A very great dramatist, perhaps Ibsen, said that ‘all happy families are the same, but each unhappy family has its own tragedy’. Several people have disagreed, notably those like me who have worked on the street and out in the community for many years. The sad fact is that unhappiness is depressingly similar wherever you go, (especially in an urban society like England). It usually involves bad housing, low income, lack of educational ambitions, poor health, petty crime and use of drugs. Unfortunately, where one of those bad things lives, another one lurks. When a woman said to me some years ago, ‘Our family are poor but we don’t use drugs’, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find out later that it wasn’t true of the children that she had no control over. The fact is that drugs and poverty go together like apple pie and ice cream, or, to put it another way, if your family lives in run-down property that is surrounded by crime and drugs, it’s damn unlikely you can stop it ruining your life.
Of course there are exceptions. I know a woman who works at Salford University. She’s a cleaner there. However she hasn’t let her own lack of education attainments stunt her interest in learning. She has three children, two of whom have gone to University. All three of them are working, in good jobs with good prospects. She is justly proud of them. If you ask her how she’s done it, she’ll tell you it was by realising early on that her kids wouldn’t learn anything from the no-goods on the same block. She kept her kids in and made them do their homework. Their lives are prospering now, thanks to her single-mindedness.
It’s easier to start slipping down the slope. Many respectable middle-class families got a nasty shock back in the 1980s when British industry started contracting and redundancy suddenly became common. People who lost their jobs found they couldn’t afford the car loan, and their vehicle had to go back. They discovered they couldn’t afford to eat out or entertain lavishly at home, so lost touch with their more prosperous friends. Eventually they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Some lucky ones moved to cheaper accommodation. Some lost their homes and were forced to rent. Their health began to suffer. It was like one bad thing kept leading to another. They had discovered the downward spiral.
It’s not a coincidence that young people who don’t do their homework are the same ones who start skipping school altogether. Then they hang around on street corners and get dragged into petty crime. Then they are encouraged to try illegal drugs and move on to more serious crime to fund their newly acquired habits. They have no money to think about buying their own homes, but then, they can’t hold down responsible jobs and are forced to make do with casual, low-paid work at best, or none at all. Some people talk about the ‘ladder to success’, but that’s misleading. If you get your foot on the first rung, there’s no guarantee you’re going to start climbing. It’s just as likely you will find the ladder leads you downwards.
Middle-class people are put on the ladder at an early age by their parents, so don’t even see that it exists. They know (because they are told) that they have to do well at High School, followed by a move on to higher education, so that they can take up a ‘good’ job. They are then rewarded with the kind of salary that allows them to buy a car, get married and move into their own home. One thing leads to another, so naturally and without apparent effort, it’s hard to believe how it works. It’s an upward spiral. You can’t jump into this life at age 28, if you haven’t done the basics certificates from school, solid track record of involvement in your community and participation. No, but people can ‘start again’ after beginning life in the ghetto, they just find they have to go back to the ‘Start’ square, like in Monopoly. For adults living in England that may involve doing a 2-year Access Course, which gets you into University, no matter what other qualifications you lack. It’s a ‘new start’, another chance, and the government happen to be pushing it rather hard at the moment. That’s because they know it works. Once the person gets their foot on the ladder and is looking upward, they move effortlessly into society and start contributing. That breaks the downward cycle. They start seeking decent accommodation and start looking after their health. They get interested in the outside world and avoid criminal activity. Each facet helps the other. They are on the upward spiral, and they make progress until they retire.
Most important thing to remember is this. Most people aren’t standing still. They’re on a spiral, up or down, it doesn’t matter. If you followed the acceptable path of education and career, you will find that you get a pay rise next year and promotional opportunities arise. You might feel that you’ve got the same old job, but if you work in education or the public sector, where things are highly structured, it’s unlikely you will be in the same job in 10 years time, or on the same salary. (Some people say ‘I’ve had the same job for 20 years’, but that has to be their choice. No one can keep you from taking the next rung up.) So, those people are moving upward. People who are rich get richer. People who are already poor get poorer. Hmm, trite, but then, I don’t think I invented that.
More noticeable is that the spiral always involves a list of items. It’s education, job, house, location, health etc. etc. If you want to change your life, that’s often the most daunting thing. Where do you start? There’s so much to change! The answer, of course, is that everything has to change. Attack each item and work on each aspect of your life. Good news is that as one thing improves, so does another. You soon get onto the upward spiral, and that, truly, is ‘an alternative’.