Tackling social inequality

Nat Defriend

We read with interest Jon Lawrence’s critique of Family & Kinship in East London – the oft-cited seminal ethnographic study of working class life in Bethnal Green authored by our founder Michael Young and Peter Willmott.

Family and Kinship…Revisited challenges us to reflect on how, and indeed if, the central tenets of this text continue to be relevant to our work in tackling social inequality in contemporary UK society.

Jon Lawrence identifies three elements in his account which continue to resonate with our work today.

The first is that we remain committed, as Young and Willmott were, to the idea that there are fundamental aspects of community life which are invisible to the gaze of institutions and organisations, most particularly when these adopt a paternalistic approach to tackling social challenges.

This selective blindness (selective because it refers to unwillingness or oversight, rather than an incapacity) is, in our current theoretical view, one of the key ways in which structural inequality manifests in individual and community life – as an inability to see the potential in people and places, as a tendency to intervene, rather than to enable, and as a barrier for many to full participation in social and economic life in our society.

The enduring relevance of this insight is being played out in the political shockwaves of the last couple of years, demonstrating the increasingly urgent need for evolved socio-economic models which close the gap between the powerful and the powerless, the doers and the done to, and which recognise the potential within people and places. And we will be exploring these concepts and others in a forthcoming research report, A Tale of Two Cities due to be published before the end of 2017.

The second is the characterisation of Young’s political philosophy as ‘left-libertarianism’. This feels accurate as a description of his scepticism about the potential for national scale politics to deliver the sort of social change he felt was necessary. It was exactly this scepticism which drove him from party politics in the 1950s.

But today’s Young Foundation – operating in the face of persisting austerity as well as the an ever increasing sense that many social challenges are resistant to being solved through top down state designed interventions – requires a much more nuanced version of the desirable relationship between ‘authority’ and ‘citizen’ than is envisaged by the libertarian ideal.

In our current view, possibly more akin to the social democratic model advocated by Tony Judt (2010) and others, there should be no conflict between the actions of the state and the social and economic arrangements which allow its citizens to flourish. Our recent work, in communities across the UK, has been premised on exactly this basis – what are the conditions through which grass-roots and bottom up solutions to social challenges can be developed, tested and reach their optimal potential, and how can the resources and capabilities of authorities, institutions and funders be assembled to create these conditions? This model doesn’t reject the state nor any other institutional player, but demands of them that they move away from seeing citizens as beneficiaries or customers, and towards seeing them as co-producers.

The third is the enduring recognition of the role which housing and housing policy play in creating, embodying and perpetuating social inequalities. Of course this is the central premise of Family and Kinship, and notwithstanding his criticisms of Young and Willmott’s contemporaneous conclusions, Jon Lawrence highlights the contemporary relevance of this point. That decent housing is at the heart of our social fabric, and that today’s social tenants are, with increasing regularity living in housing, the scarcity and quality of which demonstrates clearly to them the lack of regard in which they are held by the state, or in private rented accommodation, the quality and cost of which is (or should be) a source of national shame.

Returning to today’s Young Foundation, we have begun to think about the role for social innovation – social in its means and its ends – as a vehicle for delivering the changes so sorely needed to tackle the damning inequalities which blight the housing sector in the UK.

Our new programme Reimagining Rent is identifying and supporting new ideas which can make a difference to tenants in private rented accommodation –one of the dysfunctional parts of the housing sector – with a view to scaling those ideas with the potential to do so. In time we would like to take this approach to other parts of the housing sector to tackle some of the systemic and structural faults which lie at the heart of the way citizens in the UK are housed.

So in conclusion, thank you to Jon Lawrence and the Fabian Society for giving us this opportunity to reflect on the enduring significance of Family and Kinship to us at the Young Foundation. The enduring elements of the ethos and value system espoused by and applied in the work of Michael Young, Peter Willmott and indeed Phyllis Willmott, whose contribution is often overlooked, have been repurposed and are being made relevant in our mission and activities today.

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