Monday, 11 October 2010

Unfairness doesn’t really matter because people can overcome disadvantages with ‘hard work’

Welcome to ParadiseI was listening to the piece on fairness with the Equality and Human Rights Commission's Trevor Phillips this morning on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I’ve not read the report of course (750 pages?!) so I’m just responding to what I heard.
As usual I find I’m amazed that some (to me) fairly obvious points weren’t raised, either by Trevor or the interviewer (Evan Davis? Sorry I didn’t catch the name. Can’t seem to find it on the website). 
Most obvious was the interviewer’s insistence that unfairness of opportunity doesn’t really matter because people can overcome disadvantage with ‘hard work’. The example given was ‘Chinese girls’ (compared to Indian girls and Chinese boys presumably).  Rags-to-riches tales of slum kids getting to be millionaires in the city or wherever, are always trotted out when deprivation is mentioned as an ‘excuse’ for underachievement. ‘If some can do it, surely they could all do it, if they tried hard enough’ is the moral of the story. Apparently anybody who is not well off these days just hasn’t tried hard enough.
Wrong, on several counts :
Firstly it’s a matter of probabilities, or trends, not a simple always/never. Childhood deprivation does not always lead to underachievement, but it tends to. There’ll always be exceptions. It’s like the smoker who tells us that his granny smoked forty a day all her life and lived to be 80. Of course it’s possible, but it’s not likely.
Kids from rough backgrounds are less likely to do well later. I think that’s pretty well established, but I still want to ask, why should they have to work so much harder? That is an unfairness in itself. The flip side of the stats is that kids from wealthy backgrounds are not having to work especially hard to do very nicely thank you. Kids with no special aptitude or ambition are finding their ways into lucrative jobs in the city or wherever because their dad knew someone or paid for them to go to the right school. That particular unfairness means there’s no guarantee that those in charge are the most able (only the most ambitious, or competitive perhaps, which is not at all the same thing), so we all suffer as a result.

But working hard isn’t a simple matter either.  It’s not just about putting in the hours. It's about knowing how to work in the right way. It’s about understanding what the work is for and how to use it.  It’s about understanding the possibilities. A person can slog away for years and achieve almost nothing without the right contacts or a certain amount of financial leeway. Lack of a kind of basic self-confidence is another factor for people from poor backgrounds, who perhaps simply don’t know anyone who does anything other than unskilled labour or draw benefits. Thinking your way out of that without family encouragement (or with family derision) can take an almost impossible level of self discipline. And we’re talking about little kids and teenagers here. I put it to you that no matter what sob stories you might hear from ex public school boys about how badly they were treated, they won’t have had to have coped with half the trials a kid off a crappy estate will have had to, just to gain a couple of decent A levels.
In short there is no particular relation between how hard people work and how well they do. There are plenty of people who work desperately hard who have almost nothing, and plenty who do almost nothing and are rolling in it.

Finally the idea that if we all pulled our socks up and got on our bikes, we could all be ‘successful’ (ie rich, as if there’s no other sort of success) is a myth. Most people end up in crappy jobs because most jobs are crappy, and that’s how the market needs it to be. Kids are brought up these days comparing themselves with the people on the telly and are given the idea that if they just try hard enough they could do that too, but for the most part they can’t - not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with them but because that’s what the jobs available are like. No wonder kids go off the rails.

As a final word, an email was read out (with a flourish I thought, as if it would silence all us leftie idealists) from a woman victimised for being 'too healthy and well dressed' (this was just after the war). The moral of her account apparently was that it’s impossible to create a level playing field.

So therefore we shouldn’t bother to try?

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