Unearthing the Roots (Part Two)

Posted by

Poverty

Reflecting upon the External Factors

Political: “Poverty is a psychological battle. [It is] forcing myself, as a single mother, to pursue opportunities when it feels like the entire system is opposed to your achievement of success.”[1]

I saw an exponential rise in demand for food in 2008 when statutory budgets were slashed following a national recession, in 2013 when the Welfare Reform Act was implemented and, again, in 2015 when the first Universal Credit pilots got underway. As Garthwaite, Collins and Bambra (2015) wrote: “Some countries reacted to the financial crisis of 2008 by implementing austerity measures – reducing budget deficits in economic downturns by public expenditure.”[2]  I, therefore, undoubtedly have some sympathy for the argument that poverty is political but I have also been working with people in poverty long enough to know that there is more to the story.

We have a social security system that is wrapped up in arcane language which is not helpful for those feeling psychologically and emotionally fragile. For instance, a successful application for benefits will result in being told that your benefit will be paid in arrears as if you have done something wrong before you even get started, you will then be given a work coach to ward off the wobbly waistline of worklessness and, if you fail to comply with your claimant commitment, you will be subject to a sanction. This is the kind of language we used to employ in relation to foreign dictators, not people experiencing poverty and pursuing more prosperous horizons.

So, yes, things could be better but only whole people can create whole communities. I remember some years ago when Scotland’s most housing deprived community was prioritised for large-scale investment and tower blocks were torn down and residents were rehoused in new homes. However, no sooner than residents were resettled did a small number prone to alcohol and substance misuse start selling parts of their new kitchens and bathrooms to sustain addictions. External reform does not necessarily create internal reform and while investment had been made to renovate housing, no investment had been made to renovate the health of those same residents in need.

Economic: “Poverty is going to the bathroom in my best friend’s house and stealing sanitary items for my eldest daughter and I after spending the last 50p on a pint of milk.”[3]

In 2008, one term that became common currency in economic discourse was “the credit crunch” which was a pre-cursor to the recession that took place in the same year. Post-recession, high streets visibly deteriorated and town markets were eliminated. The high street near where I grew up in Musselburgh, East Lothian, which was once a hub for local businesses bustling with butchers and bakers is now bedevilled by bookmakers and budget stores. High streets like the one in Musselburgh, which sustained itself largely upon a consistent thoroughfare of tourist trade from Edinburgh, now has less allure due to the complexion of the town centre.

In the immediate aftermath of the recession, redundancies across Dundee became commonplace as businesses struggled to sustain themselves. The demand for emergency food rapidly increased and most jarring was the number of working people who were in need. It was not uncommon for dads finishing their shift at work to come and pick up a food parcel before collecting the kids from school. These were often family men who had jobs but had seen a post-recession decrease in hours and static salaries while the price of food, fuel and housing skyrocketed. I still remember the day in 2008 when the price of a packet of Fruit Gums increased by 15 pence.

In a recent essay, I summarised the findings of the Feeding Britain report[4] in 2014 which highlighted that “… between 2003 and 2013, Britain had experienced a higher rate of general inflation than any other nation at 30.4%, the highest rate of food inflation at 47%, the highest rate of fuel inflation at 153.6% and the highest rate of housing inflation at 30.4% but wages grew, during the same period of time, by only 28%”[5] (Gurr, 2017). Garthwaite, Collins and Bambra (2015) write: “In the UK… since the crisis, wages and welfare benefits have fallen substantially in relation to prices, and poverty rates – including food poverty – have increased rapidly.”[6]

Social: “Poverty is telling my daughter she cannot attend her best friend’s birthday party because we cannot afford to purchase a gift.”[7]

In this section, I have sought to capture the breadth of social components which, I believe, includes class, education, family, friends and status. As individuals, we may have limited influence over the political process and economic environment but we do have greater influence over our social status. We cannot choose our families, what class we are born into or what communities we live in but our parents can choose what school we attend, we can choose our friends and to what extent we apply ourselves. This, in turn, impacts upon what families we cultivate for ourselves, what class any offspring we bear will acquire and what communities they will emerge in.

