Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Poverty and social networks

I don't usually put images on this blog (I know I should) but for once I have one to hand that is very appropriate:

Regularly readers of this blog might recall back earlier this year I was writing about doing my review on the evidence around social networks and poverty for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (including this handy guide to key concepts). Well, it’s finally had the sign-off, so as requested by the JRF I’ve published it myself here, with all the “findings” of the reviews collated into one document here (big PDF).

I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do the review. It really expanded my knowledge and understanding of what poverty is, particularly the difficult dividing line between economic inequality and poverty. The position I now find myself in intellectually is understanding that economic inequality drives poverty, but the two are distinct concepts.

As I was applying for the review I had a few discussions about doing research for the JRF with other researchers. One thing that was emphasised was that the JRF want two things that scholars often find very difficult to deliver – unequivocal findings and practical recommendations on what could be done now to make things better. And this is very much the case, I found out, particularly with these reviews that were designed to feed into a strategy to tackle poverty in the UK.

One aspect of this was an invite down to the JRF office in London earlier this year to present my headline findings I five minutes. To brag about myself shamelessly, I think I did rather well here, managing to get through them in three minutes. I presented them in “slide-pack” format: a slide packed with information that you can use as a sort of precis, available here. I managed to summarise my findings so briefly because there was so little to talk about, essentially the main finding was, in the short term, if you want to tackle poverty don’t bother focusing on social networks.

What was extremely reassuring at the JRF event was one of the panel members wholeheartedly agreed with me and summarised the point better than I could. Intrinsically you want to think social networks must matter for tackling poverty – it’s not what you know, but who you know, right? If you know richer people, they’ll give you money at the most basic, right?

Not really; or there’s no evidence to show that’s the case. Poverty is most likely to exclude you from social networks due to shame and financial exclusion. The idea of strong working class communities of poorer people rallying around to support one-another just doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence.

However, one frustration with our review was because it was one of the smaller reviews and was very tightly circumscribed we had to miss out lots of evidence we could see was there. For example, the evidence around social networks, health and wellbeing, and poverty are extremely strong indeed, but these could not be included within the scope of the review.

It wasn‘t all negative though – one thing that did come through clear from the evidence was the importance of passive interaction. This article in Discover Society about my favourite public space in the world, City Park in my home city of Bradford, exemplifies this excellently. Freely provided, open and accessible spaces such as schools, parks and libraries provide areas for us to rub-up against difference, including poverty. This is more likely to make us understand poverty a lot more and be more sympathetic to policies to tackle poverty and integrate people into society. So, alas my main finding was actually the usual one provided by lefty academics – don’t cut expenditure on public services.

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