarvey’s message confers an ambassadorial role as a representative of the socio-economically disadvantaged communities for whom he advocates. And who is the message for? Those who are privileged by virtue of the lottery of where and to whom they were born. Those who haven’t lived the experience of being poor with all that accompanies it. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, that would include many EPs, myself included.

McGarvey wants his privileged audience to see and hear the anger and frustration of poor communities who feel socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised. McGarvey doesn’t pull his punches, arguing cogently that factors such as unemployment, poorly paid jobs, poor quality housing have created the conditions for the prevalence of social maladies such as drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and mental health difficulties. These conditions have contributed to the frustrated disillusionment found amongst many working-class communities. It makes for challenging reading.

Prejudicial and structural barriers

McGarvey also takes aim at politicians, policy makers and even charitable organisations that seek to work with disadvantaged communities. For him, poverty has become a political football, one kicked about by all political parties and interest groups for simplistic and often partisan purposes. He believes that these organisations have no real interest in understanding the multi-faceted and complex depths of poverty because to do so is difficult. This is because poverty extends beyond the economic and includes social, cultural, physiological, and even psychological factors.

The lack of lived experience of poverty on the part of those attempting to represent the interests of the poor is a source frustration for McGarvey. This is because many ‘solutions’ to the issue of poverty and its effects are often imposed from the outside instead of being generated from within disadvantaged communities.

The welfare system is strongly criticised because McGarvey regards it as a punitive system for the poor and vulnerable devised by people with no real comprehension of what it is to be poor. The shadow of austerity also looms large within McGarvey’s safari tour. He lauds those instances where real grassroots community action occurs within disadvantaged areas, but laments that these efforts are simultaneously hindered because they do not fit with the preconceived ideas and preferences of the powerbrokers, those individuals and organisations that provide funding and a public voice for such local community projects.

As a result, the allocation of funds and resources intended to help poor communities become a structural barrier due to the explicit and implicit strings that are attached.

Competing views of social justice

My experience as a trainee suggests that social justice discourse has gained prominence within my own university training course and local EP services. Prompted by my experience within this local context, I found myself considering McGarvey’s perspective of how identity politics fits within the broader discourse of social justice.

The central pillar of McGarvey’s argument is that socio-economically marginalised communities in the UK, many of whom are white, are overlooked by society’s powerbrokers and excluded. McGarvey regards identity politics as a new kid on the social justice block with when compared to the stalwart of class politics. He indicates a broad understanding of intersectionality as a social theory that highlights the discrimination of individuals and groups, although he misses the key idea that social and political identities may combine to create specific forms of discrimination and privilege. In addition, the terms ‘intersectionality’ and ‘identity politics’ are conflated.

McGarvey initially regards intersectionality as a means to broaden the pursuit of social justice for a wider range of marginalised and discriminated groups, but then becomes critical, contending that many public expressions of intersectionality have become “illiberal, censorious and counterproductive” (p.155). He then goes on to claim that rather than providing an emancipatory ally of class politics, intersectionality has become engaged in a form of class discrimination, having become ‘gentrified’ by universities and middle-class activists. McGarvey believes that the ‘gentrification’ of intersectionality has excluded many from the socio-economically disadvantaged communities of the UK at the expense of other marginalised groups because they do not fit a preconceived and ‘approved’ model of disadvantage.

McGarvey contends that intersectionality activists have oversimplified any debate over what constitutes privilege and oppression and who is affected by it. From the point of McGarvey’s class-based argument, this oversimplification has resulted in the term ‘working class’ becoming a “synonym for ‘white male’” (p.159). As far as McGarvey is concerned, the result is that intersectionality denies the inclusion of the disadvantaged white working-class voice within the present social justice discourse.

I expect that some readers may disagree strongly with McGarvey’s analysis of intersectionality and its place within the broader discourse of social justice. Nevertheless, it remains likely that his perspective will be shared by some who live amongst the socio-economically disadvantaged communities that the EP profession serves. This perspective maintains that the white working class are not being heard and are being drowned out by competing voices that are also advocating for their own legitimate social justice needs.

I believe our work within these communities would be aided by being aware of such frustrations, not least because they provide an opportunity to ask ourselves a reflective, yet potentially challenging, question. As a profession that seeks to support the marginalised and disadvantaged, are we using our voice to advocate for all marginalised and disadvantaged groups?

Reflections for change

Poverty Safari ends with some honest self-reflection by McGarvey. Although he speaks out against the social, political, and economic injustices that enable and perpetuate poverty, he suggests that the despair and powerlessness felt by many in disadvantaged working class communities has become a crutch to lean upon whilst blaming the difficulties that they face on circumstances and powers beyond their control.

McGarvey concludes that despite the social injustices and difficulties that have shaped his own life experience, the only way he has been able to affect change in his own life is to take some personal responsibility for his future and not lay all the blame at the feet of society for having failed him.

McGarvey also wants those who seek to understand poverty within the UK to actually listen to those who live within it. To listen not only to their frustrations, but to also listen to and empower the solutions that they advocate rather than continue with the well-intentioned (or self-serving) patronisation of these communities from the outside.

This then presents another challenge for EPs. As well as seeking to use our professional voice to support and advocate for marginalised and disadvantaged communities, are we also a profession that really listens to the communities that we serve? Are we a profession that seeks to facilitate and empower the solutions that local people advocate to their identified needs? I’m not sure I have the answers to these questions yet, but they’re certainly worth considering. And for that reason, I’d really recommend reading this book which doesn’t shy from asking them.

Poverty Safari was winner of the 2018 Orwell Prize and is available from Hive, an online bookstore that supports independent bookshops.

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