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Book reviews: Lowborn, Disconnect Youth, and The Least, The Last and The Lost

Lowborn

I recently read Kerry Hudson’s 2019 book, Lowborn. I don’t really have much to say about it, because honestly it is so good. And there’s nothing I can really say or summarise that would capture the essence of the book for you, because what you really need is to read it yourself to hear from Hudson in her own words.


Lowborn is Kerry Hudson’s autobiography of her childhood and the year or so that she spent returning to her childhood homes to discover what life there is like now. Hudson is a skilled writer and the poetry of her sentences is one of the things that I look for in the books that I choose to read. I like an author whose every sentence is engaging and interesting; presenting life in a new way, or using words to paint a picture that says a thousand things more than a painting ever could.


Hudson grew up in severe poverty. Her dad was largely absent; her mum flitted around the country, young daughter in tow, constantly in search of the ‘new start’. Reading Hudson’s own account of her feelings and motivations behind her teenage behaviour, it becomes possible to sympathise with Hudson’s mother too, and have compassion for the circumstances that led to her behaviours and dysfunctional coping strategies. Reading Hudson’s account, we get a glimpse into the thought processes and emotions going on beneath the surface of a ‘dysfunctional’ teenager. We see her pain and suffering; the lack of community, family and friendship around her; the challenge of going to school to be bullied every day for poverty she could not choose to leave; the need to find a way to have some degree of enjoyment in life to counter-balance all the misery. After all, if life gives you lemons, you can’t make lemonade unless you have plenty of water and a fair bit of sugar too.


The tragedy of Hudson’s book is that in all the places she returned to, none have been lifted out of poverty. In 20 years – more than enough time to turn a place around – central government has failed and failed again. Most of that time, of course, has been under Conservative rule; and even that time spent under Labour rule was still time spent under the neoliberal narrative of the Conservatives. There are many more Hudsons out there, and for every one that gets a place in drama school and then university, there may be many more who get no such opportunity, and who are left to live as Hudson’s mother did, lacking the opportunities and support to do better.


If you want to understand poverty and the impact of political choices, I can’t recommend Lowborn highly enough. I’ve read other books, some also from people who grew up in poverty, that still buy into the ‘self-blame’ approach. Hudson did make good choices, to apply for drama school and to commit herself to the work required to do well there. But what would have happened if she hadn’t been accepted? If she was good enough, but there simply weren’t enough places? We need to make sure that every Hudson has that opportunity to thrive; is believed in, as Hudson’s drama teacher believed in his pupils; to be invested into, as Hudson’s drama teacher invested into his pupils. This means making sure that there are enough training places for anyone’s chosen career, staffed by people with the commitment and drive to make the training excellent.


The problem with the ‘blame the poor’ approach is that it doesn’t take into account the different factors impinging on poor people’s choices, nor the lack of a second chance that richer people get. Richer people make bad life choices too; the Bullingdon Club isn’t exactly the epitome of good, hard-working behaviour. But the Bullingdon Club gets to ‘overcome’ that bad behaviour and go on to become Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer, where their moral failings and lack of understanding of poverty cause massive harm to the country. Whilst those at the bottom get no opportunity, and are blamed for the problems caused by the rich people’s policy decisions.


Disconnected Youth

Hudson’s book, of course, comes under the category of ‘anecdote’ and therefore risks being dismissed as such by those who want to deny the role of circumstances in an adult’s success. A good supplement, therefore, would be a book that is more data driven – and that can be found in Robert MacDonald and Jane Marsh’s book Disconnected Youth. Disconnected Youth follows 88 individuals from more deprived parts of the country as they transition from teenager to adulthood, detailing the emotions and behaviours that come with the move into – hopefully – responsibility, first homes, and hard work. Coming from deprived areas, it is inevitable that not all of the teenagers make that transition into work, let alone into secure, meaningful work with a career or at least a good deal of stability. MacDonald and Marsh do not hide the flawed decisions that some young people make, but nor do they imply – as others do – that such decisions are the main, let alone sole, factor driving poverty in adulthood. When there is enough work to go around, even those who have struggled the most with drug addiction or criminality can find work; when there isn’t enough work, all the striving in the world isn’t enough to secure a job. The kind of politics that tells people in such situations that they must save themselves – attend an endless round of ‘CV writing’ and ‘interview skill’ courses; get off drugs without any help; live in penury without any hope; work for free for long hours in drudgery jobs for private companies – is deeply immoral.


The Least, The Last and the Lost

Because it addresses a similar theme, I shall here also comment on Mez McConnell’s book The Least, The Last and The Lost. I had not previously reviewed this book because I have struggled with my concerns about it and whether they are valid. McConnell comes from a background of poverty, drug abuse and criminality. He says of himself that he blamed Thatcher for all his problems, and that it wasn’t until he was brought to realise his own personal fault that he turned his life around. This, at the very start of the book, implies that poverty is a personal failing and sets the spirit in which the rest is read.


My concerns with McConnell’s book are both theological and empirical. Theologically, he implies that personal responsibility is, in the Bible, held up as an equal contributor to poverty as oppression and misfortune (the latter covering natural disaster as well as personal misfortune such as the death of the head of the household, or chronic illness or disability). I disagree, and think that the message of the Law and the Prophets is that poverty is primarily a failure of the rich to defend and promote the wellbeing of the poor and needy. But in my most recent study of the Old Testament, I was looking for the reasons that God gave for his judgments on Israel, not for causes of poverty, so I need to go back and make that my next Bible study. I also noticed that the book did not comment on the role of working for justice when it comes to helping the poor, not merely generosity and charity.


