Understand poverty by talking to all of the experts

Published on: 
10 October 2019
Written by: 

Paul Dornan
ATD Fourth World

This week sees the UN day for the Eradication of Poverty and London Challenge Poverty Week. One of the events to mark this is the launch of a new study to understand poverty in all its forms in the UK. This blog sets out the key findings only – please check out the full report. The phrase ending poverty in all its forms comes from the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are commitments to which the UK is obligated (discussed by Fran Bennett in a recent edition of Poverty).

The research study, part of a global collaboration between ATD Fourth World International and the University of Oxford, questions both what poverty in all its forms means in the UK and who gets to decide. Those dominating research about what poverty is are often academics, policy makers, politicians and those who work in charities. This is critical knowledge, but those with lived experience of poverty are often sidelined as the objects of research, not its producers. At the heart of the study, therefore, is the imperative to use all of the expertise which exists to understand the problem.

Consequently this study was led by a group of co-researchers, a group who combine experience of poverty through lived experience and also through work. The group oversaw 13 focus groups involving people from very different backgrounds across the UK. The focus groups gave much time, often meeting several times, to discuss what poverty looked and felt like to them. The spotlight was on poverty experienced by working age adults but our findings have relevance for other groups also. Through a series of steps the co-researcher group brought these discussions together, identifying and describing six dimensions:

First, Disempowering systems, structures and policies. Economic, political and social structures can cause poverty. Policy is operated in a way that disempowers. Systems designed to support people are not working in ways that people want. Systemic cuts in funds for needed services have exacerbated inequality.

Second, Financial insecurity, financial exclusion and debt. Financial insecurity means not being able to satisfy your basic needs. Worrying about money every day causes huge stress and misery.

Third, Damaged health and well-being. Poverty is bad for health and can shorten life. It has a negative impact on physical, emotional, mental and social well-being.

Forth, Stigma, blame and judgement. Misrepresentation about poverty in the UK and a lack of understanding lead to negative judgement, stigma and blame, which are deeply destructive to individuals and families. Prejudice and discrimination result in people in poverty feeling they are treated like lesser human beings.

Fifth, Lack of control over choices. Poverty means a lack of control over choices and opportunities. Over time this can lead to increased social isolation and risk, as well as restricting people’s social, educational and cultural potential. The lack of good options reduces people’s control over their lives and traps people in repetitive cycles of hardship, disappointment and powerlessness. Lack of opportunity and choice increases risk and restricts options. Poverty is dehumanising.

And sixth, Unrecognised struggles, skills and contributions. The wealth of experience and life skills people in poverty possess is not recognised enough. Too often, public discourse undervalues the contribution that people in poverty make to society and to their communities while facing the daily impact of poverty.

The findings provide a powerful list, but the co-researchers were also keen to identify what messages should be taken away from the research, identifying that:

  1. It is essential that people with lived experience participate in tackling poverty. This requires time, careful planning and commitment.
  2. There is a need for better indicators of poverty that emphasise and capture the human experience of poverty.
  3. Inadequate financial resources are a cause of poverty that take away control and shorten lives.
  4. The impact of stigma and negative judgement is a particularly painful part of poverty.
  5. Participants agreed services should be enabling and supportive; but some services are experienced as controlling and oppressive.
  6. The skills and contributions made to society by people in poverty often go unrecognised.
  7. Individual resilience is no substitute for better systems, structures and policies.

These findings and messages matter in large part because of the process through which they were identified. We hope this approach will be a model for the future.