Let’s Talk About Poverty

Poverty meme from PictureQuotes.com

By: Hannah Absalom, @HousingHannah

On Tuesday 16th March, a national conference was hosted by HQN and Hough Bellis called ‘Hard Times – the HQN Poverty Conference’. It was particularly significant in clearly focussing on poverty and connecting research with practice. I was asked to Chair the event which I was happy to do, as I believe we need to talk about a lot more about poverty in social housing work. I’m also of the view that we need closer ties with tenants, applicants, researchers and practitioners to find what is in our gift right now to do better and where we need to focus our efforts to advocate for wider social change.

I’m sharing in this article some of the points made in my reflections as Chair. You can access for free a recording of the conference here . On SHM we are publishing blogs and reflections from the day and we encourage you to submit your thoughts on how social housing can do better on poverty, whether you attended the conference, watched the recording, or not.

The influence of covid

I felt it was important to begin with the obvious, which is how covid has centered housing and our relationship with our homes at a policy level. At a national policy level, we have seen attempts to house, or hide, the homeless. We have seen a restriction on evictions that has encouraged more innovative organisations to explore ‘zero evictions’ as a real policy aim. This suggests that things we thought were impossible before covid are not the case. We can change policy if the will is there and covid has proved this to be so.

Covid at a personal level

My research into the ‘psychology of poverty’ has highlighted the power that an intimate understanding of the effects of poverty on our minds can have. It’s a powerful set of insights that enable us to empathise with, rather than dismiss the real harms caused by poverty. Our shared experiences of covid have changed our relationship with our homes. This change has starkly emphasised the line seperating the haves and the have nots.

This is seen in practical ways, the hidden struggle of overcrowded families or those in temporary or unfit accomodation in homeschooling, or not, their children.

It is seen in our emotional relationships with the ‘place’ of home. How a location of respite has shifted into a place of confinement and in the case of multi occs in particular, a site of illness and contagion.

There are 100s of ways covid has changed all of our relationships with our homes with a key theme being scarcity. Scarcity of space indoors and outdoors, of resources, of seeing friends, and of travel. Covid has shrunk our worlds to our homes and in doing so has magnified the role of poverty and affluence in our experience of the home.

So what about poverty?

After setting the context created by covid, my focused turned to what is it that we are talking about when we discuss ‘poverty’? And how this is a frequent question on my training, where I am often asked to define ‘poverty’. What measures do I use to grasp hold of it? To name it? To make it knowable? I tend to resist this initial urge to get a rational grip on poverty by naming and measuring it, as to do this is to diminish the complex and wicked nature of the problem.

The shape of poverty can be mapped with numbers, but that won’t tell you the experience of it. Seeking to understand the experience of poverty will tell you something of its day-to-day for some, but distracts from its historical causes. Examining the history of poverty distracts from a focus on its contextually bound nature… you get the gyst.

Poverty is complex. Emotionally we know what poverty is. We know that at this level ‘there is no debate’ that poverty is a social evil. What does need discussion and thinking is where to start if we want to make a difference that is about alleviating poverty’s effects on those it harms, not performing an engagement with poverty. A performance that at best, looks good in a board report, at worst unintentionally normalises poverty and compounds its grip on those we say we are helping.

A discomforting truth for many in housing is we know, deep down, we have drifted from our social purpose. We are avoiding staring into the abyss of a gradual drift away from what the ‘social’ means in ‘social’ housing. I hope today we do more than just look at the problem of poverty, I hope poverty looks back at us. I hope this looking back induces a sense of discomfort and unease so we change our starting point on how we can engage with the complexity of poverty.

The importance of questions

I wanted to emphasise the essential role of questions when trying to examine a topic with fresh eyes. This is partly due to a strong research influence, but also a subtle attempt to remedy what I see as a problem in social housing practice. A tendency to skip ahead to solutions without getting a proper sense of the complexity of the problems we are dealing with. There are few problems more complex than poverty – so it is essential to ask new and different questions before acting:

  • How can we emotionally and rationally connect with poverty?
  • How do we intentionally and unintentionally avoid looking at our role in perpetuating poverty?
  • What is housing’s role in alleviating poverty as opposed to changing the behaviours of those in it?
  • What can and should the sector do to push for change outside of our sphere of control?

There are many more questions that need asking before action. I hope you can see the power of questions as a starting point for thinking differently

Post conference reflections

A key aim in my role of Chair was to navigate attendees to a place where they were left with more questions than answers. To purposefully induce a subtle sense of unease. This is because if as a sector we are to connect meaningfully with alleviating poverty and pushing for changes inside and outside of our sector; we need to get comfortable with our discomfort with poverty. So we can see its cruelty and our role in perpetuating it with fresh eyes.

We need to engage with the complexity of poverty not shy away from the hard decisions that exist within this problem space. We need to resist the urge to try to simplify it and turn it into a problem of management, as it is so much more than a set of metrics on a dashboard or a board paper.

We need to create space to emotionally and rationally connect with what it is like for our tenants who live with this unacceptable situation every day and to challenge the narratives that blame them for finding themselves in circumstances that no-one choses to be in.

We need to start with the hard questions that need to be asked that can connect our work in both a think sense and a feel sense with poverty; tenants and the wider communities we serve need to be partners in this process.

Emerging agendas

We’ve not covered emerging agendas that can influence this work; the ESG framework that may see banks and insurance companies setting our agendas from afar; the relentless march of a Silicon Valley driven notion of progress and innovation; the happiness and wellbeing agendas that can have strange effects. These agendas make it more important than ever to clarify what our social purpose is on poverty, and what our identities are as individual organisations and as a sector when it comes to this topic, otherwise we will continue to perform interventions rather than meaningfully engage in poverty in ways that work for our tenants and our communities.

I encourage those who want to make a meaningful difference in poverty to pick up on the invite to develop this discussion and turn it into action. I’m working with the Centre for Urban Wellbeing to source funding to develop this line of work, taking it from theory to practice, so the enthusiasm is there from the research side, and my question is, can landlords and tenants step up too?

If you are interested in training on the ‘Psychology of Poverty’ get in touch via Hannah@TrainandConsult.co.uk or via Twitter @HousingHannah

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