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Listening Up to Poverty

Author: Simon Duffy

Listening to people's stories about poverty and social justice reminds us that ordinary people are very resourceful and will usually try to make the best of even the most unjust situation. The fact that people face these problems in the seventh wealthiest country in the world should shame us into some deeper thinking about our society.

I was invited to speak to the Hallam Justice and Peace Commission in Sheffield on 1st March 2014. After my talk there was a report from the Listen Up Project which has been exploring people’s experiences of poverty and welfare reform.

After my talk residents of Longley and the Manor Estate’s spoke movingly about some of the changes in their community - both positive and negative.

In Longley the biggest problem has been the Right to Buy, combined with Buy to Let. People buy their own house, then sell it to those who will rent it out privately. So long-term residents move out and new people come in - but just for short periods and so the community is fragmented.

A long-term resident of the Manor Estate talked about how the community itself had led the transformation of their own community, challenging criminal activity and encouraging more local investment.

The project then shared real stories of people’s lives - although with names changed.

Eric and Eleanor are a couple living on the Longley estate, with three teenage children. Eric has bipolar disorder and some physical disabilities. Their oldest daughter is pregnant with a boy who will have physical disabilities. The younger son also has a degenerative illness. They all live together, piled up on each other, but they are frightened that if the older daughter moves out they will be hit by the bedroom tax.

Eric used to get social care - but he was not happy with the day centre he was offered - so he has developed a local peer support group for people with mental health problems. As he say, “Somebody’s got to do it - why not me?”

Sue is a single mum of 39 with two children, her marriage had broken up and she was living in social housing. She has a very low income. Christmas and birthday presents are a luxury she cannot afford. She talked her children through their financial problems and they understood. But throughout the year Sue will spend any small amount of money she has left at the end of the week on low cost presents - a packet of sweets, a new toothbrush - she then wraps them up in big boxes so the kids can have something fun.

Sue also helped at the voluntary lunch club, not only did she help others, this meant she could also get two hot meals a week. Her children helped too - and this also helped keep the bills down. For her birthday she couldn’t afford presents and a party - but the lunch club put on a party for her. Recently Sue got a job, although she now earns less than she did when she was on benefits - and she is now in debt. But she won’t give up the job - she hopes it will eventually lead to a better job.

Francine married late in life and she became pregnant in her early 40s. Then she was made redundant and left without any maternity allowance. Her husband also became disabled and couldn’t work. There were complications at the birth which have left her with long-term health problems.

Although Francine is too proud to ask for charity or use the Foodbank she does go and stay with her mum, taking her son with her, for several weeks at a time - to keep the bills down. She is incredibly well organised and manages her money very carefully. But she is not used to the benefit system. She had become used to a good income - it was a complete shock to her. When she claimed maternity benefit and her husband claimed JSA they discovered that this was impossible. Both benefits were stopped and the different parts of the benefit system didn’t know how to talk to each other.

Dave has mental health problems, OCD, and an alcohol problem. He lives close to Manor Park Centre. He was a good budgeter, and although he couldn’t afford a television he had a laptop to stay in touch with the world (and he used catch-up TV on the laptop). He couldn’t afford to keep his flat warm - but he would go to the pub to stay warm. Last summer he was walking with a friend in the Peak District and he slipped and fell - he became house bound. The church, family and friends rallied round - but this crisis led to big benefit problems. He couldn’t afford to get to the physiotherapist, his loss of benefits, debt and other problems piled up. In the end he got an admission into the mental health system. David is out at last but he is now frightened about his future - he feels he is just surviving.

John can’t afford to make pancakes with eggs, so he makes them without.

Bill used to disappear around December, and came back in March. When asked he explained “I get myself locked up” Prison gave him the support he needed to cope with the winter. “It’s warm, free meals and plenty of company.”

A member of the audience described how young people are now sent on a 6 week course to make them ‘employable’. In reality they get no benefit from this, they just feel very humiliated by a pointless waste of their time that leads nowhere.

The Listen Up Project is based on a model of good practice from the developing world - gathering and sharing stories - but including stories of good practice, coping and resourcefulness.

What stood out for the project leaders was:

  1. The amazing resourcefulness of people
  2. The many strategies that people used to cope
  3. Families really make a difference
  4. People are not told what they are entitled to and the system is crazily complex
  5. People are proud and desperate to maintain self-respect

Afterwards two speakers from the Labour Party explored two different initiatives:

  1. The attempt to put in place legislation to control pay day lending which leads to the regressive abuse of the poor - excessive debt drawing people deeper into poverty.
  2. The creation of a low cost finance company for Sheffield to out compete Wonga etc

These seem like really worthwhile projects; but it was fascinating to note, given that we have a financial crisis from over-borrowing, that we now seem to be addressing the problems of the poor by trying to reduce the cost of their borrowing. 

The possibility that people should avoid debt altogether, should be encouraged to save and that we could reform the crazy benefit system so as to give people higher and more secure incomes, is not yet on the horizon.

To read more about the Listen Up Project please visit this blog.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Listening Up to Poverty © Simon Duffy 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.