In The Spirit Level, which provides a thoughtful insight into the widespread societal benefits of equality, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) write: “Having friends, being married, belonging to a religious group or other association and having people who will provide support, are all protective of health.”[8] Canadian psychologist, Dr Jordan Peterson (2018), also states that “… useful friends are rare indeed, on society’s fringes.”[9] All three highlight the inherent value and even health benefits of good relationships. Marshall Sahlins (1972), commenting on the class component, once wrote: “Poverty is a social status [and] an insidious distinction between classes”[10]

Various studies reveal overwhelming evidence that the family unit is one of the environments most likely to affect life outcomes. In Scotland, a report published in 2016 by One Parents Families Scotland highlighted that poverty negatively impacted upon parental mental health and, as a consequence, the emotional wellbeing of children[11]. Additionally, The Growing Up in Scotland study published in 2008 showed that children growing up in dual parent households experienced an increased likelihood of overall financial resilience, the increased accessibility of healthy food options and also higher potential for positive health outcomes[12].

Reflecting upon the Internal Factors

Physical: “Poverty is living in a part of the city where my only convenience store is overstocked with everything except healthy fruit or vegetables.”[13]

Canadian psychologist and bestselling author, Jordan Peterson, in his recent 12 Rules for Life (2018) writes: “[A state of] physical hyper-response [and] constant alertness, burns up a lot of precious energy and physical resources. This response is really what everyone calls stress, and it is by no means only psychological. It’s a reflection of the genuine constraints of unfortunate circumstances.”[14] He continues: “You will continually sacrifice what you could otherwise physically store for the future, using it up on heightened readiness and the possibility of immediate panicked action in the present.”[15] Peterson says, in other words, poverty is physically draining.

In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) describe the physical ramifications of this “fight-or-flight” response in the following terms: “Energy stores are released, our blood vessels constrict, clotting factors are released into the bloodstream, anticipating injury, and the hearts and lungs work harder.”[16] The authors emphasise that, while these internal mechanisms are healthy in circumstances of acute short-term crisis, our bodies are not constructed to remain in this state for a prolonged period of time. For instance, where a short–term burst of cortisol can give our brains an increased alertness, a long-term flow can lead to increased risk of depression[17].

For the individual or family where the choice between a warm home and a warm meal or paying your electricity and paying your rent is the prevailing and prolonged reality, the evidence shows that there is a greater likelihood of short-term perspective and risk of ill-health and death. To the contrary, Loehr and Schwartz, in their The Power of Full Engagement (2003) state that “… physical energy… lies at the heart of alertness and vitality but also affects our ability to manage our emotions, sustain concentration, think creatively, and even maintain commitment…”[18] It is precisely this kind of energy people experiencing poverty need to pursue sustainable lives.

Emotional: “Poverty is feeling at the bottom of the pile, constantly fighting an uphill battle with next to no resources and a decreasing measure of confidence.[19]

Our emotions are intrinsically linked to our physical as well as our psychological complexion. Carrying on from the theme unpacked in the section above, Loehr and Schwartz (2003) write: “Emotions that arise out of threat of deficit – fear, frustration, anger, sadness – have a decidedly toxic feel to them and are associated with the release of specific stress hormones.”[20] Poverty places us in a permanent posture that is perceptive to threat. We feel threatened by security guards at the Job Centre, by the uncertainty of what or when we will next feed our children and by the growing pile of unopened brown envelopes with ‘final demand’ written on them.

Corbett and Fikkert (2012) write: “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness [but those in developed nations] tend to emphasise a lack of material things…” They go onto say that “… this mismatch… can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.”[21]  Speaking about the pursuit of survival in his seminal work Race Matters, Cornel West (1993), writes: “This threat is not simply a matter of relative economic deprivation and political powerlessness. It is primarily… the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair.”[22]

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Dr Jordan Peterson, states: “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you [that] monitors where you are positioned in society…” He continues: “Higher spots in the hierarchy, and the higher serotonin levels typical of those who inhabit them, are characterised by less illness, misery and death…”[23] Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) appear to agree: “… the further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence.”[24] However, when people are not experiencing these emotions, it is important to deliver services in a manner that inspires hope and instils dignity.

