The role of government, the US political scientist Lawrence Mead wrote in his 1986 book Beyond Entitlement, is to “persuade [people] to blame themselves”. Mead is the godfather of workfare (schemes that make welfare benefits conditional on the claimant working) and a key proponent of the “culture of poverty” thesis – the belief that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty.
“Persuading people to blame themselves” could also be a good description of the government’s strategy through the coronavirus crisis. A key theme of the pandemic has been the recognition of its unequal impact; that the poor, the old and ethnic minorities are all disproportionately affected. Yet throughout, ministers have sought to distance themselves from the consequences of their policies – the failure to introduce a proper system of test and trace, the abandonment of care homes, the inadequate stocks of PPE – and striven to blame the behaviour of individuals, especially the poor and the working class.
At the start of the lockdown, “selfish” individuals were admonished for panic-buying. Empty shelves were, in fact, the consequence of people being told to work from home, combined with a “just-in-time” supermarket system.
Then there was finger-pointing at people cramming into London’s tube trains, the inevitable result of essential workers still having to travel to work even as Transport for London was reducing the service. Then came the rebuke of people crowding into parks and beaches, as if those without the privilege of gardens should remain locked in their rooms on the hottest days of the year.
When a rise in cases in Leicester forced the imposition of a local lockdown in June, the authorities initially blamed the failure of people to socially distance. Leicester is one of the most deprived areas in England. The upsurge was probably seeded in its sweatshops. For years, campaigners have complained of the atrocious conditions but been ignored, partly because of cuts to health and safety inspections.
Then, as lockdown was being eased, the government reimposed the threat of benefit sanctions. Sanctions do nothing to help the jobless find work, but act, rather, as a form of moral punishment, as Mead proposes, to teach the unemployed “civic virtues”.
Now, new restrictions imposed on Greater Manchester and nearby towns have been blamed on “households meeting and not abiding to social distancing”.
At every point, the government has insisted that people must “blame themselves”. As the health minister Lord Bethell said last week, the “least advantaged in society are hardest hit by this disease”, for “behavioural reasons” such as “the decisions [they] make about social distancing, about their own health decisions”, adding, almost as an afterthought, that there may be “environmental reasons” too.
There is a long history of blaming the poor for their misfortunes, from the Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor”, to the 1960s “culture of poverty” thesis, to New Labour’s crusade against “problem families”, to George Osborne’s condemnation of “skivers… sleeping off a life on benefits”. At the heart of this history is the attempt to view poverty and inequality as moral rather political issues, the problems of the individual rather than of society.
The latest campaign against obesity feeds into this history, too. Obesity is a significant health issue and an important factor in Covid-19 deaths. But the reason poor people eat junk food is not because they are ignorant or lack middle-class virtues. It’s because of the circumstances of their lives. Britons work the longest hours in Europe. Many are forced into two or more jobs. Few have the time or the resources to cook like Jamie Oliver.
For poor households, fast food is one of the few indulgences they can afford. “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t,” George Orwell observed in The Road to Wigan Pier, castigating middle-class homilies on working-class diets. “When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you… want something a little bit ‘tasty’.” If we want healthier diets, we need not lectures on healthy eating but a serious attack on poverty.
Critics such as Mead claim that to stress policy over behaviour is to deprive people of their agency, to deny that poor people, too, are accountable for their actions. Certainly, poor people make choices just as rich people do and are responsible for them. The poor, though, are far more constrained in what they are able to choose – most don’t have the choice of working from home or the leisure not to microwave a ready meal. The aim of social policy should be to restore to people that freedom to be able to make reasonable choices.
Mead returned to the news last week. In a paper in the journal Society he claimed that in America, black and Hispanic people are responsible for their own poverty. America, he suggests, rests on an “individualist culture”. Racial minorities, though, “all come from non-western cultures where most people seek to adjust to outside conditions rather than seeking change”. Hence “blacks and Hispanics… respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work”.
It’s an argument as rational and as judicious as a Donald Trump tweet. Once, intellectuals argued that certain races are incapable of social progress. Culture now plays the role once occupied by race.
Descendants of European migrants such as Italians, Irish and Jews may be surprised to learn that they embody “individualist culture”, when their grandparents were chastised for lacking such a culture, just as black and Hispanic people are today. On the other hand, contemporary hip-hop culture is, in many ways, the epitome of American individualism, as indeed is criminality in poor neighbourhoods. Far from a lack of individualism, it is the dislocation of communities and the growth of anomic behaviour that haunts both black and white neighbourhoods.
Mead’s paper has drawn much criticism, including demands for its retraction. It is, however, in keeping with the whole of his work – a racialised version of the “culture of poverty” thesis. It should remind us that racism and contempt for poor and working-class people have common roots. To challenge the one, we also have to challenge the other.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist