The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘poverty of aspiration’

A Humbling Conversation

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 2, 2010 @ 16:27

Knowing their names makes this even tougher...

Over the weekend I visited my parents back home, and while I was there I happened to bump into one of my younger brother’s friends, a now 16-year-old young adult who once played for the youth football team I used to run.

He was always one of the more amusing characters in the team. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, and since he was a goalkeeper, one of life’s eccentrics. It is definitely true: you have to be a bit mad to be a goalie.

We had a chat. I asked him what he was doing now he’d finished school. Going in the Army, was the answer.

In just two months, he is being packed off to the other end of the country to spend a very long period of time training up to be an Army soldier. Doubtless soon after that, he’ll be in Afghanistan, fighting on behalf of all of us.

I asked him why he wanted to be in the Army.

“It’s a good life, innit”.

But what about Afghanistan?

“It’s just the chance you have to take”.

I dug a bit deeper, hoping for my deepest prejudices to be confirmed. We’re talking here about a working class lad from a very working class family, living in shit housing, in a miserable, forgotten corner of Liverpool. I wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s the only way to get away from here”.

There it was. Despite him not being very academically bright, his head was screwed on. All around him, the signs of deprivation, and despair, were obvious even to him, even though he’d lived through it all his life and knew not much else. More education wasn’t for him. Maybe an apprenticeship would have suited him better, but he was thinking more boldly. Why continue to live on drink-sodden, drug-infested estates when you can get away from all of it by signing up to the Army?

Even if that means putting your life on the line.

Be in no doubt: many of our youth choose to go in the Army and other forces almost because they have no choice. It is the perfect, and only, answer to getting them out of the hole they can see their lives becoming otherwise. Because there is no hope. No alternative. No pathway out.

It really depressed me.

We ask kids like this to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of our way of life. We horrendously abuse our position of trust by sending them to die in illegal wars like Iraq, and those of troubling direction like Afghanistan.

But still they sign up. And they will always continue to do so because it is a way out of their troubles, and an answer to the question of what to do with their hopeless lives. If they make it out alive.

From those who have the least, we ask them to give the most.

I wished him all the best and wondered if I’ll ever see him again.


Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Parties Swap Seats

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 2, 2010 @ 09:17

When a Tory can address the Beveridge Society you know something is afoot...

I can’t have been the only one – and I don’t think I was judging at the Twitter stream – to have watched Question Time last night pretty surprised at some of the things I was hearing.

First of all, there was the disgrace of Alan Johnson telling the world that “Michael Howard was right”. Prison works, apparently. Labour, what has happened to you? I thought I liked Alan Johnson until last night. No more.

Then there was the remarkable performance of Iain Duncan Smith. Not wanting to show off, and all that, but for the people who’ve been following IDS’s work for a while, it didn’t really come as a surprise.

Hopefully, the few million people watching will have been as intrigued as the studio audience seemed to be. Towards the end of the show, it basically turned into “Question IDS Time” as a string of audience members kept putting intelligent and thoughtful questions and observations directly to him on the issue of benefits and welfare reform.

It was a revelation. A politician who had used his time in opposition wisely. Studying evidence, conducting his own research, and formulating intelligent, rational, evidence-based policy. At several times he displayed a note of passion which we don’t usually get in such dour politicians. He held court, deploying relevant statistics and speaking in such an erudite fashion that I got the sense he will have made a big impact last night.

What annoyed me was that, during all this, Alan Johnson’s lines of attack were simple: IDS is a lonely figure in his party, and will not be able to carry through Tory backbenchers; and IDS will not have any money to conduct his welfare reform programme.

The first point is tired, old partisan hackery. The second has some truth to it. His plan, if implemented properly, will cost money in the short-term, and that’s before you even get into the minefield of how to withdraw benefits from unemployed people who then start work. I’ve had no good answers on this issue.

But the travesty is that the economic mess is probably going to mean we’re not really going to make any progress on this issue. The coalition will hold together on welfare reform, and probably even more so because it’s being led by the most unlikeliest of characters. Meanwhile, Labour will carp from the sidelines, having spent 13 years presiding over such failure.

It really is an incredible turnaround. Progressive coalition versus fatalistic Labour.

The only danger is this. If the coalition fails to make a serious dent in changing the poverty of aspiration in certain parts of the country, simply because there is just no money to finance the agenda, it might kill our best chance of tackling this problem for another generation.

