Where everybody knows your name

Social policies, since Mrs Thatcher’s time, have done their damnedest to treat the old social groupings that used to exercise sociologists (class, race, gender…) as dispensable. Social structure is nothing. “There is no such thing as society.” Yada, yada.

Instead, we have these wierd amorphous groupings, called “communities.” I have very little idea what a community is. In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, an indigenous people’s village, where everybody hunts and gathers together, is probably a “community,” at least until it’s in the path of loggers or ranchers. A village in the English shires may still be something of a “community”, except for second-home-owners and the lack of a postoffice, a shop or a secondary school. When we get to where most of us live, the borders of our “community” are unguessable.

And this is before we start bringing in the many other “communities”, identified by any number of factors. The blogging community, FFS. The closest I can come to identifying a community is a group with shared interests and/or shared locality. There is also a warm fuzzy overtone. Your community accepts you and defends you and cares for you. No, really. That’s why “care in the community” has been so successful…. And “community wardens.” What a fantastic idea. It’s like the old days when the local bobby gave errant kids a clip round the ear. Firm but fair. You never had to lock your front door. (Yes. This is sarcasm. I reckon I have to go down the Homer Simpson route and spell it out more often. It wasn’t clear enough in the previous post)

(And, ironically, I live in one of the few places in the UK where people actually talk about “the Community” and “the Area” with almost audible capitals. And I often leave my front door open.)

I could attempt a reasonable definition of community, but why not just stop using a word when it has no meaning, rather than try to fit social policies round it?

My argument is that, as soon as you start focussing social policies on community groups (been there, got no t-shirts) rather than elected representatives, you give opportunities for unrepresentative self-promoters to control their localities. The increasing social role of extremist mullahs is one example of how an attribution of community leadership becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, it was quite refreshing to accidentally come across some research by Demos, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that manages to say this stuff more politely than I usually can.

November 2006 Do policies to promote community participation in governance build social capital? (Governance – another of my favourite words.. WTF is it? Social Capital? Ditto, but bear with me.)
The main points are

  • The key factor influencing levels of participation in governance was the existing pattern of ‘linking’ social capital: those already well-connected tend to get better connected.
  • Community participation tends to be dominated by a small group of insiders who are disproportionately involved in a large number of governance activities.
  • ..social capital … tends to be concentrated in the hands of this small group. There is no guarantee that the wider community feels the benefit of this social capital…
  • A number of forces create ‘barriers to entry’ for those not involved in governance, and increase the likelihood that those already involved will become more so.

etc. Look at the research if you are interested. There’s a lot more on that site that hammers this point home.

Community Banks

Have I told you, I really love listening to local radio stations? Well I do. Also, have I mentioned that I now live in a place which is strange in that there seem to be no bank branches as far as any one can work out. Describing this place as the middle of nowhere does a dis-service to the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, the odd topic which piqued my interest today was a phone-in on the local radio. The coverage of this radio station was pretty much one city and numerous small communities spread over a relatively moderate geographical area. In a plane you can fly from one corner to the opposite side in about 20 mins. I wouldn’t want to walk it though.

Now, the subject of the show today was about Banks replacing their free cashpoints (ATMs for colonials) with machines that charge around GB£1.75 each time you want to take your money out. Understandably, most callers were outraged. For background, each rural community probably has (at best) access to one cashpoint. If this is broken (as they often are) it involves a drive of about 20 minutes to the next place where you hope there will be a working cashpoint. Despite this dearth of places to withdraw your cash, there are no bank branches (they were all closed a few years ago, because the cashpoint serviced everyone’s needs…) but lots of shops which will take your money.

Of course you can use your switch card for transactions, but not always. Some examples are car parking (cash only), the ice cream van – in fact nearly all small business transactions – (cash only), and, comically this happened to me today, when there is a problem and the shop you are in is unable to connect to the bank to verify your card details. When this happens you need cash. We are not yet (and probably unlikely to become in my lifetime) a cashless society.

So, it is pretty obvious that people need cash. The people who need the cash the most seem to be the elderly and the young – the least mobile elements of society.

What amazed me about the phone in, was people were actually ringing in to say that they thought the fee-charging cashpoints were a good thing and one guy even said it was all about “customer choice – no one forces you to use that cash point.” What nonsense. Annoying nonsense because it has that insidious “ring of truth” people use to hide their woo, but still nonsense. If you don’t have a car you are forced to use the cashpoint in your local area – without cash you can not get on the bus to the next village to see if their cashpoint works…. As I said, the ones who need it the most are often the ones who are least able to jump in their car and drive 10 miles to the next cash point. What are they supposed to do? How is being forced to pay to access their own money “choice?” (well they can choose to not store their money in banks, but how will they get (for example) their pension check paid to them?)

Frustratingly, I have often seen the elderly, the young and the poor, using fee-charging cashpoints to withdraw small sums of money. If you are poor and can only take GB£ 20 out of your account, the 1.75 fee is a whopping 8% fee. Breathtaking rate to be “fined” for the crime of poverty and poor mobility. Of course, if you withdraw GB£500 each time then the fee is small (yet it is still there) in comparison, but I suspect if you can withdraw five hundred quid, you can get to a free cashpoint…

When the banks decided to crucify rural communities by closing most branches, there was outrage. It was mollified to some extent by the widespread cashpoint network which the banks rolled out, and wonderfully this gave people free access to their money. Now, it seems the situation has once more changed for the worse. Given the current environmental concerns, encouraging people to drive 10 miles each time they want money is madness. The fact it really pinches the poor and vulnerable, yet most people hardly bat an eyelid is a sad comment on society.

