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Angela Tilby: Don’t write off poor white boys

02 July 2021


POOR white boys have two things wrong with them: they are white and they are boys, and that means that they do not rate highly in a world dominated by the notions of white privilege and toxic masculinity. It was different once. As David Skelton points out in The New Snobbery (Biteback Publishing), in the 1960s and ’70s, being working-class was fashionable. There were plenty of white male role- models from such backgrounds who were adored by the media, from Morecambe and Wise to the Beatles.

But, today, as we saw in the Brexit wars, the white working-class are objects of a new snobbery — often written off as ignorant and stupid. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that, on measures of educational achievement, poor white boys do worse than poor non-white children; they do worse than girls; and they too often end up with few qualifications and low job prospects. Lack of public role-models is related to a more intimate issue: a breakdown of family life and the loss of live-in fathers to look up to. It is well documented that poor boys with two involved parents do better than those with only one.

Politicians on both Left and Right find the plight of poor white boys difficult. Neither want to engage with the family problem. Both regard family structure as a matter of individual choice. The Left insists that the real issues are poverty and racial inequality: even the poorest white boys are privileged. Conservatives were once staunchly pro-family, but the sexual self-indulgence of recent male politicians has made any such a stance hypocritical. And, while divorced middle-class parents have the means to support their children, at least financially, many poor one-parent families lack financial resources, which provokes and worsens the emotional detachment of parents who have strayed.

Shame is a factor here, of course, as is lack of jobs, because, until recently, white working-class culture was admired for its community bonds, based on stable families. Eric Simmons, former Superior of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in Yorkshire, once recalled that, in its early days, the Mirfield Fathers had found easy acceptance locally. Many families in Dewsbury and its surrounds were poor. Parents stuck to their marriage vows, both out of loyalty and necessity. They instinctively understood what the monks stood for; the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were not so far from their own lives.

Yet today’s ideology of sexual choice and non-judgementalism — promoted by the middle-class medics, teachers, and social workers who serve the urban poor — has often been a factor in the disadvantaging of white boys. We should encourage the Church to dig deeper than its usual leftish generalisations about poverty. Poor white boys deserve advocates, not least because they can hardly help being white and being boys. Being despised by everyone makes it hard to have good aspirations.

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