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Maybe Now Frank Field Can Think The Unthinkable

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 11, 2010 @ 15:06

Not an easy job though...

As the years have gone by, I have to admit I’ve moved ever so slightly more… pragmatist… when it comes to the issue of benefits.

In the late 90s, when Frank Field was appointed by Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable” about benefits, I was deeply sceptical. Even then, despite being in short trousers and being unable to comprehend what the hell the issue was about.

A few years later, it still looked bad. A Labour government being elected with a landslide, and planning to shit on its working class constituency that stuck with them through thick and thin. Nice one Tony. Sacking Frank Field for whatever the hell it was he was planning was obviously the right move.

But now… when I heard Frank Field was coming back to try again, I was slightly pleased. And now, today, he’s started talking about taxing child benefit, or maybe stopping it earlier, I am even more pleased. Even though I’m not necessarily a fan of these two ideas.

The reason why is simple. Benefits and the welfare system need a root and branch review. There are some people who arguably get too easy a ride from it. But equally, there are others that are not covered sufficiently. For example, grandparents who provide free childcare but get no reward for it, when the children in question could so easily be put in a nursery and have the state pay. Similarly, there are question marks over the failure of the welfare system to reward carers of all ages.

These two examples are unfair. And that’s my basic principle. It all sounds very leftie Lib Dem. Well, that’s because it is. But in recent years the language of the left, regarding fairness, has been picked up by all across the spectrum. I am comfortable with that.

If Frank Field is going to open the books on everything, along with the very commendable work that Iain Duncan Smith has done in this area, and they are given free reign to re-examine what the welfare system is doing that it shouldn’t, and isn’t doing that it should, then I am convinced the end product will be something that will be fair on the people who need welfare, fair on those people who need welfare for the right reasons, and fair on the taxpayer that the money is being used to support those who need it.

Remarkable words for a lefty. But having seen at first hand the failure of a system which allows people to sign themselves off sick for decades, despite being physically capable of doing work; a system which offers nothing but succour to those who have fallen into trap of a poverty of aspiration, something has to change.

But let’s see what they propose first.

Maybe I’ll be eating these words in a few months…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Newsfelch: 08/02/10 – News At 10, Film At 11

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 8, 2010 @ 10:28

I've got a brand new one of these, you know.

It being one of those days where my brain is not up to a Proper Post, it is time to bring out the Political Blogger’s Cheat Book and draw up a few responses to what the newspapers are banging on about today…

  • The big story across all the media is Cameron’s apparent “personal attack” on Gordon Brown. The crux of this argument is that there are whispers that the Labour party’s official solicitor is the one who has advised the Labour MPs charged with false accounting on Friday to defend themselves using parliamentary privilege. Not very exciting, really. Just another way to keep the expenses story going…
  • Indeed, even The Telegraph have had enough. They’re more excited about John Prescott. Newsflash: John Prescott is not involved in national politics any more and has no relevance to anything political now, or probably ever again. This kind story belongs in the Daily Fail.
  • Iain Duncan Smith is continuing his one man crusade to correct the social ills of the country. Today he’s turned his attention to the costs of care for the elderly. You know, I absolutely hated the man when he was Tory leader. But I have nothing but respect for the work he is doing in this field to draw attention to the problems facing the country in the decades ahead. It’s a shame he couldn’t continue on Tower Block of Commons. That Nike hoodie really suited him…
  • The Guardian are sounding the alarm over whether the election debates will happen at all. Naturally, some of us told you this was going to happen several months ago. OK, I assumed it would be only the Nats who would scupper the debate… but it was pretty clear it wasn’t going to happen as smoothly as people started to think.
  • Meanwhile, climate change doom-mongers exhale wearily. I knew this would happen eventually. But the funny thing is, even when the view of the public was almost unanimous regarding the concept of climate change, still the politicians did nothing. What chance for change now the public are growing more sceptical? Oh well, let’s all live like fatalists and care not for the planet, cos we won’t exactly be here to suffer the consequences, eh!
  • The anti-PR battle is hotting up; expect more inverted pyramids of piffle from Boris Johnson on this subject as the months go by. If we get a referendum, of course. We won’t, by the way.
  • Ken Clarke is trying to scare the horses into voting Tory. I didn’t realise satisfying the bond markets could be such an important electoral issue. Not like jobs, unemployment and public services.
  • And finally: here’s hoping that a constitutional crisis is just around the corner. Go on, British people! Please give us a hung parliament, and then we republicans can finally prove that there is no place for an unelected Sovereign getting involved in our democracy! Yay!

