• Daniel Edmiston

Learning from Leeds Poverty Truth: How to improve the representation of people living in poverty?

Low-income citizens are much less like to formally engage in the political or policymaking process. For example, it’s estimated that just 53% of social class DE voted in the 2017 general election compared to 69% of social class AB. This presents a real challenge for trying to make sure public institutions and services reflect and respond to the needs of all citizens.

When interviewing people about their recent experiences of the welfare system, I found that low-income, unemployed individuals struggled to identify with the status of citizenship and their position as equal members within a common political community. For many, welfare austerity had aggravated this feeling of alienation, leading to an increasing sense of dislocation:

As a result, low-income citizens were less likely to feel like they could make a change in their local area or challenge a decision taken by a public institution or service. This is perhaps unsurprising given that both the ability and inclination to ‘act as a citizen requires a sense of agency, the belief that one can act and effect change’ (Lister, 2003: 39). If public institutions and services have systematically disadvantaged or misrecognized your personhood, the motivation for continued or sustained engagement can potentially be undermined. For the likes of Manning and Holmes (2013: 480), this ‘disengagement is a critical rather than apathetic response to mainstream politics’. But it is possible that it could be both….

For some commentators, this underlines the need to re-insert the voices and interests of marginalized citizens into the political and policymaking process. But how can and should this be done? Over the last year, I’ve been working on a project with Leeds Poverty Truth Commission to explore this question. Leeds Poverty Truth is an initiative that aims to place people with direct experiences of poverty at the heart of local decision-making that affects their everyday lives.

The ethos guiding the poverty truth model and testifying commissioners is the belief that “nothing about us, without us, is for us”. In collaboration with ‘poverty experts through experience’, the project sought to celebrate the achievements of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission and consolidate some of the key lessons to take away from the initiative as a model for improving the civic representation of people struggling against poverty. We produced a range of outputs and images to capture the experiences and messages of testifying commissioners. This included a summary of some of the key themes surrounding lived experiences of poverty, the barriers to collective organisation and engagement that inhibit civic participation and what can be done to overcome these. Over the course of the project we found that:

  • The model had a really transformational effect on the political subjectivity of testifying commissioners and business and civic leaders involved.

  • By focusing on solutions to poverty-related issues, the model offers a unique opportunity to bring a diverse range of stakeholders together around the same table. However, there is a risk this undermines the potential for more dissident forms of collective resistance and this has to be negotiated carefully.

  • It is not enough to have the voices and experiences of people struggling against poverty present in public and political spaces. A corresponding change has to occur so that institutions and services are listening and accountable to ‘poverty experts through experience’.

  • The activities and relationships generated through the model can serve as the foundation and basis for a broader movement to mobilise communities worst affected by changes to the labour market and welfare system.

We also developed a series of recommendations for public sector organisations and charities to tackle the obstacles that marginalised citizens experience in their everyday interactions with public institutions and local services, which can be downloaded here.

If you’re interested in Leeds Poverty Truth, you can follow them on Twitter and the hashtag #Poverty2Participation. You can also visit their website: www.leedspovertytruth.org.uk. If you’re interested in the Poverty Truth model more generally, you can read more about it here: https://www.projecttwistit.com/leedspoverty.

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