One of the issues that was raised with me by a number of people at the Reaching the Unreached conference and which has been raised in a comment on a previous post is this: Who are we talking about? What is the best term to describe them? I don’t the know the answer.
Twenty-five years ago Roy Joslin wrote a prophetic book on reaching the working class entitled Urban Harvest. He described the culture of the working class and how we might contextualize the gospel to this culture. It’s a great book and still very helpful. But the world has changed since then.
That older traditional working-class culture is still with us, but it’s decreasing. Some of the institutions that epitomized it are now in major decline: trade unions and working men’s clubs, for example. In its place we have a growing benefit culture, underclass, urban poor … What term should we use? Often people talk about reaching council estates or marginalised areas as if this means reaching traditional working-class people and no doubt in some areas this is true. But in many areas there is a very different culture.
‘Working-class’ (in the UK) and ‘blue-collar’ (in the US) is often used of non-professionals or non-graduates, often manual workers, usually hard-working, respectable, responsible, giving a high value to family. In certain trades they may also be high earners.
The ‘urban poor,’ ‘marginalized’ or ‘underclass’ typically refer to people from dysfunctional families, often with problems spanning generations. In the UK they are also shaped by the experience of living on state benefits – creating something of a long-term benefit culture.
Working-Class: tidy homes (a row of primulas in the front garden)
Benefit Culture: chaotic homes (a fridge in the front garden)
Working-Class: an orderly life (tea at 6.0pm)
Benefit Culture: a disorderly life (think about food when hungry)
Working-Class: communal (members of trade unions and working men’s clubs)
Benefit Culture: suspicious of institutions (not members of anything)
Working-Class: socially conservative
Benefit Culture: socially disconnected
Those from a benefit culture are typically disconnected from the wider society, but they show strong loyalty to one another. They will give there last £10 to someone who asks them irrespective of the consequences to themselves.
Traditional working-class people often despise the generational poor (often much more strongly that politically correct middle-class people). They more readily attach blame to the generational poor. It also means sometimes they deny being working-class because they associate this label with the generational poor they despise. Ruby Payne says: ‘Often the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living. In situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.’ (Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty , AHA! Process, 2005, 29.)
Immigrant communities add further complexity to the picture. They may be poor, but may have cultural characteristics very different from the poor of other ethnic communities.
The ‘urban poor’ are not an homogeneous group. Social class is a moving target – it is constantly changing.
So there are some important differences between the traditional working-class and the new benefit culture. There are, though, many cultural characteristics in common that present a common challenge to evangelicals. The differences among them do not invalidate the value of considering their common cultural traits. The French are heterogeneous, but there is still value in missionaries to France thinking about contextualizing to French culture. In the same way, the urban poor are heterogeneous, but there is still value in missionaries among the urban poor thinking about contextualizing to the culture of the urban poor.
But my question is this: What term should we use to describe the urban poor, particularly those belonging to what I’ve called the benefit culture? I want a term that is descriptive without being pejorative or which avoids the dangers of labelling people. One test I apply is, Would the people I know from this background own the term? Would they be happy to describe themselves in this way?
I’ve tended to use the term ‘urban poor’ to include both the poorer sections of the traditional working-class and those who belong to the benefit culture because it is less pejorative than other terms (whether formal like ‘the marginalised’, ‘socially excluded’, ‘underclass’ or informal like ‘street’, ‘scally’, ‘chav’). (I recognise there are poor people in rural areas, but I suspect their culture is different in some significant ways.) Another complication is that these kind of terms often do not translate well across the Atlantic.
So what do you think? What term should we use?
By the way, I think Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty (cited above) is the best book I’ve come across for understanding the culture of the urban poor. Payne is an educationalist so that’s the perspective from which it’s written (I’ve no idea whether she is a Christian or not) and it’s written from an US perspective so there are differences with the UK scene. But it’s still my top recommendation.