Friday, July 18, 2008

This is Gr8 Britain

One in four citizens of Glasgow are ‘income deprived’; twenty five percent of Glaswegians live in poverty.  

A young man is sitting on a crowded pedestrian divert from the path beneath the construction site; with his back to the litter he is holding a green disposed cup in his hand, the same colour as the litter and most likely where it came from. I see a few coins at the bottom of the cup as he holds it both hands above his head.

‘What do you need it for?’ I asked.

‘You got any coins to spare?’ the man asked

‘You didn’t answer me’

‘You didn’t answer mine’

I come across a bunch of guys who look for extra coins everyday and the attitude varies very little. Some do start to talk with me if I give them what they ask for.

This is the Great Britain, one of the richest countries of the world. In Britain roadside young people are not only considered to be obstructing the traffic but metaphorically the society too. The glamorous wealth of British society has enabled many to conduct an expensive lifestyle with an increasing role for consumption as a status of lifestyle.

The poor, the ones who can’t sustain themselves has a low status; Britain places urgency in dealing with them because they are seen in a condemning and derogatory condition.  How a society talks and deals about the poor, and the definition of the group, says much about their understanding of the underlying causes of poverty. This is where I get lost; because there is a lot of wealth in Britain. This does not necessarily mean that the majority is less vulnerable to poverty, but through hard work maintain their job and status. Those who can’t are susceptible to moral condemnation and to blaming them for their own situation. I find the issue of poverty a very political one in Britain; judging by the overwhelming number of research papers building dozens of definitions for poverty. I got lost understanding a reality which I have spent all of my life struggling with it and people in the wealthiest country of the world experience it on daily basis. It’s getting dark and I am going to have a drink now and hopefully not going to meet any poor there.


It’s a nice morning and I feel real good about today. I just finished writing a poem which I am so proud of that I can’t hesitate not to quote for you.

My dazzler candies are melting

While lying next to tea on the table

I feel like in the shower

      while I am at the table

My dazzler sweets smell like soap

I am a poor man on the street number two

I need to hide from my misfortunes 

I broke into the green absinthe jar

When I took a mouthful sip

              it made me feel wobbly

I am a poor man on the street number two

This morning when I woke up

I saw my last cupcake gone away

The seagull who whisked it

      looked more in need than me

I am a poor man on the street number two

The man who said the prayer

                 thought God has super ears

The mute man in yawning silence

Threw away eternal pious

I am a poor man on the street number two

My old fellow in the new jeans pair

Asked me to wipe off the scowl

I whispered low under my lips

If you can’t wait for me to ride off the poverty


                                I am a sad man on the street number two

As for the rest of the day I was thinking to head out and continue on my thought about poverty where I left it yesterday.

A man in his late fifties is trying to play bagpipe. Behind his back is a black wall covered by graffiti and spam posters. The man has the bagpipe case in front of him on the footpath with some coins in it. I thought he is going to take a break in a  couple of minutes but he kept going, my curiosity was further stimulated and wanted to see how long can he go without a break. I spent a couple of hours hearing him play, he hardly took any breaks and his breaks were rather short. I found out he has played bagpipe since childhood and he makes a living with bagpipe now. ‘There is no other way except to put up with your job’ he said.

The black wall in the back is covered with youth gang graffiti. There are many, I didnt try to memories the names but later I found out from a right-wing think tank group that Glasgow has 170 gangs, the same number as London despite being one sixth the size. The names appeared in the research, I recall from the street too, are Combat 18, X Cross Killers, Toryglen Nazi Circus and the Young Toryglen Toi there websites have Nazi insignia. The gangs are responsible for several murders in the last few years. The city's gang culture boils down to poverty and its associated features.

The image of an old man trying to make a living of an instrument in some street corner with a few coins and the wall tainted with violent gang marks symbolizes poverty for me in an understandable way. Except the sweet Celtic tone and the happy face of the man tells No, you are in a foreign place.

I am undertaking an MSc. degree in University of Glasgow. I come from Kabul and back there the image people have of Britain does not contain poverty. I asked some Afghans in Kabul, whether they thought any kind of poverty exists in UK?

I received varied responses but to sum it up. The description of poverty I got from Afghans and the kind of social structure and backwash which goes along with it, does not exist in the UK. ‘It has never happened in human history that a man would say I don’t want wealth anymore. To seek and acquire more wealth effectively is to be spunky which is a character of the poor.  Rich Britons ought to act poor to get richer; its one thing to act poor and another to be poor. If rich Britons stop acting poor that would be the end of their social order’ said Nisar. ‘You pick any Newspaper or listen to radio in kabul, the news if not about war then it’s about poverty. Does poverty news make a substantial portion of all, not few but all, media in UK?’ said Zahid. It’s the dream of the well achievers and richest in Afghanistan to make it to the UK. in the ordinary Afghan eye Briton is a place filled with the richest of the world.

Poverty in the UK is of course different than what I have experienced in Kabul; but there are plenty of resemblances too. Glasgow has many wards which experiences not only relative but absolute poverty. A study published by Oxford University reveals that Glasgow is home to sixteen council wards which are among the worst twenty in Scotland. Some of these wards are the worst dungeon in Europe; places like Keppochhill, Drumry and Parkhead. These places are not far from where I live; Drumry is about three miles from my place. I went to visit the place on fine Sunday morning. It’s very easy to tell that City regeneration plans have not yet reached Drumry, it’s a place with several huge shopping complexes and warehouses, football patches and Gulf clubs all for rich people. Luxurious cars of rich gulf player were arriving; empty beer bottles were telling me some people had plenty of fun last night. I got a bit lost and I stopped to ask a couple of guys if I was in Drumry. The guys asked me what was my bicycle called which I didn’t know; we found out it was an American cycle and the guys decided that they don’t like American bicycles and started to kick my bicycle, they cut the break cable but I made a swift move by mounting my bike and rode off before they start to get angrier.

The UK government seems to be struggling not only in tackling the poverty but even defining it. The new labour has shifted from redistributionist discourse of old labour to a social integrationist discourse. The government has abandoned tackling poverty to deal with social exclusion, seen as more damaging to self esteem and society and more likely to be passed down from generation to generation and result in the creation of a moral underclass. New Labour instead of return to redistributive policies that success governments pursued, it emphasis on social inclusion policy is on promotion of opportunities. However, social inclusion is largely understood to be inclusion through paid employment.

Now, why does it matter how the UK government measure poverty?

It matters because this abstract policy form the basis of action and poverty is dealt with, the government has come up with a three tier explanation of poverty.

1.      Absolute low income

2.      Relative low income

3.      Material deprivation and low income combined

If you fly a person from Kabul to assess poverty in Glasgow, the person will find Glaswegian counterparts who share a common understanding of poverty. That is because of the growing disparity between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Figures released by Scottish executive in 2006 indicates that the gap between the absolute poor and the relative poor has grown from zero in 1997 to 10 percent in 2005. In reality this means that I actually don’t find places like Drumry and another sixteen wards in Glasgow as poor as areas which are not identified as deprived zones. I find places like Govan, Maryhill, Possil and the Red Road in a more dire state. Teenage violence has spilled to streets in Govan, teenagers rarely go to school in Govan. Street fight is a common during school hours. Young boys in their 15 are throwing bricks at each other and are carrying steel bars. In Possil which is only a few miles from the city centre I met a young boy who hasn’t been to the city centre yet. Kim is a lone mother and she can’t afford to fix her shower, she can’t fix it and she doesn’t know how to get someone to fix it for her. Annie was lucky that she had a saving; it cost her £ 10000 to fix her broken leg. She slide down a stairs and broke her leg, she went NHS (National Health Service) but had to queue for six hours to get an X-ray. After suffering a lot of pain in her local hospital she chose to be hospitalised in Western Infirmary, near City centre but even then much didn’t change and she had to dig into her savings to afford treatment in a private hospital. NHS cost her one year lost in studies and almost her leg. Inequality coupled with poor health care has resulted in Glasgow to have the highest premature death rates in the UK. I can’t drive in Glasgow, therefore lose out on some part time opportunities to make my student life less financially tight. I can’t drive because I am shortsighted and illegal for me to drive without glasses. I can’t afford to buy glasses.       


The kind of poverty that is different in Glasgow than what I have experienced is relative poverty or deprivation. The government has developed a deprivation index which includes some 60 items which are essential to have British way of living; if such an index existed in Kabul, the list of items would be limited to bread, rice, oil, meat and a few other items. 

