A good time for social reform?

David Baker

The British Social Attitudes survey, gives a fascinating insight into the shifting sands of public opinion over the last few decades.  Among the views about social issues and poverty, the authors detect a hardening of opinion against those who are less fortunate: “Less engaged or willing to make sacrifices for the common good during hard times, the British Public perhaps increasingly sees it as the responsibility of the individual to get through”.  The views behind this are complex.  Most people are worried about the gap between rich and poor, but are less supportive of redistribution or welfare – people seem unsure what to do about it and sceptical of existing approaches. Most people agree that child poverty is a significant issue, likely to increase over the next decade and something for government to take a lead on, but the most popular reasons given for the causes of poverty are drug and alcohol use, parents not wanting to work and family breakdown.

While headlines such as “Hard Times fuelling a new Dickensian Age” do seem a little overdone, are these shifts in opinion good or bad news for those of us working in the area of social reform?

On the face of it, the environment is not looking promising: austerity, falling living standards and the rhetoric of successive governments each seeking to be tougher than the previous on welfare is a challenging context.  Similarly, a standard debate on whether poverty is primarily due to economic causes (like unemployment and low pay) or social failure (like family breakdown and benefit dependency) isn’t likely to get us very far in terms of new ideas and support for change, particularly in the current context of economic challenges and smaller public sector budgets, despite the truths on both sides of the argument.

Having had the opportunity over a number of years to work with people who would be described as “poor” or perhaps “benefit dependent” and who may even have been one of the governments “120,000 troubled families”, two things stand out:

Firstly, people feel powerlessness over both the economic and public sector structures around them.  They battle with systems – the temporary and low paid jobs market, the housing application, the benefits office - that don’t work very well, and leave them feeling they lack worth, hope and control over their situation and future.  Secondly, their resilience or ability to cope may have been compromised by past experience such as relationship breakdown or childhood trauma – which can lead to unpredictability in their interactions and a lack of good personal and community relationships.  So, while causes and effects of economic status and social failure can be difficult to disentangle and work both ways, reform which can work at all levels – both highly systemic and deeply personal – will bear the greatest fruit.  

In the venture I’m working on at The Shaftesbury Partnership (called Looking Up) we are attempting to address both sides of this situation.  Firstly, we want to release the resources that are locked up in systems, helping to shift power towards individuals and families through a more personalised approach to budgeting and commissioning – which among other things will deliver savings to the public sector in the longer-term.  Secondly, we are aiming to offer people primarily good relationships (rather than endless ‘services’, important though they are) as the basis for change – both one-to-one with a ‘consistent, trusted adult’, and more widely within the community through drawing on local networks and positive social capital. 

Neither these approaches will in any way be easy or automatically transform anyone’s life – this is a difficult area full of challenge, unpredictability and frequent failure – but  starting to give people a sense of worth, hope, control and resilience in their lives will be enough for many to tip the balance in the right direction.  We hope that will be one way in which the worst of times could be the best of times for real social reform. 

If you would like to comment on this blog, please email: feedback@shaftesburypartnership.org

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