Poor Transitions: Social Exclusions and Young Adults
Webster, Colin, Simpson, Donald, MacDonald, Robert, Abbas, Andrea, Cieslik, Mark, Shildrick, Tracy and Simpson, Mark
Policy Press, Bristol
At first glance, it seemed unimaginable that this brief report would be able to fully grasp and capture the difficulties faced by young people, living in a 'socially excluded' area in the North East of England, as they negotiated everyday transitions from unemployment to employment – and back again – to drug use and desistance, to motherhood and childcare and the changes and continuities these experiences brought to themselves, their peers and their localities. This research draws upon the views and experiences of young men and women aged between 23 and 29, reporting a rather different, less 'optimistic' account of what is means to be young and poor in one of Britain's most deprived neighbourhoods: this is not an account of the consumerist, lifestyle options of today's youth, for these are not the kids in the adverts, but rather it is a detailed and powerful testimony to the daily hardships endured and resisted by these young people.
This report successfully manages to combine measures of poverty ('miserable measures') relevant to the local context, with the unique and powerful voices of those inhabiting such localities, combining stark statistics with stark, lived in realities. Further, some concrete policy implications are highlighted which point out the need for 'real' rather than 'fiddly', 'poverty jobs', for training with a purpose and outcome and ultimately for structural reform which targets the demand side of the local labour market. The focus on such structural vulnerabilities and uncertainties focuses attention on the broader social, economic and political context creating and sustaining such poverty, instead of further problematising the poor themselves, as in many 'welfare to work' programmes. The ability to point to the insufficiency of policies, such as Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit, which incur losses as well as benefits, which simply mean living just a bit better off, but a long way from 'decent' living, is clearly demonstrated, and interviewee accounts highlight the frustrations of living through the vicious circles, poverty traps and balancing acts.
Interviewees are broken down into three sub-samples which best represent overall continuity and change in the lives of socially excluded young adults. There is the 'education, training and employment' sub-sample, whose transitions are characterised by low-paid, low grade poverty jobs, minimal and insufficient training and the persistence of economic marginality – often despite motivated 'conventional' commitments to work. Within this group there are some 'success' stories, but these successes are mediated by social and geographical contexts, meanings and prospects, so, for example, when Annie finally gets her degree what is the likely dividend for her as a 'non-traditional' student who continues to live in the locality?
The 'family' sub-sample mostly contained the accounts of young, many single, mums who spoke of living 'day to day' and 'week to week' as they managed childcare responsibilities. Still, the 'choice' of motherhood was often passionately asserted, alongside the relevance and support of broader family networks, while the authors were alert to the various constraints behind such choices. Parenthood provided a 'fast track' to adulthood for many interviewees, ironic when so many young people, especially mothers, are depicted as irresponsible and lazy because of their lack of formal, paid employment.
I felt the analysis could have benefited from a more thorough interrogation of the relevance of gender, also applicable to the 'criminal and/or drug taking' sub-sample. For example, the authors suggest that in terms of male drug use the solution appeared to be the influence of a significant relationship with a woman, usually a partner or a mother. Although initially suggesting that the three sub-sets were not cohesive or complete, that slippages and differences between and among the groups existed, there was little attention to this in the ensuing sections and I was sometimes left wondering about men's participation in family life – and women's participation in drugs and crime (other than as reformers). Nevertheless, the inclusion of the life grids and life stories throughout, in boxed and shaded areas, implicitly highlighted such connections and intersections.
In looking at the broader experiences of transition the authors note the paradoxical situation between reported subjective change, told by interviewees and the unchanged, objective, poverty that the vast majority continued to live in since being interviewed for previous ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) and Joseph Rowntree Foundation studies. Yet this is not as contradictory as it first appears; many had made 'real', substantive changes to their lives and material circumstances, including moving houses and establishing families. Just because many had not successful advanced in terms of career ladders – or even getting on one – this did not mean that their lives were unchanging or stagnating, as was apparent when considering the 'critical moments', such as bereavement and illness, reported by interviewees. Subjective feelings were considered alongside objective contexts and constraints in the 'dreams of leaving' and the 'costs of leaving' sections, where the concept of 'social capital' was utilised in examining the different forms of 'bonding' rather than 'bridging' capital which young people had access to. As the authors warn, care has to be taken when using this model so as not to represent people as solely responsible for their own poverty given their inability to generate empowering social networks, while relying on deviant, value-less ones.
Overall, I found this book powerfully highlighted the voices and experiences of those living with the causes and consequences of social exclusion, with the mis/management of various 'social inclusion' programmes and benefit reform, and with the stigma attached to the people and places they still identified with. In highlighting related policy implications the authors resisted an easy 'wish list' of reforms, instead questioning the appropriateness of a single 'employability agenda'. I found this a helpful and insightful, if painful, read and I would recommend it to
University of Newcastle