Politics Magazine

The Kids In America (And The Value Of Storytelling)

Posted on the 07 March 2013 by Thepoliticalidealist @JackDarrant

Yesterday evening I watched the latest documentary in the BBC’s high quality, long-running This World series. Yesterday’s documentary sought to illustrate the dry statistics about poverty in the United States by following four 11-15 year olds and their families and studying the effects poverty has on them. It used no narration, no additional information: it just told us their stories, with strong effect.

These young people lived with significant hardship: homelessness and the constant threat of it; rationing foodbank packages to the point where a third of a tin of diced carrots was the typical meal; facing bullies at school because of the shoddy appearance of their 45¢ second hand clothes; and (I know it’s a cliche) having a huge weight of anxieties and stresses upon their shoulders that should be their parents’ sole problem. What struck me was quite how intelligent they all were (I was a smart 11 year old, but I’d have been put to shame by these people) and how determined they were to avoid their parents’ misfortune. One girl, reflecting on why she had to live with her sister and mother in what we’d term a studio flat, in a famously tough area, on no income, and through no fault of her own, said that she didn’t know why, but perhaps it was her family because they are tougher. The girl, a highly knowledgeable and articulate young person, struggled to answer this one question because there is no answer. I’d like to be able to say that it wouldn’t happen in western Europe, where we have stronger welfare systems and a sense of collective duty. But that’s not true: Britain is stumbling along the deadly path cleared by the US.

The answer is, as I reiterated as I watched the tearful separation of one family from their dog which was surrendered to the pound (because they were being evicted before reaching the top of the social housing list), is because the economy of the World’s Richest Nation places no value on surplus workers and children. I was impressed by how easily the viewers could empathise with these unlucky children.

In practice, the best vehicle for winning public support for social and political change is to tell accessible stories on an individual or national level. For example, the tabloid articles about “welfare freaks”, the extreme cases of the occasional family which lives off benefits for no other reason than not wanting to work. The problem the Left, myself included, often has is that we often place too much evidence on constructing intellectual, abstract points about what should be done about a particular issue, and too little about applying these arguments to human-scale examples. Perhaps this is because our world view is focussed on what we see as the common good, and not the individual (the fact that these are not mutually exclusive is irrelevant to this).

By contrast, the Right can often talk of “balancing the nation’s books like a household budget” in a way that connects with the voters than the need to “adopt monetary and fiscal stimulus in order to utilise the multiplier effect to promote GDP growth”. I’m not saying that party leaders should talk down to the electorate, merely that both abstract and real world debates must be won to get ahead. Tony Blair partly understood this in a way that Kinnock, Foot and Brown didn’t. I think that Ed Miliband is developing skills in both areas: he’s the first proper intellectual we’ve had leading a party for decades, and increasingly aware that terms like “omnishambles” can succinctly make a powerful point.

Politics needs a human face.

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