Spiritual: “Poverty is the gradual disintegration of a reason to get out of bed and the erosion of belief that my household can survive, let alone thrive.”[25]

In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr and Schwartz (2003) believe there are four components that underpin full engagement. One of those is spiritual energy, which they define “not in the religious sense, but… [pertaining] to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose beyond our self-interest.”[26] As Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) observe, “belonging to a religious group”[27] is one of the components that can contribute to good health but others may articulate it differently. For instance, the nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, put it this way: “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”[28]

Leadership expert Jim Collins, in his bestselling book Good to Great, writes that “core values are essential for enduring success”[29] Although he is specifically talking about leadership style, Collins emphasises that these traits are crucial to the unleashing of a sense of personal purpose. The two core characteristics of what he describes as Level 5 leadership are a dual mixture of both humility and personal will.[30] Supporting this view, Morris, Brotheridge and Urbanski (2005) believe that “… sustained functioning is more likely to be the result of… a person possessing a blend of humility and strong personal will.”[31]

Loehr and Schwartz (2003) write: “The most compelling source of purpose is spiritual…”[32] This was why, as I shared earlier, I would regularly ask people at foodbanks about what they were passionate about and what gets them out of bed in the morning. I have met musicians, artists, lawyers, solicitors, and businesspeople all of whom have hit bumps in the road and navigated sideways onto the slip-road into a foodbank and these are the very ones who may be looking for links we have of people we know to unleash their potential. Loehr and Schwartz (2003) conclude saying: “Purpose is what lights us up, floats our boats and feeds our souls.”[33]

Unearthing the Roots of Poverty

Unearthing the Roots (Part Two)

Unearthing the Roots (Part Three)

 

 

[1] Gurr, E. 2018, April 11, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[2] Garthwaite, K.A., Collins, P.J. and Bambra, C. 2015, ‘Food for Thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank’, Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 132, No. 7, pp. 38-44

[3] Gurr, E. 2018, April 7, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[4] All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom 2014, Feeding Britain, UK [Online] Available: https://foodpovertyinquiry.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/food-poverty-feeding-britain-final.pdf [Accessed: 2017, May 27], p. 11

[5] Gurr, E. 2017, ‘The Economics of Tackling Poverty’ [Available only on request], pp. 6-7

[6] Garthwaite, K.A., Collins, P.J. and Bambra, C. 2015, ‘Food for Thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank’, Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 132, No. 7, pp. 38-44

[7] Gurr, E. 2018, April 6, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[8] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London (p. 76)

[9] Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London (p. 17)

[10] Shalins, M. 1972, Stone Age Economics, Aldine · Atherton, Inc., Chicago (p. 38)

[11] Taulbut, M., Davis, M., Egan, J., Gibson, M., Scobie, G. and Campbell, S. 2016, ‘Lone parents in Scotland: work, income and child health; in work progression; and the geography of lone parenthood’ [Online] Available: http://www.scotpho.org.uk/downloads/scotphoreports/scotpho161123-lone-parents-scotland.pdf [Accessed: 2018, May 15], 11

[12] Kelly, L. 2008, ‘Lone parents families with young children’ [Online] Available: https://growingupinscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Lone-parents.pdf [Accessed: 2018, May 15], p. 3

[13] Gurr, E. 2018, April 9, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[14] Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London (p. 16)

[15] Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London (p. 17)

[16] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London (p. 85)

[17] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London (p. 86)

[18] Loehr, J and Schwartz, T. 2003, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press, New York (p. 48)

[19] Gurr, E. 2018, April 13, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[20] Loehr, J and Schwartz, T. 2003, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press, New York (p. 72)

[21] Corbett, S. and Fikkert, B. 2012, When Helping Hurts, Moody Publishers, Chicago (p. 51)

[22] West, C. 1993, Race Matters, Vintage Books, New York (pp. 19-20)

[23] Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London (p. 15)

[24] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London (p. 40)

[25] Gurr, E. 2018, April 15, Symbols of Poverty [Online] Available: https://twitter.com/EwanGurr [Accessed: 2018, June 6]

[26] Loehr, J and Schwartz, T. 2003, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press, New York (p. 110)

[27] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London (p. 76)

[28] Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London (p. 63)

[29] Collins, J. 2001, Good to Great, First edition, Random House, London (p. 195)

[30] Collins, J. 2001, Good to Great, Random House, London (pp. 22-25)

[31] Morris, J.A., Brotheridge, C.M., Urbanski, J.C. 2005, ‘Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility’, Human Relations,  Vol.58, No. 10, p. 1323

[32] Loehr, J and Schwartz, T. 2003, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press, New York (p. 131)

[33] Loehr, J and Schwartz, T. 2003, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press, New York (p. 131)