People could be deprived in many ways, home, work, neighborhood, family, travel, education, access to services. It encompasses a range of social and individual activities. The question I would like to raise is whether it is clever to impose employment, as the new paradigm tends to emphasis, on people who has multi dimensional poverty. The government seem to emphasis on the equality of status and opportunity rather than equality of outcome. This is presented as a more dynamic approach reflecting people’s starting points and possibilities for upward mobility during the course of their lives. It is also portrayed as a more ‘modern’ approach with some responsibility placed on individuals to invest in education and training and to strive for personal advancement. Equality of status and opportunity means ensuring that people are not constrained by their circumstances, thereby avoiding the waste of human potential. Inclusion is a related idea implying some degree of social solidarity and public policies to limit inequality in the opportunities people have to access jobs and other resources. Having a job can probably do more for people’s status and social equality than anything else. The extent of upward mobility is also clearly important, since some inequality of outcome may be socially accetable if it is transient and individuals have good prospects of improvement in the future, very similar to my situation. I live on less then £ 200 after housing which below 60% poverty median, but it’s not that hard on me because there is a prospect for improvement after graduation. Long term or recurrent poverty or unemployment with low expectations of progress is an important feature of social exclusion.

Inequality in income not only matters to the quality of life of the poor, but to society as a whole. It has been long known that absolute poverty and material deprivation cause ill-health for those individuals suffering. However, relative distribution of income may be even important in a place like Glasgow with areas like Brisbane, packed with millionaires. Inequality in Glasgow is linked to other social problems such violence, less involvement in community life, worst health and health care. Relative income matters because health and well-being are influenced by ‘psychosoical’ as well as material factors. The social influence of poor is even limited in their ghettos as Glaswegian millionaires drive around the poor neighborhood on their way to their gulf club. Glasgow is characterised by large status differences, by wide disparities in people’s sense of control and autonomy, this inequality generally tend to result in poorer social relations and low level of civic participation.

        The government does provide welfare support to assist the poor to escape poverty, but that is not the crucial issue. It’s the gap between the rich and poor across society. A redistributive strategy of promoting greater equality is not merely a zero sum game, let alone a net cost to society, specifically to millionaires, as the New Labour maintains. It helps to raise the average health, workforce participation rate and hence productivity of the population. 

Glasgow has the proportion of working age population on sickness and disability benefits of any city in Britain. Glasgow also has some of the largest and most intense spatial concentrations of poverty and exclusion in Britain. These have arisen primarily from the decline of the industrial employment base combined with sorting of different social groups through the housing system. People who are jobless and poor are often concentrated in run down peripheral and inner city neighbourhoods because this is where the lowest quality, least desirable council housing is. Sales of higher quality housing in better areas have contributed to a process of residualisation within the social housing sector and increasing polarisation across the city. Glasgow is a segregated city in terms of social class and this appear to be increasing. People living in poor neighborhoods suffer a range of hardships, poor people are in a worst condition if they live in a poor neighborhood; the local condition in a poor enclave negatively effect future chances of better life. it’s a question that I would like to put to poor communities whether they as first hand witnesses of poverty see their situation worsen by their neighborhood or actually the wider economic circumstances provides opportunity to improve.

        I would also like to look at the social connectedness of the poor communities, whether poor neighborhoods have a sense of community and has a social bond. Glasgow and also scotland in general is famous for having a strong sense of community, mutual aid and friendliness. But these patterns are not clear cut; often territoriality is supported by the institution of gangs which means it can be dangerous to stray outside one’s immediate area, all aspects of social connection is not positive. In some parts of poor neighborhood gangs have clearly drawn their border line on the pavements; crossing the line would mean intrusion into another neighborhood. Another aspect of social connectedness is sharing a common value enabling members of an urban society to support common objective and to share moral principles and codes of behaviour through which they interact. A simple way to look into this shared value system might be the use of media, newspaper or local radio. Civic readership may play a part in galvanising opinion and establishing a shared sense of dealing with poverty. A popular explanation of poverty has been to blame the poor for their own situation, for not taking responsibility, anti-social behaviour, distanced from social realities and criminal predisposed. This rhetoric comes along with the concept of a moral underclass referred to deserving poor. While in a poor enclave I visited a magazine shop to see what was on offer to read. Most of the magazines and papers are tabloids about fashion, gossips or celebrities. I skimmed from cover to cover of Star, Heat and Fun. They are all writing about same things but printed on different pages. These magazines are commercial form of gossiping, the topics range from: Kenny is with Claire, Laura had a crash on Tom, Sandra dumped Josh. The reason I couldn’t be engaged with any of the magazines is because I don’t understand what they are talking about; but the question I would like to ask myself before I start to care who Kenny or Laura is, why does it matter? Does it have anything to do with reality? 

I finally managed to get my glasses, I can now see in a distance. I found an internet based store which sells cheaper.

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