March 7, 2020

Understanding Britain’s Underclass (Part 3)

This is the final part of a three-part book review of Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari. You can read part one here and part two here.

On pages 121–122, McGarvey tells us:

The conversation about poverty is usually dominated by people with very little experience of being poor. . . . It’s this deficit between those who tend to lead the conversation and those who experience the issue that not only impedes progress but also leads to people in poverty feeling misrepresented or excluded by ‘culture’.

This would be true in the evangelical world too, at least to some degree. It is frustrating when those of us who grew up in poverty on council estates are secondary to the conversation on reaching these communities. Instead, middle-class guys lead the conversation because they now happen to run a church in a deprived community.

Masked Elitism

Middle-class people think that by stating “I was born on a council estate,” this gives them special insight into our concerns, and therefore they can legitimately be leaders on discussing the issues. McGarvey nails it again when he says:

In Scotland, the poverty industry is dominated by a left-leaning, liberal middle class. Because this specialist class is so genuinely well-intentioned when it comes to the interests of people in deprived communities, they get a bit confused, upset and offended when those very people begin expressing anger towards them. It never occurs to them, because they see themselves as the good guys, that the people they purport to serve may, in fact, perceive them as chancers, careerists, or charlatans. They regard themselves as champions of the underclass and therefore, should any poor folk begin to get his own ideas or, God forbid, rebel against the poverty experts, the blame is laid at the door of the complainants for misunderstanding what is going on. (125)

You could change this entire quote to talk about food banks and you will get the same result. When I have dared to question the prevailing powers about whether food banks are helping people in deprived communities in the long-term, I am met with almost universal outrage. One woman wrote to me once and accused me of hating the poor and having no real experience of hunger.

“Sometimes people are drawn to right-wing figures like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage because they feel they are finally being listened to; they feel they are striking back at the people they feel excluded and abandoned by” (151). And here’s what the liberal lefties don’t get. The harder they scream at us for being dumb or scum, the more we vote this way just to annoy them. We will vote against our own self-interests every time if we feel we can stick it to those in charge. Modern political parties, and most middle-class Christians, just do not understand the anger of many of our communities. It has festered for a long, long time, and churches and church leaders are seen as little more than liberal do-gooders. Take what they’re offering but never buy what they’re selling.

All my life I was told that the system was to blame for the problems in my family’s life and that my family were to blame for the problems in mine. This belief that it was always someone else’s fault was reinforced by the poverty industry and politicians who stood to gain from my willingness to defer to them. (175)


I remember leaving jail and going to see my parole officer. He told me that I would be in the prison system for the rest of my life. He said I was a typically hopeless case, and the best advice he could offer me was to try not to kill anybody. He gave me no hope that I could change my life.

Then I met Christians for the first time who confronted me about my sin and told me to throw myself on the mercy of Jesus. They told me that there was no way I could change my life, but if I entrusted it to the Lord, He would change it for me. They weren’t wrong. When I took responsibility for my sin against God and my sinful lifestyle choices, I found real freedom in that. McGarvey had a similar, albeit non-spiritual, awakening. “I can’t speak for everyone else who has experienced poverty, all I can say is that my own life began to improve when I stopped blaming other people for the things that were wrong in it” (176).

And this is where the book almost gets there from a spiritual perspective. It’s like he reaches the edge of the pool but falls just short of diving into the clean, clear waters of the gospel.

Because I wasn’t ready to honestly examine my problems, which were, in the end, as much about my own attitudes and choices as they were about poverty or child abuse, I stubbornly continued a pathos delusional self-obliteration. . . . I could only see where I had been harmed, never where I had harmed others. I could only see where I had been wronged, never where I had done wrong. (179–180)

Real Answer Missed

His conclusion to the book is almost evangelical. “Today, I realise that the most practical way of transforming my community is to first transform myself and, having done so, find a way to express how I did it to as many people as possible” (202). Almost, but not quite.

What was noteworthy in the whole book was the lack of any spiritual insight or reference to the church altogether. And that’s what made me sad. McGarvey recognised the answers weren’t political. He recognised the answers weren’t even within himself. But at no point does he even consider that the answer might be spiritual. And why would he?

He’s probably never met a real Christian in his life. He’s almost certainly never been to a gospel-preaching church. I felt sad at the end of the book. Sad, but also quietly determined to continue what we have started with 20schemes. Scotland needs the gospel. Scotland’s schemes need the gospel. It is only in Jesus that the leopard can change its spots. It’s only in Jesus that people, divided by the invisible barriers of class, can come together united under the headship of Jesus Christ.

Get this book. It won’t answer all of your questions, but it will open your mind to a whole new world out there in our country. A world of bitter, angry sinners, hurtling toward hell, feeling powerless, looking for connection and needing to hear the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

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