People's ideas are key to changing the systems locking them in poverty

The voices of people with direct experience of poverty are integral to bringing about a shift in policy, and acknowledging how people are labelled and constrained by a system that doesn’t address their needs and aspirations.

I am a person with lived experience of poverty. For much of my childhood my family was on the breadline. Despite the best efforts of my parents to make it a home our first house, in which two adults and six children lived, had two small bedrooms, no indoor toilet or bathroom, a makeshift scullery for a kitchen, no central heating, a relentless damp problem and repeated rat infestations.

Like others in our position money was in short supply and when my dad was out of work, which he was for a very long time, we relied on help from the state including unemployment benefits and free school meals. My desire to write about poverty stems from this personal experience.

I felt growing up, and I still feel now, that even though so many families are struggling to get by, there is a huge gap in the wider understanding of what this actually means. 

In the course of my work as a journalist writing on social issues in the UK and US I see the statistics on child poverty, just as others do. But because of my personal experience they are never just numbers. Behind these figures – which have unfortunately been rising in recent years -  is a diverse selection of people who every day are constrained by a system that lets them down. A low-wage economy with insecure employment, benefits systems that judge and sanction, historic inequities along lines of race and gender, and a culture that largely paints people in need as ‘undeserving’ are just some of the factors that contribute to making life so much harder.

This curtails opportunity. It prevents people from fulfilling their aspirations and taking full advantage of their talents and abilities.

Over the years there have been many laudable efforts to expose the strains of poverty and to understand how to improve things but, as poverty and destitution have tightened their grip, especially in the years following the 2008 financial crisis and as a result of austerity cuts, we absolutely must redouble our efforts.

Part of this is recognising that poverty isn’t a problem to be solved solely by people who care about it but who are distant from it. If my work has taught me anything it is that people with experience have the insight and the ideas to help shape a different landscape; one that is based on a factual understanding of the drivers of poverty and that seeks solutions in the right places. A necessary step on this road to transformation is to listen to these people.

I have been in many homes and communities of people struggling during my more than a decade writing about poverty. Most recently for Project-Twist-It, which I established to create a hub for the views and stories of a wide variety of people touched by the issue of poverty in the US and the UK, I’ve spoken with some of those most affected including homeless people, domestic violence victims and children. Advocates and activists including writers and artists – many with lived experience themselves – have embraced the project as one of a number of initiatives currently underway to rethink how we understand and engage with poverty.

From youngsters writing poetry at The Warren in Hull, to a mother forced to live on Skid Row in Los Angles with her young daughter because there was no safety net but who now campaigns for the human rights of people in poverty, the array of people affected is staggering. Each has their own story to tell and, as I’ve been learning, many more people want to tell their stories and have their voices heard. 

Every person’s experience of poverty is unique to them but there are shared struggles and challenges, including not being listened to by policymakers and wider society.

The voices and insights of people who are, or have been, poor are all too often absent from the wider discourse. This has meant that a narrative that blames and shames the poorest and most marginalised among us has taken root. But, I believe, as do many of the people I have interviewed over the past couple of years in particular, that there is an appetite for this to change. There is a genuine momentum at an individual, grassroots, and broader level to raise the voices and stories of people whose lives have been affected by poverty, and for this to be integral to bringing about a shift in policy by acknowledging how people are labelled and constrained by a system that doesn’t address their needs and aspirations.

In my many years writing about poverty, talking with and listening to people who have so much to contribute to our wider understanding, I am reminded of something I come across often in the arena of disability rights: nothing about us, without us, is for us.