VONNE’s annual conference ‘Tackling Poverty Together’ last Thursday 1st December highlighted the increasing levels of poverty and child poverty both regionally and nationally. It also explored the public perceptions of poverty in the UK and a dominant pattern of thinking in public understanding that new research refers to as the ‘Culture of Poverty’ giving rise to the stereotype of the ‘benefit scrounger’.
Abigail Scott Paul of Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) presented to delegates findings from the FrameWorks Institute ‘Talking about Poverty: How experts and the public understand UK Poverty’ which highlighted that these public perceptions are at odds with expert and evidence based perspectives on the causes and consequences of UK poverty.
We heard that there are 500,000 in the North East, more than half live in working households and 150,000 North East children live in poverty. Nationally child poverty is predicted to reach 1 in 4 (26%) by 2020 and costs £29 billion per year in public spending .
Poverty in the UK is about lack of resources to meet basic needs and participate in society and as the JRF recently launched report 'We can solve poverty in the UK 'highlights. Poverty is everybody’s business. In the words of Julia Unwin Chief Executive of JRF ‘Poverty harms us all and we all have a role to support addressing it.’
We also heard from Dr. Deborah Harrison from the North East Child Poverty Commission and the Right Reverend Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham highlighting the policy and legislative changes that are reinforcing the ‘Culture of poverty’. The Welfare Reform and Work Act which received royal assent in March 2016 refers to the need to have an ‘all out assault on the root causes of poverty: family breakdown, worklessness, addiction and debt’ begging the question are these causes or consequences?
The Act uses the language of 'life chances' rather than child poverty, defining life chances as ‘the opportunities each individual has to improve his or her quality of life’. Our speakers raised the question that in rebranding child poverty as life chances do we individualise the problem and ignore structural and system causes?
The Act also brings with it significant negative financial impact for those in receipt of benefits for both those in and out of work and on social housing rents. It will also have a disproportionate negative impact on de-industrialised areas, on children and on vulnerable groups. Many charities and voluntary organisations have the relief of poverty as a key charitable aim and are at the sharp end of the impact of the impact of welfare reform and the increasing poverty in our communities and as our latest Surviving or Thriving report shows is trying to cope with the increased demand for services and support alongside massive funding challenges.
Julia Unwin refers to 3 areas of influence on poverty: prospects, pockets and place. The VCS has a key role to play in all 3 areas often supporting people to improve their prospects and achieve their potential, providing access to affordable finance, housing, food, financial and welfare advice and support. The sector also has a huge role to play in terms of place, often operating a neighbourhood level building social capital, connecting communities and providing social networks and grass roots support. If we are to meet the increased demand that reducing support via the public purse brings we must support our voluntary and community sector to survive and thrive.
However, the sector also needs to respond to the challenge presented by JRF in looking at the way we communicate and talk about poverty. The research highlights that we need to avoid talking about ‘needs’ as the public equates this with very basic subsistence needs and not wider resources, opportunities and living standards and we need to move away from the assumption that any resources beyond basic subsistence needs are luxuries. We need to draw on case studies that explain poverty as a systematic and structural issue and not a ‘troubled families’ or individual issue.
We need to emphasise the impact of poverty on opportunities and share positive examples of how reducing poverty has improved opportunities and prospects.
In addition, Newcastle CVS have produced a poverty proofing tool for the voluntary sector to enable VCS grousp and organisations to reflect on and critically assess their relationship with the people who are using their services and experiencing material poverty and assess if the organisation is fully supporting people in poverty or instead stigmatising them.
The conference has highlighted the challenge for the sector of taking a look at ourselves and asking are we doing all we can to tackle the direct impact poverty has on individuals, families and communities and the attitudes that impede action to address it?