Want to Understand Poverty? Ask the real experts!
Poverty is one of the most mythicised and misunderstood subjects in modern Scotland says Allan Young of The Poverty Truth Commission
Sentiments from many established figures in the media and political classes would have you believe poverty is either the result of individual moral failing or a personal life style choice by those seeking an easy life on benefits. Either outcome is created to elicit a denial of compassion from others.
These opinions, however, are often articulated by individuals disconnected from poverty. They do not live in deprived areas nor engage in regular discussion and debate with those who experience the hardships of poverty on a daily basis. If they had a meaningful conversation, many would change their views.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) publication, entitled Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Scotland 2013, helps to shine a spotlight on this issue by highlighting the complex dynamics which lie behind the different experiences of poverty in 21st century Scotland. It shows that many are struggling to work themselves out of poverty, and thus are not shirking work, and that they face acute health deprivations, a situation no one would opt for.
The findings showed the number of Scots working part-time, who want a full-time job, has risen from 70,000 in 2008 to 120,000 in 2012. In the last five years the number of under-25s out of work has almost doubled to 90,000. These figures are matched with stark and disturbing health inequalities.
A girl born in one of the most deprived areas has a life expectancy 4 years below the national average, for a boy it is 8. This is paired with massive disparities in cancer rates between the least and the most deprived parts of our towns and cities.
Statistics, of course, whilst providing a useful backdrop from which to frame a debate, do not tell us the whole story. Their undermining of assumptions held by detached political and media figures thus poses the deeper conundrum of who are we missing out to inform and advance the discussion.
It is time to send in the real experts. The people who are best placed to articulate the routine struggles and hardships of those experiencing poverty are, of course, those in poverty. The Poverty Truth Commission (PTC) believes that only through meaningful engagement and conversation between these experts and key decision makers will long term strategic reduction and eradication of poverty be attainable in Scotland.
The Commission was set up in 2009 seeking to bring together some of Scotland’s senior civic leaders with people living at the sharp end of poverty believing that just as women’s rights would never have been won without women at the helm, poverty will never be truly addressed until those who experience it first-hand are at the heart of the process. Over that period the Commission focused its attention on: the unjust plight facing children in Kinship Care; the development of positive alternatives to violence; and challenging the stereotypes of people living in poverty often portrayed in the media. The Commission also developed a unique and valuable participatory model for decision making and organising on issues of poverty.
In April 2011 the Poverty Truth Commission presented its Findings to a packed audience of 400 people in Glasgow City Chambers. As a result of the work of the Commission 15 different organisations, including the Scottish Government, the UK Government, Glasgow City Council, the Violence Reduction Unit and Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector, agreed to take forward the specific elements of the Commission’s work in their own spheres of responsibility.
The Commission adopts the motto of ‘Nothing about us without us is for us” and currently focuses on three main areas:
1) Supporting more people living in poverty to have the confidence to speak and others in positions of power to have the confidence to listen.
2) Supporting organisations who would like to work in similar ways to the Poverty Truth Commission.
3) Using Social Media to get people’s stories and voices to a wider audience.
Very recent activity of the Commission has seen the piloting of a mentoring scheme involving those from the most deprived communities educating senior civil servants in Scotland on life in poverty.
This has coincided with the beginning of a series of poverty truth conversations where members of the most marginalised communities have met with key decision makers for an open and informal discussion. Both projects are designed to overcome the barriers to communication between the marginalised and the powerful. They have brought positive and tangible results such as mutual enlightenment and the establishment of friendships.
At the launch of the JRF report on poverty and social exclusion in Scotland, the Commission was asked to send a member of its organisation to voice its reaction to the report. Rather than send a paid member of staff, the Commission chose Darren McGarvey, a commissioner with the PTC and lifelong community activist. Darren co-founded Volition Scotland (www.volition-scotland.org) which tackles the alienation felt by many youngsters in deprived areas and seeks to steer them away from violence and find expression through music and other art forms.
Darren, as always, spoke his mind and made several third sector representatives feel uncomfortable as he drew parallels between them and the establishment they claimed to challenge. They had become lost in their own language, he argued, and this had unwittingly detached them from those they sought to represent and advance.
Darren struck a deeper message than the statistics managed. The report identified correctly that we are failing as a community to help and support one another. Darren, however, showed this was because we had stopped listening to one another.
Allan Young is a researcher for the Poverty Youth Commission. He has a Masters in Human Rights from the University of Glasgow and spent three months in Peru as a community development worker. He has worked as a volunteer researcher for both the Glasgow Human Rights Network and the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Since October, Allan has been with the Poverty Truth Commission working on a range of policy and research issues such as kinship care and challenging negative media stereotypes of people in poverty.
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