Casualties of inequality
Luisa Miller from The Spirit Level documentary talks to offender-turned-support-worker Leonie Fox about the effect of poverty on young people.
Children are rebelling against society because they feel they haven't got any options, says Leonie Fox. Photo by boliston under a CC Licence.
Three years ago Leonie was in prison serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery. Now, she has left the criminal life behind and has a full-time job. She works for Youth Empowerment Crime Diversion Scheme in Brighton, which works with young people at risk of offending and the rehabilitation and resettlement of ex-offenders.
I went to talk to her about the causes of youth crime, and started by asking her if she can remember the first thing that she stole. ‘A school uniform,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘I was twelve, my mum sent me to John Lewis with twenty quid to get the three of us school uniforms, and it just wasn’t happening, you couldn’t get one let alone three with that – or my brother and sister’d be walking around in stuff where they would’ve just had the mickey taken out of them. So I remember pinching them, that was the first time.’
I asked Leonie what she thought were the biggest contributing factors to causing young offending. ‘Low education attainment, deprived backgrounds, drugs and alcohol abuse, anger issues, mental health problems and lack of opportunities,’ she says.
Leonie’s experience correlates with the findings of the award-winning book The Spirit Level, which uses 25 years worth of rigorous social research to draw connections between income inequality and a whole range of social problems – mental health, drug use, life expectancy, community relations, obesity, educational performance, teenage pregnancies, violence and social mobility.
At an intuitive level many people recognize that inequality is socially corrosive. The young people that Leonie works with see their status in society as low.
‘They think that people look down on them, the police target them, what’s the point in going to school because no one’ll ever employ them,’ she says.
And so they turn to crime. ‘They think it’s glamorous,’ Leonie says. ‘They almost think that among their group they need to have been arrested and go to prison to prove themselves’.
The academics agree, explaining that we are all sensitive to being seen as inferior, and the powerful effects of social status on confidence and pride. As the gap between rich and poor grows, social status is given greater importance – and we in turn feel a greater sense of shame when we feel looked down upon. Young people are particularly susceptible, their sense of themselves is most uncertain, many succumbing to depression and self-harm, lashing out in anger or seeking other ways with which to boost their status and gain respect.
Advertising plays on our fears of being seen as of less worth, offering ways in which we can enhance our status through consumption. Leonie tells me how in workshops with at risk teenagers she gets them to draw a shield with likes, dislikes, what’s important to them, what they can change.
‘It’s always money, clothes, reputation, that they look good,’ she says. ‘Those that have got money are dressed in the latest trainers, have got the latest clothes and those that have got no money feel that they need to go out and commit crime and do street robberies and shoplift so that they don’t stand out.
‘It’s a direct result of feeling less than and inadequate because they don’t have what other people have. That causes them to have low self-esteem, low self-worth. When they don’t care about themselves they go out there and do stuff that’s destructive to themselves, because they don’t care.’
This can also lead to substance misuse and alcoholism, which fuels their need to commit crime.
‘I know a lot of teenage lads, some as young as 14, who are out selling class A's so that they can bring money home to their mum,’ Leonie says. ‘I very rarely see any young people who have been identified as at risk of offending, or certainly displaying anti social behaviours, who have come from a financially solvent background. You just don’t see it.’
If we lived in a society with a fairer distribution of wealth, Leonie tells me ‘children wouldn’t have to feel inadequate and feel pushed to commit crimes to fit it, because they’d already be in. A lot of it is anger related stuff. It’s almost as if they are rebelling against society because they feel that they haven’t got any options’.
The Spirit Level documentary aims to take the message of the book to a wider audience. Find out more and get involved here.
The Youth Empowerment Crime Diversion Scheme promotes positive change in the attitudes of young people which supports a reduction in offending and anti-social behaviour.
New Internationalist has published a No-Nonsense Guide to Equality. Get your copy here.