Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey is written by someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family in a very poor estate near Glasgow. It’s a first person window on the harshness of life in places where many people with tragic inevitability visit the poverty and powerlessness on themselves through alcoholism, addiction and violence. The state is – at best – uncaring. Professional do-gooders can’t help demonstrating their lack of awareness of the experience and culture of those they genuinely want to help, and come to be regarded with suspicion, perhaps as careerists in it for themselves. (I don’t like the title, but it refers to the perspective of outsiders surveying an alien population from the safety of their tour bus.)
For all the grimness of the old tenements, McGarvey sees the removal of poor families to the new high rise estates, combined with deindustrialisation and loss of working class jobs, as the trigger for the social catastrophe described here. “Thousands of families, already struggling to make ends meet, were placed under so much strain that it altered them physically, psychologically and emotionally.” Relief is sought in fast food, alcohol and drugs, bingo and betting, embedding social and public health problems.
Community attempts to improve things face almost insuperable hurdles. To get any government or charitable funding requires groups to have boards, constitutions and bank accounts. Such groups then have to do the funders’ bidding – which might be ok, but removes agency from the community. The political voice of local people – here, in the face of a plan to build a motorway cutting off the area from neighbouring parkland – is minuscule.
The book emphasizes the emotional impact of poverty and strain. “The experience of emotional stress, how it affects us and what we do to manage it through our lives, is one of the most overlooked aspects of the poverty experience,” McGarvey writes. This is consonant with the work of Sendil Mullanaithan and Eldar Shafir on the physical and psychological effects of poverty, reported in their book, Scarcity. I’d add that we need to take account of the emotional response of those with money and power to poverty – namely fear, as Julia Unwin underlined in her book Why Fight Poverty?
The bottom line for society, and policy, is how serious we are about tackling poverty and addressing the embedded social challenges it has caused, two generations after the waves of deindustrialisation began. It will take money. The book quotes a local organiser: “There is a discrepancy at government level between the desires for the kind of society we want to live in and the resources that are allocated to help this happen and where they are directed.” Yep. There won’t be any quick solutions, but there won’t be any at all without putting money and energy into it. And especially money. The energy ultimately has to come from people themselves, with agency over their own lives.