The Spirit Level ties income inequality to social problems; here, an ex-young offender argues youth crime is typically a response to material deprivation.
Luisa Miller from The Spirit Level Documentary talks to former young offender Leonie Fox; the Spirit Level Doc aims to take the message of the book to a wider audience – you can find out more and get involved here
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 the 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; “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 uniforms 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 all of that, that was the first.
“I learnt quite quickly that I could get money for the family by getting loads of clothes and selling them at school – bringing the money back for my mum. And so it went on from there.”
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.”
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.
• Child poverty: Absolute and relative 30 May 2012
• Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level 19 Jul 2010
At an intuitive level many people recognise that inequality is socially corrosive.
The young people 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, ’cos no one’ll ever employ them.”
And so they turn to crime:
“They think it’s glamorous… They almost think that amongst their group, that they need to have been arrested and go to prison to prove themselves.”
The academics agree, explaining 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. 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.
“Feeling inadequate has got a direct effect on the crime that they commit. Young people who are from money aren’t out there committing crime… It’s all part of fitting in at that age, and getting an identity.
“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, ’cos 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 – so it’s definitely a link, 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. So for me it is glaringly obvious.”
With all the advertising that surrounds them, adds Leonie:
“They are being sold something that is out of reach for them, they’re setting them something so high that they can’t achieve it and they fall flat on their back, feel useless and give up.”
I ask her view on prisons:
“Pointless, totally pointless – why not just stick ’em on a 12-week programme, with us, what we do, that costs next to nothing and save themselves at least the £10,000 it costs to get them to court and potentially the hundreds of thousands of pounds it costs to house them in young offenders or prison, ’cos nothing changes, they just get worse!”
There is a growing recognition among experts worldwide that punitive attitudes to crime are hardened in more unequal societies where there is a growing fear of crime and less trust among the population.
The Spirit Level explains that:
“Societies that imprison more people also spend less of their wealth on welfare for their citizens.”
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.”
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