Depending on where you live, it will have an impact upon your education, employment and health. The data that has caused the biggest stir states that you can expect a life expectancy difference of fourteen years. This situation has allegedly been caused by the fact that, during the slum clearance projects of the 1960s, whilst other cities pursued a form of social engineering and mixed people of different classes together, Sheffield kept them firmly apart. Consequently a lot of people are in the unsettling position that I am in, where they live on one side of the city but work on the other and the differences are often startling.
The aspect of this that saddens me the most is the fact that social movement has stagnated over the last few years. When I was a child, it was an accepted trend that each generation would do a little bit better than the one before. My grandparents were of humble origins but they wanted more for their children. By the time their grandchildren came along, all of them were university educated and their lives now bear little resemblance to the ones who worked so hard to make it all possible.
I work with children who are the 3rd generation of families defined by unemployment. They have grandparents who are barely my age and neither they nor their children have ever held jobs and are mired within a benefits culture. It’s a culture so debilitating it leads to kids growing up with the idea that work is a negative, something to be avoided at all costs. Now, I’m no workaholic myself but I can recognise that unemployment should be classed as a disease. I believe it is responsible for ruining countless lives.
It’s not just the financial aspect although obviously this has a major impact. What better feeling is there than earning your own money, a feeling that most of us first experienced as teenagers with Saturday jobs? For some people, however, they will never have a taste of this empowering financial independence. Beyond this, the workplace is surely where most of us cut our teeth when figuring out how to interact positively with other people. Where we are forced to coexist alongside people we might not otherwise give time of day. It breeds confidence, tolerance, humour and a whole host of other qualities that will help us navigate our way through life.
All of the problems faced by the families with whom I work are compounded by the current economic recession. We have had recessions before, in fact, I left school during the dark days of Thatcherism when we were plummeted into a recession possibly just as bleak as this one. Mines, steel works and a whole host of other industries were annihilated bringing this country to its knees. There is something different about this recession though, something infinitely worse.
In the early 80s, we still had the option of education. The government had not yet sabotaged the system and, all of those who found themselves out of work, had the option of going to college or university and lots of them did. I studied alongside ex-miners, who had gone down the pit at fifteen but found themselves suddenly out on their ear. Once they got over the shock of being out of work, some of them grabbed the opportunities that were on offer with both hands and never looked back. I am sure there were just as many, if not more, whose lives were blighted but at least those opportunities were there for those in a position to seize them.
Compare that to now when there are not even enough courses available for kids who have gone the traditional route and are straight A students. Funding to education has been slashed so mercilessly, college places are few and far between and gaining a place at university looks a lot like playing the lottery. That’s before you even consider the cost. We have regressed to the bad old days and, unless your parents have enough money to pay the burgeoning costs, you might as well forget it. Little wonder then that for a lot of kids in inner city comprehensives, education seems like a waste of time, something so far removed from their lives, there’s barely any point in bothering.
Along with the cuts to education, the government has systematically hacked away at the arts. This I think has had a devastating effect on the country. In the 80s, the arts seemed to flourish in direct correlation to the decline of everything else. Call me naive but I think in times of hardship we need the arts like never before. What else keeps hope alive and inspires in people the aspiration needed to plough on when it can so often seem like a waste of time. The kids I work with have never been to the theatre, which is hardly surprising given how much it costs without any government subsidies. They don’t read, they don’t visit galleries, they don’t watch films other than pirate copies of action films. The more senseless violence and misogyny the better, it would seem.
It’s hard not to sound patronising but surely it is the duty of a civilised society to show these kids a glimpse of a better life. It was through reading and films that I developed an urge to travel and see a world beyond my own small life. We need to imbue these kids with a sense of curiosity whilst providing them with a means of satiating it. The riots of last year proved to me that lots of kids in this country are angry and dissatisfied with their lot but are powerless to do anything about it, which is why we saw the explosive frenzy of inevitable violence. Anybody who believes that this powder keg has been brought under control should pay a visit to an inner city school and talk to some of the trapped and disenfranchised youths.
Of all the findings published by the university, the area that has caused most controversy is the idea that there is a fourteen year life expectancy discrepancy, depending on where in the city you live. Again, I believe that this has been a long time coming. Drugs and alcohol abuse is rife on estates where unemployment is more or less the norm. What else is there to do? A healthy diet is not a priority for a lot of people who have no sense of purpose or hope that things can ever be different. They are people who have been consistently failed by this country as each successive government since Thatcher has eroded any meaningful social reform programmes. They are people who have been swept under the carpet, in the hope that they will disappear, only to intensify in the dark, passing down the poisoned legacy until we are now in the 3rd generation.
Along with the drink and drugs we have crime that has turned parts of the city into no go areas. Consequently we have a city operating an unofficial apartheid system and I don’t think that we are unique. The problem maybe me more starkly apparent in Sheffield but I think we serve as a microcosm for the country as a whole and it is not a healthy state in which to be. We can not continue our Marie Antoinette approach of enjoying the high life whilst throwing crumbs of appeasement at those less fortunate. Instead of cake it may be Sky TV, cheap booze, junk food and computer games but the chickens will come home to roost. After all, Marie Antoinette did lose her head and last year’s riots proved that we are on borrowed time.