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Political mindsets

Lived experience is key to designing compassionate policy response

Throughout 2022, the Grassroots Poverty Action Group (GPAG) has been working with JRF to understand what it is like to live on a low income through a cost of living crisis. Here, during Challenge Poverty week, they outline what needs to change so people can live with dignity rather than simply exist.

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As a group we’ve been talking about the need to narrow the gap between incomes and the cost of living for some time. Back in January we published a blog arguing that whilst struggling to make ends meet is not a new experience for us, the scale of price increases has meant the pressure has piled on. The damage this does to our quality of life, and the hardship it creates for our families - especially our children - cannot be underestimated.

No more wiggle room

Less than a year has passed since we wrote that blog and the even greater financial stress we are all facing now has made it nigh-on impossible to manage on our existing low incomes. Each day we are bombarded by well-meaning advice on how to reduce our spending, but it can feel patronising at times. We are already experts at getting by, budgeting carefully, cutting costs where we can, and often going without what so many people take for granted.

We can’t tighten our belts: our belts are already so tight we can’t breathe.

GPAG Expert by experience

We are past the stage where money-saving tips can plug the gap between incomes and the cost of living. We find ourselves faced with decisions we shouldn’t have to make. No-one should have to go hungry or be cold because the only other alternative is falling into debt. Services we might turn to are struggling too. The cupboards of foodbanks are increasingly as bare as those they are trying to support.

Fighting against debt

It’s easy to see why people do get into debt: it’s all around us. It often feels like the only way to take care of yourself and your family. Buy-now-pay-later schemes offer a way out when your child’s school shoes no longer fit, or when your fridge has broken down. And faced with multiple rising bills at the same time, you often have to decide as well as you can which ones will have to wait. The consequences of falling into debt aren’t always clear.

As a group we have talked about the impact of the pressures we face on ourselves and our families. It’s exhausting managing on a low income, always being alert to the cost of everything, and constantly trying to avoid falling into debt. Similarly, if you are already in debt, it’s an uphill struggle to climb out again when even a slight increase in day-to-day costs can unbalance the precariously tight budget you need to stick to so you can reduce your debt. We do all this whilst managing work, a disability, or looking after a loved one.

The UK Government’s cost of living payments have temporarily eased the pressure a little but it feels like they are only stopping some of us from getting even deeper into debt and slowing down an inevitable slide into debt for others. We are frightened about what lies ahead, constantly worrying about how to pay for things we need.

Things are moving fast but also too slow. I expected to see more by now.

GPAG Expert by experience

Since Government support was announced we have faced further price rises that have outweighed the help provided. Much more is needed to prevent deeper levels of debt: we need urgent action to narrow the gap between incomes and the cost of living.

We need a permanent solution not a one-off payment.

GPAG Expert by experience

Creating caring communities

We often feel alone when we are struggling, and this sense of isolation makes it even harder to cope. Yet we know many more people are experiencing the same difficulties. In May we worked with JRF staff on a report that found over 2 million families were neither eating properly nor heating their home adequately, and 4.6 million families were in significant arrears with at least one household bill. We feel angry that even more people are being swept into poverty, experiencing the detrimental impacts it has on health and well-being that all are too familiar to us.

Cruelly, worsening mental health makes it more difficult to access the support needed to tackle mounting debt or apply for financial support. It’s very hard to negotiate complex systems alone when you are struggling. It may even be too challenging for some who then go without the financial support they desperately need. We know from our group discussions that access to advice services is patchy, and non-existent in some parts of the UK. Sometimes the guidance offered is unclear, even contradictory. We need better help wherever we live, reaching out to people who are the most vulnerable through services they are already accessing – and designed with communities who are best placed to know what their residents need.

Practical support is needed in our communities, and it needs to be accessible to all.

GPAG Expert by experience

Listening and collaboration - a way forward

It feels like people don’t care and they aren’t listening.

GPAG Expert by experience

Over the past three years we’ve reflected a lot on what a better response to people living in poverty should be like. It is eloquently captured in the haiku below, written by one of our members:

Message To 'The Few'

Fear not ‘The Many’

We crave not thy riches, but

Life! Dignified life!

© SAL Widdop, September 2022

In our discussions we always come back to the theme of the need for greater humanity. To achieve this we need to put people who know what it is like to live in poverty at the heart of policy-making. A response to cost of living crisis designed with this group would look very different. It would be compassionate, recognising the fear and suffering that often lies beneath poverty, and appreciate the real efforts already being made just to try to make ends meet. Fundamentally, its ambition would be to allow people to thrive rather than just get by.

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