“Equality Of Opportunity”

Another day, another report by Laurie Penny (on something to get my blood boiling. This time it’s a Fabian Society conference in which a Labour minister… a Labour minister! (sorry) , talking about ‘redistribution’, was actually talking about making people on benefits work for less than the minimum wage while paying Wal-Mart to take them.

I’ve given up being surprised by this stuff – though not yet given up being angry about it – I’ve come to accept that what was once a fine, principled party is now some weird combination of neoconservatism and Calvinism, full of people who believe that the poor deserve to be poor and must be punished for their effrontery in daring to continue to live. (Meanwhile, of course, over at ‘Liberal’ Conspiracy they’re arguing that socialists should continue to work within the Labour party. WIthout wanting to cause offence, these people do rather sound like victims of spousal abuse – but at least they’ve got past “But I know deep down he loves me” and got as far as “Yes, he’s a bastard, but where would I go if I left him?” which is probably progress of a sort I suppose…”)

Part of the problem here is that the idea of ‘equality’ has been replaced by ‘equality of opportunity’ in the rhetoric of all the major parties (yes, including the Lib Dems, though I do believe we’re better on this than the other parties), and ‘equality of opportunity’ is a fundamentally unfair concept.

Leaving aside the question of whether we can ever have equality of opportunity in one generation without equality of outcome in the previous one (and if it isn’t blatantly obvious to you that the child of a single parent on benefits on a council estate has fewer opportunities than the eldest son of the Duke of Buckinghamshire, then you have the perfect qualifications to be a Daily Mail columnist or Labour Cabinet Minister) there’s also the fact that not everyone can take advantage of opportunities.

I have been lucky enough to have more opportunities than many people in my life, by virtue of being white, male, able-bodied and brought up in a family which, while poor, valued education and literacy. I have also squandered most of those opportunities, because I am shiftless, lazy and ungrateful.

However, I have been able to make the most of *some* of these opportunities, and so have gone on to now be in a job which I enjoy, which I don’t find too difficult, and which pays me very well (I get almost exactly the national average wage at the moment – about £900 per year below the median). I have only been able to make the most of those opportunities, though, because I have certain attributes (a certain facile intelligence that allows me to get a glib understanding of any subject quickly, a fast typing speed, a basic understanding of UNIX-like operating systems and an overwhelming pedantry about language) that are valued in this economy far more than they should be. Not everybody has those attributes, and nor should they – the image of a world full of bearded men saying “You mean GNU/Linux” and going through immense verbal contortions to avoid splitting an infinitive even when they know that there’s no linguistic basis for that prohibition is one that makes me shudder.

My wife currently works as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward (a job I did myself for a couple of years). Her job is more physically and mentally demanding than mine, and involves dealing with people with severe mental illnesses, many of whom are also violent criminals (some sex offenders), occasionally defending oneself from physical attack, and often cleaning up various bodily fluids and emissions, while the most stressful thing about my job is that I have to use an rpm-based rather than .deb based distro on my work laptop, and sometimes there’s a bit of a queue at the coffee machine. Yet she gets paid around half of what I do.

Worse, there are people out there who are simply not capable of any kind of skilled work, no matter what opportunities they’re given. There are people out there who are too stupid, or too clumsy, or too disorganised to *ever* hold down a job at much above the level of McDonald’s till operator. No matter what opportunities are open, they will not be able to take them. This does not, however, make them bad people, or less deserving than those of us who work in nice warm offices with free coffee.

I’ve lived on poverty-level incomes before (the six months during which I was trying to support two people on one person’s benefits was particularly ‘fun’) and wouldn’t wish the stress this causes on my worst enemy. Having to hide from bailiffs until your giro arrives, having lunch be a packet of custard creme biscuits because you’ve only got 15p left, getting fined twenty quid because you can’t afford a two pound tram fare and get caught hopping the tram, and then having to pay £400 court costs because you couldn’t afford the original £20 fine – these are all things that happen on a regular basis to more people than most of you will realise. And these things, by definition, tend to happen to the people in our society least able to cope with them.

What we need is not equality of opportunity alone, but a state that ensures that those who can’t take those opportunities have at least enough income to live a relatively comfortable life, able to feed, clothe, house and entertain themselves and take an active role in the community. Not a government that wants to force people to work for Wal-Mart for three pounds an hour and will pay Wal-Mart for allowing them to do so…

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7 Responses to “Equality Of Opportunity”

  1. donpaskini says:

    This is a fantastic post.

    I’d add to the last paragraph that all parties should recognise that the experts when it comes to tackling poverty are people who have direct experience of poverty.

    Both Labour and the Lib Dems (and, of course, the Tories) welcomed the Freud Report, for example, which was written by an investment banker who knew nothing about welfare reform (by his own admission). It baffles me why otherwise intelligent people would think that very rich people are the ones to ask about how to improve the welfare state, as opposed to the people who rely on it.

  2. Once upon a time (say between 1944 and somewhere in the 70s) ‘welfare’ was something which was applied to poor individuals.

    Nowadays it is something which is handed over to wealthy corporations. This is not the sort of thing I could regard as ‘progress’.

  3. Andrew Hickey says:

    But Gavin! Don’t you understand? We must support free markets in all cases because they’re the work of entrepreneurs who create jobs! And if there are no jobs, well, we must just *pay* those wealth-creating billionaires to create some, because otherwise we’d have a bunch of shiftless lazy parasites living like kings off taxpayers’ money! Obviously the only thing we can do is to have the government pay rich people so we don’t have to have government interference in the market…

    Hang on…

  4. Pingback: Top Stories and Blog Review - 19th Jan – Politics Unlimited | UK politics news

  5. I like the way handouts to the rich is defended as being of ultimate benefit to the overall economy. Then when anybody brings up how little tax they pay (zero in some cases of the super-rich), we’re told it would be ‘unfair’ to get them to pay more.

    Did anyone note down the precise date we went through the looking glass?

  6. “There are people out there who are too stupid, or too clumsy, or too disorganised to *ever* hold down a job at much above the level of McDonald’s till operator. No matter what opportunities are open, they will not be able to take them. This does not, however, make them bad people, or less deserving than those of us who work in nice warm offices with free coffee.”

    I’d go even further and ask how far “stupidity” might be constructed. Experiments have shown stereotype threat at work in the relation between maths skills and gender (see here). It wouldn’t be surprising if the stereotype that lower class people are stupid and lazy unconsciously encourages them to act stupid and lazy.

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