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‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places

Introduction

Unit image

Some commentators argue that social justice as an idea and an ideal is interwoven with issues of inequality, poverty and social exclusion. It is a comparatively straightforward task in the era of World Wide Web access (though by no means everywhere or for everyone) to locate sources of information illustrating the extent of poverty and inequality, though much of the latter, particularly in relation to the ownership and distribution of wealth, or undocumented labour or unpaid care, remains considerably under-researched or ‘hidden’. While we may seek to take some comfort from assumptions that discussions of poverty and inequality should start from questions of social justice, this contrasts with long-standing ideas that the poor are a ‘problem’, at times a ‘dangerous’ population. Such populations are also often associated with particular places; for instance, with ghettos, deprived estates and slums. Hence the title of this unit, ‘“Problem” populations, “problem” places’.

It is important to understand that how poverty and inequality are perceived and how poor people are labelled say much about the policies that are likely to be developed in response. Viewing poor and disadvantaged groups as a ‘vulnerable’ section of society requiring social welfare and other forms of state support stands in sharp contrast to those representations of the poor as an ‘undeserving’ group, and to arguments that there is an ‘underclass’ of impoverished and ‘disorderly’ people, cut-off from the rest of society. In practice, as you will see as the discussion unfolds, such distinctions are rarely as clear-cut as this terminology implies. Furthermore, notions of disadvantaged or excluded groups as a ‘problem population’ do not arise in a vacuum but mirror the wider social relations of inequality. They carry with them particular associations of social class, ‘race’ and gender and ideas about how social life should be organised. Poverty is often viewed as a deficiency in the way that poor people conduct their family and personal lives, in their attitudes to work, and so on. Through such arguments poverty comes to be understood not as an outcome of the society in which we live, a product of state failure or of an inadequate welfare state, but as a consequence of ‘negative’ or ‘dysfunctional’ attitudes, behaviours and ways of life that necessitate control. People living in poverty may be those who are viewed as not having developed their capabilities. This raises key questions on social justice/injustice, in particular that which relates to the intersections between social welfare and crime control strategies.

While images of the feckless poor have been with us for a long time, since the 1980s there has been a marked shift in political attitudes towards poverty both in the UK and more widely. These tend to represent poverty, disadvantage and exclusion in terms of poor people contributing to their own precarious socio-economic situation. Examining some of the different forms that approaches to poverty take in different parts of the world allows us to draw out the important commonalities between them.

This unit is an adapted extract from the Open University course Welfare, crime and society (DD208_3) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

DD208_3