Muslims and blacks get more attention. But poor whites are in a worse state
Tony Perry remembers the first time he saw a black child. So exotic did the baby seem in mid-1950s Dagenham that locals flocked to see what they described, without malice, as a “piccaninny”. These days, strangers of all hues are moving to the working-class neighbourhood in east London. The white natives, who blame everything from stabbings to the difficulty of obtaining public housing on immigrants, are not pleased. Many of Mr Perry’s friends talk about leaving. What is worse, the new arrivals are more qualified and have better prospects than the people among whom they have settled.
Apart from election campaigns, when rising support for far-right political parties in areas such as Dagenham causes alarm, the traditional working class is largely overlooked. When politicians say that some communities are failing to integrate with mainstream society, they mean Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. When campaigners complain that schools are failing some children, they often cite black boys. Yet the nation’s most troubled group, in both absolute and relative terms, is poor, white and British-born.
The troubles begin at school. Last year white teenagers entitled to free school meals—the poorest tenth—did worse in crucial GCSE examinations than equally poor members of any other ethnic or racial group (see chart). In the borough of Barking and Dagenham, the contrast is sharper still. Just 32% of all white children there got five “good” GCSEs last year, compared with 39% of blacks and 52% of Asians. In Leicester, just 24% of whites got five decent GCSEs.
By tracking tens of thousands of poor children, academics at Bristol University have pinpointed the problem. When poor whites are tested at the age of seven, they fare only slightly worse than poor blacks, and better than poor Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, many of whom are struggling with English. By 14, whites have overhauled blacks and continue to lead the other two groups. But at 16, when futures are decided in the national exams, the white children do worst of all. Poor Indian and Chinese pupils, who have been ahead all along, increase their lead dramatically.
No more jobs for the boys
Clearly something happens to white children between the ages of 14 and 16 that does not happen to others. That something is that they write off the value of education in doing well in life. At the same point in their lives, or even earlier, their parents and grandparents came to the same conclusion. John Simkin, who went to school in Dagenham in the 1950s, says the ready availability of factory work made for uninterested and rowdy classrooms. “We didn’t believe there was any connection between our school work and what we would do as adults,” he says.
White youngsters who think they can leave school with few or no qualifications and walk into a job are not wholly deluded. Richard Berthoud, who studies the subject at Essex University, points out that whites at all levels of education (including the unskilled) are slightly less likely to be unemployed than are others. But poorly qualified whites face two problems. First, education trumps ethnicity. It takes only a dash of additional qualifications to enhance the job prospects and pay of a black or Asian person. And the competition is hungrier for qualifications: whites are less likely to stay at school beyond the age of 16 than any other group.
The second problem is that unskilled whites tend to go into the wrong line of work. Many toil in factories: in 2001 white British men comprised 89% of the overall workforce but 93% of the manufacturing workforce. Unfortunately for them, the sector has been in long-term decline. Manufacturing now employs just 18% of all male workers, down from 30% two decades ago. Ford, which employed 30,000 workers at its Dagenham car factory in the early 1970s, now requires 4,000—and new recruits for its engine plant are expected to have three good GCSEs, in maths, English and a science.
Immigrants and their offspring, by contrast, have found jobs in services and expanding public-sector activities. They are over-represented in health and social work, finance and the hotel and restaurant trade. With the exception of Pakistanis, they tend to be where the work is. The 2001 census showed that 42% of Indians, 55% of Bangladeshis and 79% of black Africans live in London. And they usually have a positive attitude to education. Many immigrants with humble jobs come from middle-class backgrounds and are determined that they, or their children, will return to that class. Others come from rural backgrounds; but they, too, push their offspring upward. Tahir Abbas of Birmingham University believes such immigrants are all the keener to rise in society because this opportunity was denied them in Bangladeshi and Pakistani villages.
During the past few decades the white working class has experienced a social upheaval of its own, which has contributed to the problems of those now doing so badly. In 1980 the roughly three-in-ten families who lived in social rented housing were given the right to buy their homes at subsidised rates. By 2004 some 1.7m had done so in England. Sales were swiftest in the smaller, nicer housing estates and in the parts of Britain where the private property market was strong. In east London the buyers were those whom Mr Perry calls “the elite of Dagenham”—people who, he says, “thought they were better than everyone else.” In other words, the aspirational working class.
Some of those who bought their own homes stayed in east London. Their properties are distinguished by stone cladding, leaded lights and, in some cases, Greek columns. But a great many others have sold up and moved to the fringes of Essex. There they indulge in even more exuberant feats of exterior decoration, send their children to good schools and, in many cases, vote for the Conservative Party. They have become middle class.
The departure of such strivers has removed the leaven from the housing estates that they quit. Doris Connolly, who has lived in Leicester’s New Parks estate for more than 50 years, says that her street initially seemed heavenly. Its two-storey houses were solid and wide, with generous front rooms and indoor bathrooms. But her once friendly neighbours have been replaced by others who are loud and troublesome. It is as though the estate has become a social dumping-ground.
The estate is currently most famous for an incident that occurred in September, when two guard dogs attacked and killed a baby in its cradle. The media flocked there and reported that it was violent and unpoliceable. That was an exaggeration. There is plenty of crime in New Parks, but mugging and serious violence are comparatively rare. Between April and September this year burglaries outnumbered robberies eight to one (the average for England and Wales is three to one). The reason, believes Andy Sharp, a local copper, is that so many people know each other by sight.
One reason poor British whites have escaped scrutiny is that they are less associated with serious criminality than other ethnic groups, particularly Afro-Caribbeans. British blacks are disproportionately young and tend to live in big cities, which are heavily policed. They may be more likely to commit the sort of extravagantly violent crimes that attract stiff sentences. It is this reason, rather than any racial bias in the criminal-justice system, that explains why they are over-represented in prison compared with whites.
But whites actually commit more crime. A large survey carried out by the Home Office in 2003 found that white men were more likely to admit to having broken the law in the past year than were blacks, Asians or people of mixed race. Fully 18% of whites aged 10 to 25 admitted to a violent crime, and 15% said they had committed a theft. Young whites are also most likely to take Class-A drugs (the most serious kind).
Despite their occasionally sharp language, most poor whites are not deeply racist. More children are now born to one white and one Afro-Caribbean parent than to two Afro-Caribbean parents. Even in west Leicester, a solitary middle-aged Jamaican man can walk into a pub on an almost entirely white housing estate without fear of trouble.
Working-class whites do not, however, warm to those who seem to encroach on their privileges. The political fuss over east European workers (see article) notwithstanding, they worry less about competition for jobs than about public services. In Beaumont Leys, a bleak housing estate north of New Parks, locals have been known to break into houses where refugees are settled and to steal their council-provided furniture—or, as they see it, restore it to its rightful owners. Other responses to the new arrivals have been more violent. It is a surreal spectacle: people who live in some of the worst housing in Britain fighting to keep others out.
Received wisdom suggests that immigrants blend into the host society, gradually infiltrating the economy until they become socially indistinguishable from natives. Those who live in white working-class areas see things quite differently. As John Blackmore, a councillor who represents New Parks, puts it: “Asians seem to be the new middle class”.
Britain’s teenagers are among the most badly behaved in Europe, a study by a think-tank has suggested.
On every indicator of bad behaviour—drugs, drink, violence, promiscuity—the UK was at or near the top, said the Institute for Public Policy Research.
The institute looked at the results of a number of studies of adolescents conducted in recent years.
The researchers believe the country’s record can be explained by a collapse in family and community life in the UK.
Measured against German, French and Italian youngsters, British 15-year-olds are drunk more often and involved in more fights, and a higher proportion have had sex.
The institute says young Britons are marked out by how they spend their free time.
In England, 45% of 15-year-old boys spend most evenings out with their friends, and in Scotland the figure is 59%.
In France just 17% of boys spend their time in the same way.
On the other hand, European teenagers tend to sit down for meals with their parents far more often.
Some 93% of Italian teenagers eat regularly with their families; in the UK just 64% of 15-year-olds do the same.
Nick Pearce, from IPPR, said these figures pointed to an “increasing disconnect” between children and adults.
He said youngsters were learning how to behave from one another instead of from adults.
“Because they don’t have that structured interaction with adults, it damages their life chances,” he said.
“They are not learning how to behave—how to get on in life—as they need to.”
The researchers concluded that the lack of adult interaction has left British teenagers increasingly vulnerable to failure.
One study looked at by the IPPR suggested 38% of British 15-year-olds in 2003 had tried cannabis—compared with 7% in Sweden and 27% in Germany.
Another said that in 2003 British 15-year-olds were the third worst binge-drinkers in Europe—only Denmark and Ireland were worse.
Britons are also more immersed in consumerism than American youngsters, the research claimed.
This was indicated by their brand awareness and the amount of importance they attached to consumer goods and possessions.
The IPPR’s report is due to be published next week.
See also, British adults ‘fear youngsters’
BBC News, October 22, 2006