That’s your lot for one day. Time for some real work!

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We Should Listen to Iain Duncan Smith

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 17, 2009 @ 06:33

It's hard to imagine him with hair, but there you go...

It's hard to imagine him with hair, but there you go...

I would never have believed that those six (seven?) words would ever pass my lips/fingers… but they have done.

A couple of months ago I wrote this post in which I laid out my case that the system in this country was severely failing the working class.

Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith’s work for the Centre for Social Justice unveiled a blueprint of exactly what’s wrong with the benefits system. And, in most places, it was an excellent piece of work.

Yes, the system does penalise work. It is madness that you can go out and get a job and end up worse off than you would be without it. OK, maybe we need to draw a line somewhere – as anyone can get a couple of hours a week cleaning job, and it might be wrong to subsidise that – but we should be looking to reward aspiration and positive behaviour where possible.

And yes, even if it means subsidising them. That was originally the whole point of the working tax credit, but it has a number of limitations that mean not everyone can claim it – e.g. why should it be that people under 25 cannot claim it?

We do need some extremely radical thinking on the benefits system. This doesn’t mean arbitrary slashing and burning to try to save money. Indeed, there is a case that in the short term the reforms proposed by IDS would cost more.

What we need is a wholesale rethink of what welfare is for and what ends we are trying to encourage with it. It needs to do more to reach those parts of the country where people are allowed to get away with never working, never contributing to society, and setting appalling examples to their children regarding work ethics. That seems to be one of IDS’ goals – and we should not dismiss his ideas so lightly.

One other idea he floats is the withdrawal of benefits to those earning over £30,000. This, to me, is also a desirable goal. In these hard times we cannot afford it, but on principle too – if you’re earning over the average wage of the country (and even more than the median) – it doesn’t seem right that the state should continue to finance you. We don’t want a client state where everyone has a dependency on their income from welfare, even those who never needed it in the first place but now get it via the Child Tax Credit system – which continues paying benefits up to £50,000!

IDS is on to a winner with his suggestion that 51 benefits can be reduced into two. Reducing complexity will save bureaucracy… and it will make it easier to claim. One of my worries over means-tested benefit is that the ones that really need most are often the ones who don’t claim. Maybe having a very small number of them will make things easier.

We don’t know for sure. But the price of continued failure in our benefits system is high and mounting.

IDS may just have given us a neat, bipartisan, way forward.

Shame the Tories are probably going to ignore it.

But we should never underestimate the determination of a Quiet Man.

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Obama and Race

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 17, 2009 @ 01:51

Such a thoughtful expression can only mean he's thinking about one thing: Daddy or chips?

Such a thoughtful expression can only mean he's thinking about one thing: Daddy or chips?

It sounds like it could be the title of a comedy double act, but, sadly, it’s not.

We know America has a racial problem. No – not the one of southern hicks who won’t vote for a black man. In any case, as last November demonstrated, it doesn’t run that deeply any more anyway.

But there is a problem from the perspective of the communities that form part of America: particularly the African American one, and others too.

The problem is one that was demonstrated so shockingly by the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina. I’m speaking of white America and its effective abandonment of parts of black America. The white attitude that ethnic minorities are to blame for their own problems of poverty and deprivation. The white argument that black people have just as many opportunities as white people but fail to take them through their own free will, and not of any remaining societal barriers that keep them down.

In some respects we touched upon this argument a few days ago when I wrote about the problems of working class neighbourhoods in the UK. But in America, the argument is seen through the prism of race – when perhaps it may owe just as much to class as the legacy of the racial divide.

Back when I wrote about the class issue, I said that the difficulty is in talking to those who are downtrodden and despairing, the fatalistic, and getting them to have realistic ambitions that they can aspire to and create an achievable plan to get them.

But where does any of this involve Obama? Well – if there’s a better placed person to talk to his own community and give them the lesson of the previous paragraph, I don’t know.

And so it has begun. Obama has begun a dialogue with the black community to tell them that the problems of his community are as much to do with individual lack of will and motivation as they are to do with society. As he calls it “a new mindset, a new set of attitudes”.

