18 December 2004

Norwich: A segregated city?

By Ian Sinclair

Recently I attempted to catch the direct bus from the Norfolk and Norwich hospital to the train station. Frustrated by the lack of a no. 25, I boarded another bus bound at least for the city centre. As the bus (no 22) travelled through Bowthorpe into West Earlham, looking out the window, it became increasingly clear to me there was defacto segregation right here in Norwich. That it was possible for two communities (say Eaton and Mile Cross) to live within a few miles of each other, but to live completely separate lives - working, shopping, playing and holidaying in two different worlds.

Of course I am talking about social class - which has become a dirty word under New Labour. However, social class is still a central concept in understanding society today, with numerous studies showing how the class a person is born into influences many aspects of their lives, and directly affects a person's life chances. But what does it mean to be on the wrong side of this class divide?

Poverty is seriously damaging to your health. Studies overwhelmingly show that for most health conditions, those with lower incomes have it much worse than those who are rich. Respiratory diseases, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, tooth decay and suicide are all more prevalent among the poor. Fat is also a class issue. Recent figures from the Department of Health show that the rate of obesity for girls in the most well-off quintile was 4.5 per cent, doubling to 8.8 per cent in the most deprived quintile. One of the reasons for this disparity might be nutritional. The Child Poverty Action Group note "the poorer you are the worse your diet", with surveys consistently showing poorer families tend to consume less fruit and vegetables, and more fats and sugars.

With all these odds stacked against them it shouldn't be a surprise to find out a man in social class V is likely to live seven years less than a man in social class I, while a child born into social class V is twice as likely to die before the age of 15 as a child born into social class I.

Children from poorer families tend to do less well at school than those who are richer, with less staying on after GCSEs. Those that do make it to university can expect more debt than other students, and by taking part-time jobs to ward off this debt, tend to depress their final degree mark.

To all this, the privileged reply: "Yes life is unfair, but if you work hard, you can make it". This meritocratic myth is a convenient justification for gross social inequality. However, as well as being an insult to the millions of people who work tremendously hard, just to survive, this argument is becoming increasingly dated. Over the past twenty years, social mobility has ground to a halt, with the gap between rich and poor actually widening. Today, a middle-class child is 15 times more likely to stay middle-class than a working-class child is likely to move up into the middle-class.

The system works by exploiting the many to create wealth for the few, not by rewarding hard work in and for itself. Interestingly, it is the countries with the least amount of social mobility (the US and UK) that have the strongest myths about working your way to the top (the 'American Dream' and Michael Howard's 'British Dream'). A coincidence? I think not. However, there are nations that do have a far greater amount of movement between the classes (and importantly, far less poverty) than Britain - Sweden for example.

So how do we get from here to there? In theory it's simple. As the majority, the working class simply need to vote for a party that will redistribute wealth in society (New Labour certainly isn't the answer, as it has become the acceptable wing of the Conservative Party). However, as the rich largely own and control the mass media, the corporate message of unfettered individualism rules all. This has led to two strange political phenomena. Firstly, since 1945 the Conservatives have been in power for 34 years. This means some working people are actually voting against their own interest. Voting, in essence, to keep themselves poor. Secondly, those living in poverty, who would benefit the most from a radical change in policy, are actually the least likely to exercise their right to vote.

So, ironically, I agree here with the Conservatives: The solution to this damaging class divide lies within each individual - who need to take collective action for radical change.