Are We Missing the Point? Poverty and Social Purpose. New Perspectives from Psychology.

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It seems today that poverty is a dirty word. We tend to use technical sounding terms like SES (Social Economic Status) and talk about the symptoms of poverty. We seldom, if at all, talk about the nature of poverty, its causes and effects. A situation I certainly find strange for a sector who allocate their ‘product’ based on need, a need which often emerges from a context of poverty.

Thinking about poverty in housing.

There are the obvious external drivers, Covid, Brexit; all of which mean there will be more people living in poverty. Some for the first time, others for the first time in a long time. For those who already live in poverty, or the fringes of it, things will not be getting easier any time soon. This emerging situation puts pressure on our businesses and our tenants. If we fail to understand poverty, we put both the bottom line and our social purpose at risk.

In social housing, we may think we work towards alleviating poverty, yet we seem uncomfortable talking about it. We talk a lot about stigma, financial inclusion, community investment, but rarely about what it feels like to live in poverty. We don’t talk about contributing factors outside of behaviours that we think contribute to poverty. We don’t engage with our own perceptions of poverty and how we view the people experiencing it. How our perceptions may lead to actions that do little to alleviate poverty’s affects and may actually compound them.

Why is social housing not engaging with poverty?

Many in social housing would argue that they are engaging with the topic of poverty, via Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and wellbeing initiatives. I suggest that these approaches reflect more a culture of corporatisation. Such programmes may be distancing landlords from understanding what poverty is, as the focus is on creating interventions to tick a box and that can be completed in a financial quarter, or year. This may result in programmes that perform an intervention into poverty, rather than effectively engaging with the factors that generate poverty and seem to make it stick to some people more than others.

We seem to have a mindset that what is good for the business bottom line is also good for the tenant. As efficient services are seen as ultimately benefiting the customer. A stark example of this is the approach to direct debits. These certainly are efficient for the business, and certainly for most people, they are a preferred way to pay. We fail to understand that for some people living in poverty, it is a rational decision not to pay by direct debit. This is because they lose control of when money leaves the account. They may have had negative experiences of companies clearing their account of essential funds, leaving them with no money and little time to navigate the effects. Timing is of high importance, being able to send the payment at a time that they know won’t create more problems can make a huge difference. Failure to understand and empathise with legitimate reasons for not doing what we think is efficient and best damages our relationship with our tenants. It compounds a drift further away from social purpose, towards thinking only of the bottom line.

Okay… Now what?

 My point is that we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to reconnect with what poverty is and what its affects are before we even think about interventions and measurements. I’m asking you to come with me to collaborate on developing a different understanding of poverty through the perspective of psychology.

Thanks to support from the CIH, I am hosting a webinar that explores the Psychology of Poverty perspective and what it may mean for social housing. The webinar examines the effects of poverty on the individual, the environment and also perceptions of poverty.

It encourages different thinking about poverty’s effects and causes. It challenges us to reflect on how we think and act. On how our thoughts, actions and services may compound the damaging effects of poverty, especially when we assume, we act in the best interests of others.

If you are a tenant or landlord with questions about the social purpose of social housing, if you are open to new perspectives and approaches, you are invited to PoP The Psychology of Poverty webinar on 3 November 10am-11.30am. Please follow the link to find out more and register.

Please note I will be using the webinar discussions in my research. All contributions will be anonymised and confidential. If you want to find out more, message me at HXB808@student.bham.ac.uk Contributions will be recorded for my research and if you don’t want to be included in the research you are welcome to attend the webinar with your microphone turned off.

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