Culture can help people rewrite the story around UK poverty

Stephen Armstrong collaborated with JRF to create Picture Britain: Our People, Our Poverty - a photography exhibition and accompanying book celebrating the strength and resilience of people swept into poverty.

We live in a society that conflates the trivial with the heroic, celebrating dancing soap stars and ignoring the real heroes. There are millions of outstanding and remarkable people in the UK - people collaborating to unlock opportunities and resist negative social division, people who are actually changing the world.

In 2017 I travelled across the UK with award-winning photographer Jillian Edelstein to fix an image of our country as it faces the radical change of Brexit and continues to haul itself slowly from the depths of the 2007/8 recession.

Having previously written about people denied opportunity by an unjust system – most recently my book The New Poverty – it was clear that we don’t have an honest picture of the country we live in. Picture Britain is an attempt to show what we’re missing.

As we travelled, we met people trying to climb near insuperable obstacles - working two jobs on zero hours contracts, unable to afford bus fares despite being in full-time employment, battling mental health issues with little or no support and turning to strangers just to feed their children.

But we also found people using their talents to solve problems that have baffled highly-educated thinkers for decades. In Enniskillen, we met Lauri McCusker who brings Catholic and Protestant families together through shared education – an idea now adopted by Unicef, South Africa, Israel and Cyprus. In Glasgow we met Karyn McClusky, the former police officer who pioneered the public health approach to violence, helping halve Scotland’s murder rate in just ten years. We met Nola Edwards in Bath who brought together rich and poor across the city to protect a condemned estate.

We visited Wigan, Hull and Merthyr, finding boarded-up shops alongside community centres producing a rich independent culture through art classes, spoken-word poets and musicians. Everywhere we found different versions of carefully planned support for local kids from families trapped in poverty to ensure they benefited from their education.

These triumphs shouldn’t justify the hardship that produced them. There is no need for so many to be locked out of opportunity. So what should be done?

We owe it to ourselves – to everyone, living and yet to be born - to stop such a senseless waste of potential. Not just through a change in our mindset but through cross-party collaboration to improve the services we all depend on. We need to allow everyone a back-up plan, ensuring social security truly anchors people when they most need it, preventing the worst excesses of precarious work through simple legislation, and ensuring our social housing provision allows no family to be homeless and hungry.

We like to think we live in a compassionate society where justice means protecting each other from harm. Yet right now, millions of us have no wealth, receive no justice and are treated badly every minute of every day.

Imagine the unbridled creativity we could share if we freed people’s ingenuity from the struggle to survive. Imagine what we could achieve with these minds, bodies and souls if our system recognised value over price and potential over punishment. Imagine the stories we could hear and the songs we might sing if we valued every voice.

Picture Britain: Our People, Our Poverty was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation featuring photographs by Jillian Edelstein and stories captured by journalist Stephen Armstrong.

It will be at Borough Market, London, from 20 February to 7 March.