Thursday, 30 January 2014

Poverty and social networks...what works?

I’m now beginning to get to the stage the JRF want me to be at for my evidence review – thinking about what works; or what policy interventions might you used to develop social networks and social capital to help tackle poverty. In my previous post I used the mixed evidence around neighbourhood effects to question whether mixed communities policies might mean people in poverty might gain more links to more affluent people. Since then I’ve not read any evidence that counters that. In fact, evidence from the US Moving to Opportunity programme suggests that people who were given vouchers to move from deprived to more mixed neighbourhoods often then felt lonely and isolated from previous social networks. There was also depressing evidence from Dutch studies that although less affluent people wanted to mix with their more affluent neighbours, the latter did not reciprocate, or were not there to reciprocate.

So, the picture is much more complex than the idealistic concept of a less affluent person befriending an affluent person and suddenly being inspired to be less poor. What there does seem to be consistent evidence on though is the role of informal, unstructured meeting places in neighbourhoods which allow people to mix and build up trust. In particular the role of primary schools and parents bumping into one another when they drop their children off seem to be key in a lot of the studies of mixed communities for the development of social networks between affluent and less-affluent people. Similarly, good quality community centres and parks offer a similar, if more limited role.

Trust building is important. The US work on social capital, led by Putnam, puts a lot of emphasis on the development of trust in developing networks that help a society get on. I’ve not seen any convincing evidence of this in my review, but what does seem to be the case is that trust helps reduce stigma and prejudice against marginalised groups.

One of the markers for trust within groups is a high-level of generalised reciprocity – in a twitter discussion I referred to this as the sociology of buying rounds in a pub. Basically, if a group has very little trust and there are lots of you, people won’t buy rounds for the fear that they won’t have a drink bought for them the same drinking session. If you have trust and generalised reciprocity then rounds will be bought knowing that you will have a drink bought for you sometime in future. It would be really nice if the sort of trust developed by passive acquaintance in public spaces could lead to generalised reciprocity.

However, I doubt this would happen in a society as socio-economically unequal as the UK because poverty and low income reduce generalised reciprocity as people withdraw from reciprocal networks or are excluded because they cannot offer anything back.

Which doesn’t neatly bring me on the internet and libraries. Hey-ho. Anyway, let’s see if I can shoe-horn a connection back in. So, the JRF also want us to look into the “digital divide” and whether the affordances of new information communication technologies could help develop social networks, and social networks which can make a difference. So far in the evidence: use of email helps develop loose ties that help you get on; social media tends to help build strong ties that help you get by. Also, interestingly, people in poorer neighbourhoods who have less access to the internet at home, are not affected by distance to their local library in their internet use – they will overcome geographicalbarriers to use the internet.

Which got me thinking about the role of libraries in developing social networks within communities, and I found this rather nice evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund Community Libraries Programme. Reading through it I was immediately reminded of a quote from a former community worker I spoke to during my PhD who described the Ferguslie Park Community Library in the 1980s thus:

“I say the local community library who were…I’ve I mean the first time I’d ever been in a library in my life where they played really loud music during the day but it was great because it meant there wasnae this kind of, wasn’t seen as an educational establishment it was seen as a community establishment and that was a really important factor”

And I think this sort of library could be a really important resource for alleviating and tackling poverty through developing social networks: providing space for learning activities; provided cheap rooms for groups to meet; providing an access point onto services or the “bridging” capital (people that matter like Councillors or MSPs/AM/MLAS/MPs) to make changes in their life.

However, this is a big change is the nature of what a library is – moving a big way from the Victorian philanthropic ideal of the library as a space for self-improvement by immersing oneself individually in good reading matter. This is thinking about the library as a community space, seeking to foster community, and lend out books. The evaluation of the Community Libraries Programme highlighted how this change of use for libraries had a big impact on staff – some felt energised and developed a great deal, others thought something had been lost in their role as librarians.

This got me thinking about a good response I had to my first encounters with community policing in Scotland. The police in Scotland, and particularly the bits of Lothian Borders Police I saw in my PhD, did community policing really well – working closely in partnership to deliver preventative action against low level criminality. When describing this to someone, they agreed, but countered that there was a danger police officers would become social workers, which they definitely should not be. And is the danger that librarians become community development workers or social workers and libraries are just community centres with books, left after all the community centres are closed? Or, if we are going to radically reshape services to coproduce them, should every public sector worker be a community development worker with the requisite training and supervision support?

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