This research is part of JRF’s focus on the links between poverty and ethnicity, and examines how social networks help or hinder people in moving out of poverty.
It looks at whether this varies within and between different ethnic groups living in urban and rural England.
This research found that:
This research examined how social networks help or hinder people in moving out of poverty and whether this varies within and between different ethnic groups living in urban and rural England.
The research examined how social networks help or hinder people in moving out of poverty; and whether this varies within and between different ethnic groups living in England. Social networks are defined as the links and relationships connecting people with one another and with organisations. They are used for communication, co-operation and co-ordination and may involve face-to-face interaction or social technologies. The study sought to identify how networks affected trajectories into, through, and out of poverty. It examined people’s awareness of social networks, how they accessed them, and how they are used in mitigating or moving on from poverty.
The research considered diversity within populations, rather than seeing ethnicity as about differences between migrant communities and the majority population. A layered approach moved out from the individual through family relationships, friendship circles, informal community networks, links generated by voluntary organisations and agencies, and the use of digital technologies to establish and maintain local or global connections.
The majority of interviewees did not analyse their networks intuitively, or their strategies for networking. The family provided the core relationships from which people built their wider social networks, but family expectations could also limit opportunities for networking. Some younger respondents were constrained by pressures to contribute to the family business or to stay close to home. Network awareness, self-confidence and a belief in having something to offer were fundamental to people’s capacity to network.
Those who had reflected on their social networks saw the importance of broad, particularly cross-cultural, connections. However, trying to develop untested contacts in order to ‘move on’ beyond immediate family or community-based networks was seen as risky. Family and friends constituted a safety net of trusted financial and practical support. For many, this provided a springboard to develop ‘weak ties’ that could help them move on, but for some close relationships placed restrictions on their ability to develop useful links. Trust and reciprocity were recognised as fundamental and the conscious manipulation of social networks for personal or family advantage could jeopardise these very characteristics and increase the ‘cost’ of using networks.
The networks of all participants in poverty were shaped by social class, ethnicity, age and gender role expectations. Level of education and the nature of employment were seen as key in determining the characteristics, and use, of networks. Those in low-paid jobs, with long working hours, had particularly limited networks beyond the workplace. Members of more visible minority ethnic groups were affected by racism. Prejudice and discrimination were barriers to accessing and participating in influential networks.
Voluntary, community and faith organisations were seen as playing three important networking roles: as places where people felt comfortable and affirmed within their own culture; as spaces where diverse groups could come together to build connections; and as having the faces (people) with the skills and knowledge to bring others together.
Networking required resources including time and money. In dispersed minority ethnic communities in rural areas, travel distances and inadequate broadband were additional barriers. For migrant and refugee communities, learning English was a basic requirement to opening up networks, accessing employment or staying in work. Poor levels of English hampered access to, and participation in, networks. Formal learning (e.g. ESOL) was an important platform for developing connections as well as qualifications.
The power of social technologies to maintain personal networks was fully recognised and some participants felt that dependence on face-to-face connections might ‘hold them back’. Social technologies offered opportunities for strengthening existing and lapsed ties. A minority saw social media as a way of ‘marketing’ themselves.
There were negative aspects to social networks. Informal recruitment procedures in certain industries confined some people to in-work poverty. Peer and family pressures could prevent people from moving on. Assumptions that some communities ‘look after their own’ were felt to be misleading and did not reflect contemporary life for many minority ethnic people.
Social networks are important in surviving poverty. Interviewees described instances of sharing food, exchanging fuel cards, or finding out about low-cost clothing and food outlets or free exchange services. Most ethnically specific networks were about survival and socialising: ‘getting by’ but not ‘getting on’. Where social networks did help people to escape poverty, it was usually through connections into influential, predominantly white, mainstream society. However, even those who were ‘successful’ identified limits to how far networks could take them, for instance in promotion at work.
Multi-cultural, ‘open’ services that facilitate contact and integration provide opportunities to establish bridging and linking connections or ‘weak ties’. However, different ethnic communities also organise collectively to deliver their own support and advice services, sometimes because they do not feel well served or welcomed by mainstream agencies. Some turned to family and community connections for advice – though the information given was not always reliable. Social networks were used to negotiate complex systems such as health, benefits and education.
Traditional cultures and values provided a basis for networking, although less so for some ethnicities and for younger generations. Digital technologies were widely used to maintain transnational ties.
Differences were apparent in the use of networks for access to finance. White British interviewees used loans within the family, from mainstream institutions or loan companies, whereas those from minority ethnic communities relied on informal or semi-formal saving and lending schemes, often based around the district of birth in their country of origin.
Representatives from statutory and private sector service providers were sceptical about the capacity of social networks to lift people out of poverty. A common view was that moving on from poverty was particularly difficult where low-wage labour markets were dominant.
Social networks can help people stay out of poverty and deal with its effects. Building inter-ethnic bridging links that help people move on from poverty is crucial, but also problematic, as the networks identified through the research tended to be ‘like with like’. In addition to cultural background, gender and class played important roles in shaping people’s social networks. Inequalities within and between networks need to be acknowledged and addressed. For black and minority ethnic people, there continues to be the added dimension of racial prejudice and discrimination.
This research draws on interviews with 39 men and 52 women from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds in Birmingham, Cumbria and Liverpool. Focus groups and interviews with 28 agencies were undertaken to assess the use of social networks in helping people move out of poverty.