Taking back control?

Taking back control?

By Jeff Mitchell

Social exclusion is, I now realise, a source of daily celebration around the globe. A bit like with #metoo, once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it in social interactions every day.

Social exclusion has been rightly described as the injustice that holds people back. It's the thing that DHI and my own organisation Clean Slate Training & Employment tackles, often effectively, person by person.

We cannot eradicate social exclusion this way, however. We need something societal in scale. But I don’t believe social exclusion is part of a system we live within. It is the system and we have to take control.

In the UK we're split. Brexit is just the start of it. And when you take the ideology and politics out of it, it’s just symbolic of what happens when people do choose to take control. But our biggest divide is by wealth. Social exclusion is a chasm between the lives of the Haves and Have Nots. Social exclusion had a large part in the Brexit vote and the Have Nots lashed out at the Haves because, let’s face it, austerity only affected those with least and they want change. They may want out of Europe but to what end? A better life, surely.

What the Have Nots know is that during austerity, only the poor got poorer. Meanwhile the super-rich have increased their wealth. (There’s now a growing divide among the Haves too, just as in Victorian days.) As the BBC recently reported, the richest one percent tripled their ‘worth’. And as Professor Sir Angus Deaton said, they did so by ‘taking, not making’ their money.

I am a social entrepreneur. I run a not-for-profit, all-for-social-purpose enterprise that helps people on low incomes become better off. We help them manage and stretch their budgets, find work or better paid work, and get online. It's a business because when they do better, we all do better: Rent is paid so housing is occupied and there are fewer people sleeping in shop doorways. Jobs are filled (when there are fewer migrants to fill them) so we don't have to wait so long for a cappuccino. Mental health services are less stretched so it only takes six months to access them. And, of course, the benefit bill goes down so taxes can stay comfortably low for the Haves.

I’m being facetious but I’m describing a business case that means we get commissioned to help make society work better.

My epiphany came after launching a money skills programme in 2018. I’ve run Quids In!, a money guidance magazine, website and email service, for ten years but this was the first time we took it into the room and shared the ideas with real people. Unemployed people. People out of work because of mental health issues. Mums who are working but still turning to a foodbank. Essentially, the Have Nots.

We talked about how if we don’t keep a tight hand on our wallet, someone else has their fingers in it. That includes banks built on people straying into overdraft as much as it does payday loans companies and other legal loan sharks peddling unaffordable credit. It includes weekly payment stores targeting young, stay-at-home mums and discretely charging through the nose. And coffee shops offering online discounts while people without a loyalty card subsidise them. But while new regulations are announced daily to protect customers, there’s more we can do by taking control. Our fightback against social exclusion starts with helping consumers find ways to spend less, earn more, borrow less and save more. And cut the profits to the fat cats.

Now every day I see how, in every way, the Haves keep the Have Nots at bay. Pubs that used to be community hubs for workers clocking off have either closed or 'gone gastro' selling pints for over a fiver and meals costing two hours on the minimum wage.

The spirit of capitalism is at full flight and the Haves celebrate it each time they say: 'Yes, I'll pay that! Not because it’s worth it but because I can.' And each time we do, another wedge goes into the class divide. We say ‘Cheers’ to this exclusivity and don't even notice that it's social exclusion we're raising a glass to.

Like for my business, there are opportunities in all this madness. There are pub chains where a pint or a roast battery-farmed chicken costs just half an hour at minimum wage. In retail, jumpers made by juvenile Asian fingers can help low-income mums keep their kids dressed. Maybe it’s little coincidence Wetherspoons have led the charge promoting Brexit.

It is with a growing sense of shame for me that we, my friends, are the Haves. Privilege is always, always at the expense of the Have Nots. And as one class gets better off while the other loses out, social exclusion continues. And if you believe that when the Have Nots vote, they’re voting against the country's interests, ask whose interests we are really talking about?

For all this talk of shame, the one thing I'm enormously proud of is my small team, past and present, over the past ten years. They've provided around 3,000 people on low incomes with the means to become better off. To this end, everything we do is about helping them Take Back Control. But if the rest of us really want to see an end to social exclusion, we all have to take responsibility.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Jeff Mitchell. Jeff is managing director of Clean Slate Training & Employment CIC and the Social Publishing Project. He is a former managing director of The Big Issue and author of I'm Ready – 7 signs that show you’re right for the job.

If you found this article interesting, you might like to find out more about our Reach service, which is a partnership that includes Clean Slate, Stonham and DHI.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards and seeks a range of diverse views to really inform this process and develop its services for all.

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