Families experiencing poverty are often in the spotlight – politicians plan to ‘turn their lives around’; some newspapers raise concerns about rising poverty rates while others draw our attention to cases of perceived benefit fraud; celebrities promote their views on the ways that people in poverty should be behaving differently and even on whether poverty exists at all; and TV programmes show highly sensationalised representations of how people and families in poverty spend their time. Most of the messages we hear suggest that families in poverty are different from better-off families – in terms of their motivations, skills and attitudes.
What we hear much less are the voices of children and families themselves who are struggling to manage on low incomes. Poor families are a prominent presence in the public realm, but rarely have a voice, and even more rarely have the opportunity to influence how they are portrayed and to shape interventions purportedly designed to help them. There is some excellent work emerging in this area – for example the work of ATD Fourth World and Poverty Truth Commissions; and groups like The Dole Animators who promote solutions to poverty based on the perspectives of people with experience of poverty. But these voices remain the minority and are often overlooked entirely in mass media coverage of poverty and in anti-poverty policy.
The Fair Shares and Families research project, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and run by the University of Leeds in partnership with The Children’s Society, was designed to help us understand more about the reality of life in poverty, based on the experiences of poor children and families themselves. We did not want to assume that poor families were different – and so we interviewed and surveyed families from across the socio-economic spectrum about the ways they went about acquiring and sharing resources. We found that children and parents have many and varied approaches to this – but that socio-economic status was not strongly related to their motivations, interests, aspirations, or approaches to sharing their resources. We did find, though, that parents and children in poverty went without important material resources and social experiences, and adopted a range of strategies to survive on low incomes. They were also often impacted doubly by not only deprivation of material and social necessities, but also exposure to stigmatising societal attitudes which positioned them as responsible for their deprivation, and the feelings of shame and exclusion which resulted from this.
These findings stand in stark contrast to the ways that people in poverty are generally represented. Policy and media coverage of poverty in the UK overwhelmingly draws on an individualised explanation of poverty – that is one which positions the person in poverty as the cause of that poverty, and seeks to remedy poverty by changing the person. In contrast, our research indicates that a structural explanation of poverty is more accurate – that is one which positions the cause of poverty as inequitable societal structures and organisation, and seeks to change these structures so that everyone gets a fair share of resources.
Part of working towards changing these structures is to shift our focus from what poor people are doing and how they should change, towards listening to their perspectives on what they need and how society could be more fairly organised. This informed our decision to set up a new project – A Different Take – which will generate research findings and policy recommendations which are co-produced by children, young people, and families with experience of child poverty, and researchers from the Child Poverty Action Group and the University of Leeds. This year we will be establishing panels in London (1-2 boroughs) and Leeds, who we will work closely with and train in peer research and media skills, so that their voices and the perspectives of people in their communities can be at the forefront of our research.
We look forward to providing updates on our project, and on what kinds of intervention and societal changes our panels identify as the most useful to making a genuine difference to the lives of people in poverty, and ultimately to preventing and eradicating poverty altogether. If you would like to stay in touch about our project, or to find out more, you can contact Gill Main at the University of Leeds (email@example.com) or Josephine Tucker at the Child Poverty Action Group (firstname.lastname@example.org).