Understanding Europe’s White Working Class Communities

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.

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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30 years ago we all thoght that wealtlh would "trickle down" to enrich everyone as Supply Side Economics tilted taxation away from capital toward regular workers. This led to 30 years of growing class differences in just about every country around the world, and now many previously egalitarian societies like the nordic countries are quickly becoming americanized in that rich people and poor people start seeing each other as separate species. It's truly scary how fast this happened.

Fit 2 Learn CIC www.fit-2-learn.com we find that these communities are very interested in strategies to overcome learning difficulties. We are working to empower people to control their own cognition - it is very common for them to have spent months trying to sort out problems, but they are sent from pillar to post by official agencies.

I found your research very interesting. From here in the USA, I get the idea that there is a stronger social contract among people in Europe than there is today, in the USA, where income equality exceeds that of almost any other developed country on Earth.

A necessary report, but I must admit that I expected to hear their voices in the video.

Debate Question: EU Labour Market and Migration Policy:

Could the European Union in this time of austerity and scapegoating racism restore hope by responding to its EU citizens' needs for work and housing by enabling 'green' garden cities, like Florence's Isolotto, Yorkshire's Saltaire? With housing and landscaping to be built and maintained in part by EU citizens currently out of work and homeless, including nationals and Roma/Traveller EU citizens, western and eastern EU citizens, working and living side by side? Garden cities that would have space for children to play and learn, with bicycle and bus transportation, workshops for craftspeople and apprentices, vegetable gardens and farmers' markets, libraries and orchestres. Priority for work and housing to be for EU citizens. Non-EU citizens could have dormitories, the right to study, to make and sell artefacts, to grow and sell garden produce, to share their skills with citizens, eventually themselves to achieve citizenship, but not factory or construction work needed by EU citizens. Land could be obtained by raising taxes on abandoned industrial properties, then re-zoned as residential with lowered taxes where 'green' garden cities are being built. One member to be guaranteed work to house, educate and receive medical care for his or her family, achieving this through fair taxation, while reducing EU bureaucracy that currently does not reach its increasingly impoverished EU citizens?

Julia Bolton Holloway, Ph.D. Citizenship: United Kingdom, EU


Your idea sounds really interesting, except for the following points:

1- If there is already a problem between native and immigrant communities, it is highly questionable to give superior/more rights to natives in your framework, as this will only create multi-tier discrimination, and further fuel anxiety. Imagine yourself, going to another country to enhance your and your children's prospects, being allowed to work in a community, only after the natives got a job. Being allowed to live, but only allowed if houses remain available, after the stock of natives rented them...

2- I am afraid this is not the competence of the European Union. It is rather the competence of national, and local authorities. The EU could make "a plan" or something, but given the ever lower contributions to its budget by Member States and the constant bashing against these contributions, even if there was such a plan, it would be watered down to useless. Now, as whether national authorities want to take such direction...

Finally, for this to be done, there needs to be a significant paradigm shift in people's mentality. One needs to get rid of the idea that public investment is a waste of taxpayers money (the golden argument against any intervention), that immigrants are problematic, and that the EU is the source of all racist scapegoating and inefficiencies in Europe (actually we always forget that it is the very Member States who define how the EU functions)...


Julia, what you suggest is against the law. If someone is granted a resident status in the EU then that person has the same rights to obtain work as EU citizens. Factory or construction work is no exception. In my opinion social mobility needs to be increased for working class people and the issue of lack of self belief also has to be addressed.

You know being a citizen goes both ways. Many of them are unaware of their rights including the fact that they can reach EU bureaucrats. The bodies that do the research and propose change already battle lack of staff whilst the number of issues to be addressed significantly increased. The members of the European Parliament voted an increased allowance for themselves but they called upon the reduction of staff doing the real work, including their staff benefit, such as their travel allowance and number of leave days. I highly recommend you try to be the single carer for ailing parents from 2000kms away then talk.

Nazia Hussein's report on understanding Europe’s white working class communities is a timely and sensitive reminder that we all need to stand together, no matter who we feel ourselves to be, no matter where we come from, in order to face our collective ennemies : poverty, insecurity, exclusion, and xenophobia.

You do a wonderful job of letting us know what is happening and in this case it happens all over the world no matter what country you live in. What are your solutions. I never read what they are. Put some money into the solutions.

Indeed "put some money into the solutions". Honestly, should 'good collaboration of local agencies to give people a say', as you recommend at the end of the video be the only recipe? I think the lack of jobs and the rolling back of the welfare state (see your intro text) need some more systemic thinking. The report is a great initiative. I look forward to seeing how you'll build on it.

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