[tags]Banks, Cash, Society, Morals, Community, Culture, Poverty,Poor, Vulnerable, Bank Branches, Cashpoints, ATM[/tags]

Community Spirit on the wane?

For some reason, possibly temporary insanity, I ended up buying the Sunday Telegraph today (well actually the choice was Telegraph or News of the World…). As I suspected there are numerous examples of intemperate and illogical thought processes, all with the potential of providing this blog with millions of posts.

One of the things which has caught my eye early on is a page titled “The rise of can’t-be-bothered Britain” (available online). Basically, this is a piece on how since the fifties, community groups (Women’s Institute and the like) are losing out on membership. The thrust of the article seems to be trying to imply this is actually because people can not be bothered rather than anything else. Sadly, the article is riddled with poor historical analysis and some blinding leaps of illogic. Early on it sets the scene:

Seven out of 10 people questioned had no ties to groups or associations in their neighbourhoods. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the figure rose to eight out of 10. Lack of time, or a dearth of groups relevant to their needs, were given as the main reasons.

The findings reflect the decline of bodies such as churches, the Women’s Institute and the Scouts, and appear to show the rise of a generation that cannot be bothered.

The data seems reasonable enough, so I am not going to debate that. I do have to question the assumption that this means people “cannot be bothered” though. From what I have read in the article there is little to actually support that conclusion – other than an innate journalistic bias. Further on, it continues with this mixed bag:

Membership of the Scout Association has fallen by a third since the early 1990s, to stand at 450,000 last year, while a shortage of Girl Guides leaders has been blamed on the growing number of women who work.

Women’s Institute membership, now 215,000, has halved since the 1970s, and the Labour and Tory parties have fewer than 500,000 members between them, a tenth of the level in the Fifties. According to Christian Research, less than 7 per cent of the population now attend church regularly.

Now, the less than 7% is good 🙂 , but I admit the drop off in political activity may be a “bad thingâ„¢.” There is little doubt in my mind that the increasing number of women in work is affecting the Guides when it comes to trying to get leaders but “blame” seems a strange term. Using a term like blame (remember, a journalist wrote this – they are experts in choosing the correct word for their meaning), seems to be saying women should feel guilty for going to work and earning money, rather than giving up their time for free. I find that odd, and I doubt the Guide Association would have meant it in that manner. It gets better though:

Yet research into work patterns suggests that “lack of time” may be a convenient excuse, rather than a genuine reason not to get involved. The average working week lengthened from 35 hours in the Seventies to 39 hours in 1998, but has since shortened to about 37½ hours, Office for National Statistics figures show.

Welcome to the land of bad statistics. Now, I actually do normally work less than 37.5 hours so maybe I skew the data a little, but I suspect if you average it out over the year (to include the periods where I work 12 – 16 hours a day for a fortnight straight), it comes to 37.5hrs. Despite this, pretty much no one else I know (I am aware this is not really valid data, I am trying to make a point) works less than 37.5 hours. Most work more – either voluntary or to gain overtime pay. I suspect the ONS figures are somewhat skewed and don’t count things like overtime, but this is an argument for another day. I am fairly sure the ONS figures only talk about time which is “worked and paid for” – so the hour for lunch does not count.

The interesting point about it is, this is an attempt by the journalist to imply that as people only work an average of 2.5 hours a week more, they still should have loads of spare time.

In the paper edition, the article is accompanied by a picture of loads of women “mucking in” to clean a street for a Coronation street party (1953 IIRC). The picture shows over a dozen women (probably twice as many) scrubbing the stones and decorating. What wonderful times, when communities were real communities eh?

Sadly, if you check ONS data I very much doubt that the average woman in that community was working 35 hours per week. In the days when WI, Guides etc were at their strongest, few if any women worked in jobs outside the home. Now I am not saying housework is not hard graft (it is) but the women of yesteryear had 37.5 hours a week more to do house work and be involved in the community. Today, nearly every family I know has both partners working (more than 37.5 hours but…). This was not the case in the 1970s and certainly was not the case in the 1950s. If we look at a family with no kids: In the fifties, the husband would have worked about 50 hours a week, leaving (assuming 8hours sleep) 174 hours for the family to get involved in things. Travel to and from work was almost zero as most people lived within a few minutes walk of the work place.

Today, that family will include two people working 37.5 hours a week (remember, 5 hours a week will be unpaid lunchbreaks, so they are actually “in work” for 42.5 hours a week – often people will be in work longer as morning and afternoon breaks are not counted). Now again assuming 8 hours a person a day sleep, this means there is actually only 139 hours a week free. As the average commute today is 45 minutes each way, this takes another 15 hours a week off people. Before we look at any lifestyle changes or issues, a couple today has about 124 hours a week “free time.” This is 50 hours a week less than the halcyon days of yore, or more than a full working week. This doesn’t include things like collecting children from childminders, going to the gym (less manual work means more time spent in the gym!) and so on.

Strikes me as people do have less spare time than they used to. I think this is highlighted by the further commentary:

Working-class people and those living in the north of England were most likely to admit no involvement in any community group. In London and the south, rates were lifted by the popularity of residents’ associations and book groups.

Yeah, people who work for a living (and depend on things like overtime) have less spare time than the idle rich in London. Who would have thought it? (And I am also aware that in London some people work zillions of hours a week, it was a joke).

Looking at the picture in the paper, I cant help but feel the lack of “community” is much more complicated than saying people today can’t be bothered (even in the over 60’s membership is minimal, and they will have grown up with this sort of thing, and certainly have the spare time…). In the 50s people lived in council housing, the state cared for them and, as a result, they cared for the state. Today there is more and more pressure for the state to cut people free (especially from the Telegraph), yet there is amazement that people don’t still care about the state in the same manner.

Now that is what I find strange.