Empirically, I disagree with McConnell’s portrayal of life on a council estate (‘scheme’ in Scotland). This is where I really hesitate, because McConnell grew up in poverty and still lives and works in a poor area now, and I don’t want to deny someone’s lived reality. On the other hand, his lived reality is only of his own life, and there are different ways to present one’s own story. For example, I once said to a friend that I felt like I could at times just get up out of my wheelchair and walk. She took it to mean that I did not genuinely need the chair but was using it out of preference, and was so upset – as her own chronic illness certainly did not create such feelings in her – that she was unable to speak to me for a few years. But what I felt and what I could actually do were two very different things.


At that point in my illness, perhaps only a year or two in, I had not yet learnt the difference between feelings and capacity. I had not yet learnt to appreciate those emotionally good days whilst recognising them for what they were – a fraud that did not match my underlying level of health, but which could be appreciated as an enjoyable day. Had I got up out of my wheelchair and walked, I would have rapidly made my health even worse. I discovered this later, when a brief remission – at most 6 months, possibly only 3 depending on where one sets the start and end dates – was followed by a deterioration that left me worse off than before. I no longer have those marginal improvements in health and reduction in pain that for the first three years came every spring.


I have also previously worked with a group of young men who were looking for work. It would be easy to present them in a negative light, picking up on any negative comment about work – the lack of interest in working shifts at the local meat-packaging factory, for example, combined with the seemingly nation-wide concern of disturbing one’s family members when getting up in the middle of the night in an overcrowded house to go and put in a shift for a job that, frankly, does not need to run 24/7. But it would be equally easy – and a more accurate portrayal – to talk about the ambitions of these young men, and the lack of opportunity to fulfil them. One wanted to be a sound engineer, but didn’t have the money to train. He already did odd jobs mending people’s smartphones and tablets. Another wanted to be a police officer, but again, didn’t have the money to get the minimum of two A-levels or equivalent qualification or to do voluntary work with the police. He was able to drive, so when a local tradesman injured his leg and needed a driver for a time, he got work as that driver. These young men had ambition and aspiration. What they lacked was opportunity.


A lot of McConnell’s book centred around the experience of drug addiction and those who live near drug addicts. There was a corresponding lack of attention to, and even some misrepresentation of, people who receive social security due to unemployment, illness or disability. This really concerned me, because I am one of the people about whom McConnell was complaining. He will probably say ‘I didn’t mean you’, and assign me to the small category of genuinely ill claimants, but I’ve heard that line before, and so have my friends. I’ve been judged by benefit assessors as healthy and a liar, and so have my friends. I’ve suffered inadequate income because of those benefit assessors, and so have my friends. I’m fortunate, though, that my dad earns a good wage and is able to bail me out whenever a bigger expense comes along.


The idea that long-term unemployed people are perfectly healthy but work-shy people, whilst the sickness benefits are also replete with adequately-healthy people, is simply not supported by the evidence. The government’s own review into the functioning of its sickness assessment found that people it declared fit for work were nevertheless only capable of part-time, flexible, and/or home-based work – not exactly the fully-healthy, full-time, regular worker that employers want. It bothered me that the portrayal of benefit recipients that McConnell chose to make lined up neither with my and my friends’ personal experiences, nor with the data on the subject.


Even when McConnell described life as an elderly person on a council estate, he did so with reference to living in the same block of flats as drug dealers – a situation that would be a problem for anyone, not just the elderly, and therefore not specific to old-age. What he didn’t mention was that, for the poor, old-age comes early. I have a neighbour for whom old-age and consequent incapacity for work has come more than five years before retirement age; another had it hit 15 years before retirement. For working-age people living in poverty, dwindling health means that our income falls as we get older, rather than rising with a career. We look forward to retirement as an increase in both the size and the security of our income, where the healthy person has to recognise that their income will fall, albeit it will still be higher than we ever dreamed of being able to earn in work. That is old age for the poor.


McConnell’s book is aimed at explaining poverty to the middle-class Christian, but he doesn’t make any reference to the excellent work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in this area nor describe the reality of destitution in this country. He buys into standard tropes that use the outside of a government-owned house to judge the poverty of the people dwelling within it, without recognising that (a) the inside can’t be seen, and (b) a house that does not belong to you and which you only have by the grace of your government isn’t exactly an indicator of ‘your’ wealth. He does not attempt to parse out the relative contributions of structural factors, misfortune and personal behaviour to poverty, and thus leaves the reader able to go away with a continued belief that poverty is primarily a personal failing and can be solved by the decision to come off drugs, stop stealing and start working. Nor does he consider what the Bible has to say about the importance of structural justice in society, or God’s anger against leaders and people who do not ensure such justice for those who are otherwise in need.


Conclusion

If you want to understand poverty in the UK, I can recommend a number of good books. These include, but are not limited to:

- Lowborn, by Kerry Hudson. This book will give you the personal insight and emotion of growing up poor. It is the story that brings all the data to life, and will sit with you for a long time. It may even drive you to want to do something about it, to bring an end to childhood experiences like Hudson’s, and give opportunity to those children

- Disconnected Youth, by Robert MacDonald and Jane Marsh. This book adds the weight of data to Hudson’s personal experience, adding solidity and grounding to what otherwise might be dismissed as a rarity. It eloquently conveys the futility of life for those who grow up in poor areas, the impacts of deprivation, and the folly of governments that do nothing about it. It explains why government action is needed to give life chances to those that are healthy but disadvantaged by the poverty in which they live.

- Second Class Citizens, by myself. This book looks at the functioning of the welfare state, and in particular the social security system, for people who need it due to illness or disability. It explains the need for government action to support those who are unable to work, or can’t work enough to support themselves, for whatever reason. The failure of the government to do this over the last 40 years, and in particular the last twelve, is a major contributor to poverty in the UK.

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