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Deep poverty and destitution

Breaking the cycle of hardship with integrated local systems

There are huge gains to be had from rearranging services around local communities and human potential.

Written by:
Jessica Studdert
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

Poverty is about lack of power as well as lack of money (New Local, 2022). With hardship comes a loss of the agency and control over your life that the better-off take for granted (Lister, 2021). The daily struggle to get by consumes energy, time and bandwidth. It can leave people voiceless and unseen, fuelling exclusion and marginalisation. And such powerlessness is especially acute in dealings with the state.

The traditional state approach defines poverty as a material condition and focuses on income transfers and ‘needs-based’ entitlements. It has been observed that social policy isn’t very ‘social’, the emphasis on material needs doesn’t take account of wider needs such as being heard, feeling valued and having a sense of belonging (Khan, 2023). A predetermined national response is standardised in the pursuit of fairness, increasingly rationed by austerity and dispensed to passive recipients.

Over the decades, as the grand ambitions of Beveridge-era welfarism have been pared back, its inherent paternalism has remained. Those on the receiving end must navigate a system of creaking complexity: a welter of separate public services assess and refer ‘cases’ around the system, each responding to different problems. This has been characterised as industrial-style management, whereby people are subject to depersonalised transactions and not regarded as having personal agency or aspiration (Cottam, 2018). As a result, support is not designed to engage holistically, on a human level, with the real-life circumstances of people in poverty and what might help them to escape its grip.

In some communities, public service partners are coming to understand the limits of passing people around the welfare system without overcoming their deeper challenges. At a local level, people in poverty are not abstract statistics, but individuals who can be proactively engaged with. Real efforts are being made to change tack, to build the voice of communities into the reshaping of the services that support them. There are 2 broad ways this is happening in practice: at the level of service delivery, through creative engagement between frontline staff and citizens, and on a strategic level, whereby traditional institutional decision-making is opening out to take account of direct experience. Both have important lessons for improving national policy.

Reshaping services to build on people’s assets and capabilities

Much pioneering frontline service practice falls under the broad umbrella of ‘asset-based’ – that is, characterised by a focus on people’s strengths and aspirations rather than their deficits and problems. This opens up a different dynamic that consciously shifts the power balance between the professional, and the recipient of support.

In Gateshead and Northumbria, 4 prototypes have built a different approach to services which seek to support relationships and build trust with people, rather than uphold processes and eligibility criteria (Smith, 2023). For example, a different approach to non-payment of council tax was tested. Rather than a traditional enforcement response with escalating punitive measures, it was used as a trigger for a different conversation with someone who may well be struggling with other aspects of their life (Smith, 2018).

Learning has informed a ‘liberated method’ which supports services to be ‘bespoke by default’. This involves caseworkers having the time and space to understand people’s lives and unblock practical barriers, a more appropriate response for people branded ‘complex’ because their life circumstances don’t fit neatly into a service specialism. 70% of people supported through the prototypes have had demonstrably positive upturns in their lives (Smith, 2023).

Camden Council, working with Royal Holloway University of London, has sought the insight of families experiencing children’s social care through a Families Advisory Board, which has created a better mutual understanding with professionals in the system. This has shifted the approach in numerous ways: from harnessing peer advocacy, to empowering frontline staff to be creative in problem solving with families, right through to emphasising the role of love and compassion in otherwise cold, statutory interventions (Dove and Fischer, 2020).

Using community insight to influence strategic decisions

On a strategic level, some councils and other public services are drawing in the direct expertise of people experiencing hardship to inform their priorities and activity. An important channel for drawing insights from lived experience is the growing number of Poverty Truth Commissions, which are backed by councils and other local partners to bring local decision-makers together with people at the sharp end, to identify options for local action (New Local, 2022). In health systems too, there is emerging awareness that effective health inequalities strategies (the primary lens through which the NHS approaches poverty) cannot simply be led by formal health services alone, and then ‘done to’ struggling communities. In Edmonton, a 3-way partnership between the North Central London Integrated Care Board, the local Healthwatch, and community organisations, identified many links between health and non-clinical factors such as crime-related stress, drugs and parental anxiety or social isolation. These findings are now informing the local health system’s priorities (Healthwatch Enfield et al., 2022).

How to break cycles of hardship

These approaches are beginning to shift the role of the local state from manager to enabler in practical ways. Yet they still operate on the margins of the existing system, working against its stubborn basic logic. For example, locally-developed asset-based approaches rub up against a DWP business-as-usual deficit led model of transactional support and fierce sanctions. The core question for national policy is how to speed the emergent shift along. After all, everyone says they want our public services to get better at preventing problems developing or escalating, instead of doing little or nothing until the statutory requirement for costly last-resort provision kicks in (Curtis et al., 2023; Quilter-Pinner et al., 2023).

By aligning and coordinating the range of public and third-sector activity around the assets and capabilities of communities experiencing deprivation, the overall impact can be greater than the sum of their parts (Pollard and Hashmi, 2023). Amid a grim outlook for public expenditure, and with many services already in crisis with no more efficiencies to find, it is especially urgent to ensure every public pound spent on a local population is spent as effectively as possible. This involves breaking down the traditional silos between Whitehall departments and other bureaucracies, and creating ‘horizontal’ accountability across all the public services in a place, sustained through deep engagement with communities. Drawing on decades of place-based pilots, the time is right for a systematic move towards pooled place budgets with local democratic oversight (LGA and Shared Intelligence, 2023). In this way, we could draw a line under the fragmentation of competing responsibilities and remits, and thereby pave the way for joint investment in new models of support directly informed by the priorities of local people in hardship.

There will always be a strong national duty to mitigate poverty via redistribution, and to tackle its big-picture causes across economy and society. But national measures always manifest locally, and redesigning delivery, practice and policy around local communities should enable more human and holistic ways of working, which should prioritise enabling people in hardship to regain agency over the system, and in turn, their future (Pollard and Hashmi, 2023). Standardised and transactional methods of state intervention have never yet succeeded in breaking cycles of poverty and destitution. Integrated local systems that can genuinely share power and support agency just might.

About the author

Jessica Studdert is the Deputy Chief Executive of New Local.

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