hidden poverty of affluent towns

Whenever I talk about Oldham, people conjure up all sorts of ideas of what life is like here. Most people know that we are a post-industrial town with a lot of deprivation. Whether we’re talking about Middlesbrough, Rochdale or other towns like them, people have images in their mind of what it looks to live in a place like this. Some of that will be wrong, but the word depravation usually conjures up images of towns like ours.

But poverty isn’t a uniquely “urban” thing. In fact, Oldham isn’t necessarily urban at all. We are a town well outside of a city. Whilst there are built up bits in one direction, we have moorland and reservoirs the other side of us. It might not be “urban” in the way people often think. But that aside, there is poverty in rural areas and – among some of the most deprived places in the country – seaside towns. We need to be careful not to assume there is one form poverty takes and that it is confined to certain places.

Whilst many don’t think of rural or seaside towns when they think of deprivation, there is another more hidden kind of poverty. There are people living in ostensibly wealthy, affluent towns and villages in real poverty. There are plenty of people in such places living in council housing. In the South Oxfordshire village in which I grew up, there were working class people about (not least, my family among them). There were council housing areas in which people lived in poverty. There was a site – neither run for or by travellers – where poorer people who couldn’t afford even rental fees lived in static caravans permanently. Such people found living harder than in many deprived places because of the high prices of everything in the locality, driven up by the overwhelming middle class population of the area. At least in Oldham, where the town is considered deprived, prices are more affordable.

The church we went to – which was in an affluent market town and full of middle class people (with one or two interlopers) – also had its working class areas. Two streets in the town, connected to one another, with lots of council housing was the area where the poor lived. It would be easy to dismiss the town as affluent and well-heeled – which, generally speaking of course, it was – whilst failing to recognise there was hidden poverty within the town. It was largely ignored because a town just south of Oxford, with its public schools and posh houses, is assumed to be doing pretty well for itself. And so, the poverty is hidden away and exacerbated because the town commands higher prices for everything due to the majority of people, who can afford them, that live there.

The fact is that working class people still live in these sorts of affluent towns. They are fewer in number, usually, but they are there nonetheless. The poverty that exists is usually hidden because of the wealth that surrounds them. Those who are not necessarily poor, but nonetheless working class, are there too. They are the bus drivers, mechanics, electricians and plumbers that are still needed in such places. In the village I grew up in, many army and RAF folks were placed there. Although the village was small and predominantly middle class, there were working class people around and poverty still existed. Similarly, many of the same issues that attend deprivation exist too. As an example, this is a newspaper report of a significant drug dealer in the village I grew up in. His road was three streets up from mine growing up. I used to play in that area and was friends with people who lived in those houses.

By the time I got to secondary school, the catchment area for it was massive. I went to school in a West Berkshire village that pulled people in from Oxfordshire to the north, West Berkshire and bits of Hampshire to the South. Unsurprisingly, with such a big catchment, there was a broad spectrum of people. The very poshest went to the plethora of public schools, many of my mates lived in council houses. We were one of the only families I knew constantly shipping between private rentals at a time when almost nobody did so. But then, there were people whose parents had swimming pools in their gardens too and who came from (what I considered) posh stock. Whilst the majority of the area was middle class and that was largely reflected, there were far more working class and poor people than many would ever realise.

The point of me saying this is twofold. Firstly, it is a plea not to forget the working class and poor in otherwise affluent communities. It is very easy to forget them. When you mention my home town of Wantage, deprivation is the furthest thing from most people’s minds. But there is some and we can be quick to overlook it. We really shouldn’t.

But second, it is to encourage us to look at the poverty on our door step. I think many churches in affluent communities feel they can do very little about the lack of working class people in the wider Evangelical church because of the make up of their areas. And, of course, it is true that they will probably have fewer working class people about. But there will almost certainly be some. I would encourage you to think again about how you will reach them. You may live in an ostensibly posh, middle class affluent town or village, but I am willing to bet there is a council house area nearby. There are probably set of streets that are known locally (and, often, pejoratively). Ask yourself, could we go and reach those people? Could we maybe try and move into that part of our community and befriend those who live there? Are there things we can do as a church that specifically meets the needs they are facing and opens up doors for the gospel?

I am passionate about wanting to see the working class and deprived reached with the gospel. That task does require people to come to places like Oldham and Rochdale to reach the areas where there are currently few churches and many such people. But there are plenty of affluent, middle class churches in well-heeled areas that have some poverty and some working class people on their doorstep. We shouldn’t forget about such people. If none of them are in your church, ask yourself why not? Then ask yourself, what can we do about it?