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Understanding Europe’s White Working Class Communities

City street

Western Europe has undergone significant transformation over the past 40 years. Major manufacturing has given way to service industries, while the provisions of the welfare state have in many places been rolled back. Working class communities can no longer rely upon the availability of secure jobs and are often forced into lower-paid and more precarious work to get by. At the same time, the social security net has been eroded, public housing that was once available is no longer guaranteed, and inequalities in health provision and education have widened.

Debate about marginalization in Europe tends to center on its minority populations. This is understandable given the anxieties, real or imagined, that focus on minority inclusion in much of Europe. The recent European parliamentary elections forcefully remind us of this.

When the Open Society Foundations studied the integration experiences of Muslim and Somali communities in Western Europe, the research found that the majority in an economically deprived community could also be marginalized and victims of inequality—in different ways, perhaps, but with many of the same results. So in 2012, Open Society initiated a project to better understand and offer a platform to marginalized majority communities in six northwest European cities—Aarhus, Amsterdam, Berlin, Lyon, Manchester, and Stockholm. This research provides an insight into the daily experiences of white working class communities across Europe.

While the majority ethnic populations in the six cities that this research focuses on were white, many of the factors that marginalize working class communities, such as a lack of decent jobs, poor health, or disadvantages in the education system, impact on people of any ethnic background.

Different communities across Europe that we spoke to felt they are being blamed for their own marginalization. Blame has been shifted to individuals as wider social and economic factors are often downplayed. This is certainly true of media portrayals in the UK, and it also applies in the Netherlands—where the “antisocial television” genre focuses on poor Dutch families with behavioral or social problems—and Germany. This creates powerful stereotypes that can reinforce a community’s sense of exclusion.

The research on white working class communities found a different reality to that portrayed in these programs. For instance in Manchester there was a strong work ethic among the people that participated in the research. Take Tracey, a single parent aged 23, who said:

I was told by the job centre if I work I will get less money than what I get if I’m on benefits, [but I would rather work] because I don’t want my children to see their parent sitting at home. I want them to know that I’m coming to work for them. It might be harder, but that’s going to give them a kick up the backside when they are older, because they will say, well, my mum worked so I’m gonna work too.

Low-pay and insecurity was a strong feature throughout the research, but in each community, bonds of kinship and social networks of support remained strong. For example, in Higher Blackley in Manchester, working women who need childcare can rely on networks of relatives, friends and neighbors. People will reach out to neighbors in a time of need before they turn to public authorities. These strong communities can provide a sense of security that has been eroded through transformations in the labor market and the welfare state. It can also mean there is increased anxiety about the potential destabilizing impact of immigration.

It is by no means inevitable that boundaries are set up against outsiders or newcomers. Some of the six communities have been ethnically diverse for decades; others are just starting to experience change. Though there was prejudice towards outsiders among some, many also expressed interest in contact with people from other backgrounds and a desire to build new shared values. In some cities such as Aarhus in Denmark, ethnic diversity was seen as a positive development and a source of pride.

One of the benefits of in-depth research like this is its measured response to questions about sensitive subjects of inclusion and immigration. At a national level, in a country like the UK, immigration is linked with popular discontent, but when the questions are asked at the local level, individuals will demonstrate a willingness to negotiate differences and find common ground with newcomers, as well as understand the wider social and economic factors that are having an impact. An older resident from Manchester declared that:

If there was work, and there was houses, and there was everything what’s needed, I wouldn’t have a problem with [immigration]. The problem is that there’s too much looking for too little, and you’re bound to get trouble when that happens. If you have starving people and throw a loaf in amongst them, there’ll be a murder committed to get that loaf. That’s what’s happening here on a much bigger scale. There’s not enough.

One of the conclusions from all six studies is that government at every level needs to engage with citizens in these communities, and not by means of empty gestures. The marginalized communities addressed in this research are often strong and supportive, and involve people that are eager to work and to be involved in making decisions about their own lives and their own neighborhoods.

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