Obama’s message has always been one of personal salvation. That the individual can achieve a great deal if they aspire to it – and don’t merely accept the low expectations poured upon them by society – particularly in the case of those from a black background which, paraphrasing Obama a little, is very accepting of mediocre (or worse!) behaviour almost because that is what is expected of them.

I have read both of Obama’s books: and his message on race is always the same but very compelling. Yes, the black community have suffered greatly. But great strides have been taken to level the playing field. He admits that much more needs to be done… but at the same time implores that they do not fall into the victim trap and live a negative existence simply because of low self-esteem and low importance ascribed to them by society. That only by ridding themselves of this mentality will they begin to bridge the gaps that mean so few African Americans are in corporate boardrooms, etc. It’s difficult and tough, and they will suffer much along the way.

But as Obama has proved, it is achievable.

In many ways, Obama is trying to answer the chicken and egg dilemma with race relations. Can blacks only thrive when the society becomes less racist? Or will it only be when blacks thrive that society will finally lose its racist shackles? Obama’s answer seems to be to go with the latter: and implore the African American community to be the ones that take the first step to prove the doubters wrong, because no one else is going to do it for them.

Of course, he can say that, being in his lofty position. But the beauty of Obama saying it is that he can do it in a way no other American President has ever been able to. I mean, imagine if George Bush had told the black community that there are “no excuses” for not working hard.

Suffice it to say that it would have been explosive!

If Obama only achieves one thing with his Presidency, it will a signficant breakthrough in improving the engagement of African Americans in US society. That can only be a good thing.

But it is good that Obama and I are on the same wavelength about motivating people who have no apparent hope in life, even if we were talking about different targets. I think he might even have been reading my blog…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Political Fuel

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 6, 2009 @ 23:58

Ask yourself: if you wouldn't live here, then why do we allow other people to?

Ask yourself: if you wouldn't live here, then why do we allow other people to?

As someone with too much time on his hands, I recently decided to exchange part of it for cash. I got on my bike and found a job. All because my self-employment has been feeling a bit like self-unemployment lately.

But no matter. Because my new job is one I’ve done before: a petrol station cashier. Working nights. In one of the most deprived parts of the country. It’s not ideal, but it pays the bills.

And yet… what surprises me so much is always the Friday and Saturday night shifts. They are an opportunity to peer through a rather revealing bulletproof glass window into the sheer abyss that passes for civilization in parts of this country.

For what I witness is generally not a pretty sight, dividing neatly between the workforce of the city, most of whom binge drink into oblivion, making a mockery of any claims that it’s only an irresponsible minority ruining it for the many; and the remainder of the customers are the feckless, the lazy, the unemployed, the ignorant, the uneducated, the unmotivated, the unaspirational. Usually all of those at once, in fact.

Harsh words from a so-called Lib Dem. Partly I’m trying and failing to be controversial. But as time has gone on, I’ve become less willing to make excuses for some of these people. Circumstances are indeed bad. Times are very tough. Living conditions are often very bad. Employment prospects are dim.

But underneath it all lies an element of fatalism. That life has dealt these people a bad hand, but they’re absolutely OK with that as it was “meant to be”. It’s not necessarily that there are no jobs; it’s more a fact that they don’t want to do anything with their lives and are very content to accept their lot and get on with it.

Nothing frustrates me more than such an attitude. And it’s this complete poverty of aspiration that must be challenged. That is the big political issue of the coming generation. It’s one the likes of Norman Tebbit thought he had the solution to all those years ago. But, as is often the case with most right-wing responses, they are too simplistic. They fail to appreciate the intense difficulty of the problem, deeply embedded into life and culture, which need more than just getting a job.

It’s all about giving people self-esteem. And yes, I do appreciate the bitter irony of saying such a thing after blasting them as lazy and feckless. It’s about inculcating in them the values of self-actualisation: that you don’t have to lie back and accept the hand you’ve been dealt. You have to go out there and do something about it.

That is where our benefits system is failing: it has allowed people to behave like that for too long.

But how the hell can we teach people to have more respect for themselves?

Politics is bloody tough. But this is the kind of thing that must be tackled head on.

This is what is really important. This is where left-right politics has failed for generations, providing neither equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Or even any kind of egalitarianism. It’s merely a system of every man, woman and child for him/herself, financed by a supply of giro cheques to help ameliorate our guilt for allowing people to live like that in the first place.

Hmm. That almost sounds like an anti-capitalist rant to me. I’m getting dangerously anarchic in my old age.

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