Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Discrimination not dependency

Yvonne Roberts argues for everyone to have a decent minimum standard of living, and that without this, rhetoric about social mobility, or small targeted grants, won't achieve much.

It's a good argument, and it feels mean to nit pick, but the underlying tone is based on the incorrect assumption that people on very low incomes are behaving irrationally, and that the task for policy-makers is therefore to set up the correct set of incentives to change this. There's actually an even more interesting story than the one Roberts is aware of in all of this.

Roberts cites (but I don't think has actually read) some research carried out by ATD 4th World. I don't think she's read it because she goes on to write about how services like parenting classes and nutritional advice for poor families 'inculcate dependency'.

ATD 4th World are a very interesting and admirable organisation. One way in which they are different from, say, the Young Foundation, where Yvonne Roberts works, is that they are all about people living on very low incomes speaking for themselves. Their view is that the efforts and experiences of people living in poverty should be the starting point in anti-poverty initiatives.

One strand of their work is about working for better services. So, for example, one project they run is about training social workers to understand poverty better, with some of their members going into training colleges to run sessions. They do this because they found that a lot of very poor families were having their children taken away from them when in fact the problems in the family were not caused by abuse, but by the effects of poverty. Better trained social workers were then able to work more effectively. They've got a report called 'Getting the Right Trainers' which is well worth ordering.

Another example might be a teacher who sees one of their pupils come into school late every day. One kind of teacher might shout at the pupil and give them a hard time. Another might be kind and understanding, but blame the parent who they assume can't be bothered to get out of bed to get their child to go to school. ATD 4th world's research shows that both of these responses are often based on prejudice, and it's just as likely to have been the case that the parent had been up early, cajoling and encouraging their child to go to school even though the child didn't want to and was scared because they were being bullied.

The research that Roberts quotes found that the services which very poor people use are ones which they often find "unhelpful, unapproachable, complicated to use or even untrustworthy."

Bad services discriminate against people. They are a major cause of sickness, and drain people's time, energy and self confidence. In some cases they neglect when help is needed, in others they intrude when support and understanding is needed. But one thing which they don't do is 'inculcate dependency'.


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