The debate around the nature of poverty in the UK is becoming increasingly polarised. As Julia Unwin argues in her book, Why Fight Poverty?, and as we’ve seen from the responses to programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street, there is a fierce debate about whether individual behaviour or wider structures are responsible for poverty. Unsurprisingly, this choice has produced a stalemate which has led many people to conclude that widespread poverty is inevitable.
The reality is biting our communities pretty hard. Food bank users have reportedly tripled in a year and on average three food banks open every day. Local authorities are having to make tough spending decisions on services that people depend on.
In her book, Julia makes a powerful and compelling case that current levels of poverty are neither inevitable nor acceptable, and that we need to value people who live in poverty and recognise that ‘they’ are people like ‘us’. We are all ‘us’ – a notion that chimes with an asset-based approach which suggests that we need to give people in poverty the power both to develop their skills and talents and to tackle the issues that hold them back.
On this theme of tackling need by building on the talents of people and communities, I’ve seen at first hand the sector’s capacity to be imaginative in a recent visit to the Sobar project in Nottingham. This alcohol-free bar and cafe has rejuvenated an unused building in the heart of Nottingham, open to the whole community as well as providing a combination of drug and alcohol recovery services alongside a specialist recruitment service. Rather than simply being ‘treated’, people in recovery are taking the lead in the design and delivery of this service – and the results really impressed me.
Voluntary organisations and social enterprises across the country have a long and proud record of using grant funding to tackle poverty and empower people, reaching those whose needs and talents are not met by traditional state-run services. The Matthew Tree project in Bristol, offers a programme of support including counselling, debt and health advice in addition to emergency food; but there are also new models emerging such as the new social supermarket in Goldthorpe in Barnsley, offering people low-cost food and drink.
Funders such as the Big Lottery Fund have a duty to listen to the sector and give them the support to be able to tackle poverty effectively. This was the theme of a roundtable I recently attended with a number of sector representatives in Nottingham. We explored how ‘need’ and demand for services is changing, and discussed whether the sector is leading the creation of a new settlement which responds to need and empowers people, or being overwhelmed by rising levels of demand?
Perhaps not surprisingly, I heard a shared experience of steeply increasing demand for services from vulnerable people with increasingly complex multiple needs. There was concern that the sector is struggling to meet the needs of individuals who typically don’t qualify for statutory services, building up potential future demand for services such as health and social care. Attendees felt there was a real lack of understanding of how the VCS can reach people and places in ways that the statutory services struggled to do, and to transform lives at a very human level.
I was impressed with how different organisations have responded to these conditions. Often staff have made real sacrifices to make this possible. However, I was also struck by a general feeling from attendees that the easier savings have already been made, and that generally funds through trading isn’t an option for everyone.
At the end of the session, I posed the question “how can Big Lottery Fund and other funders help?” Responses include maintaining funding opportunities for covering core costs; the need for long-term strategic funding; funding to help the people who fall through the gaps of statutory provision; and helping the sector to tell the story of its impact.
It is clear that the nature of need and poverty is changing. The lessons for funders in supporting the sector to respond in this challenging environment will be one of the questions I want us to explore when we shortly kick off a conversation about our strategic framework to 2021. It strikes me it will be one of the most important questions we’ll ask.
Dawn Austwick is chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund