As part of our project on making a living, we’re looking at how helpful different forms of support are to help young people cope with precarity. In the last post, we looked at the situation people are faced with. Here we look at their attitudes towards the state.
Start with the soul not with the handbag
Weed to shift mindsets, we need to look at what people themselves can bring to the table, not just as consumers but as citizens, as highlighted by @hilarycottam in Relational Welfare. We need to start with people not with savings, providing the stimulus that revitalises their wellbeing, not just their spending power.
We also need to start changing the arguments. It’s not about who is deserving of help or not. It’s neither only about defining who is poor or not. It’s about understanding how that poverty is experienced, how people’s social and cultural relationships define what they see as their material needs and what they see as socially acceptable – “hard working families” – or not – “benefit scroungers”.
Why do you think so many people want to define themselves as anything other than “working class”? People don’t want to feel either deserving of fear or pity. Which is why many try and hide away from the helping hand of the state. Which is they become labelled as “hard to reach” or “seldom heard”. Which is why even some of the best services like children’s centres don’t reach them as well as they could.
Respect, dignity and hope – nurturing a sense of collective belonging
Recognition and respect are just as important as redistribution. A school which nurtures relationship building is just as valuable as one which nurtures exam success, depending on whether we want to create good little consumers or good citizens. Recognition that services can be improved by the mutual interests of staff and users working together. Providing public services that treat people with dignity, values their contributions and develops a sense of collective belonging.
Although many people find it hard to imagine the possibility of escaping from poverty and social exclusion, that doesn’t mean they don’t hope, as is shown in the testimonies from @comms_links. When Obama talks about “being the change we can believe in”, it internalises this paradox very well. Their hopes nevertheless constantly battle against the unpredictability of their lives and the fear it generates. This is why involving users in co-producing public services doesn’t only offer greater hope, it allows people to use this hope and energy to work with staff to develop the services that matter to them.
From consumerist havens to safe spaces – from the customer to the carer
People often look back to a golden age where there was a sense of neighbourliness and people took pride in where they lived. But for some people, when they look at where they live, it’s little wonder that they escape to the consumerist haven of the Westfield shopping mall or the virtual meritocracy of the X Factor. We escape the reality of our neighbourhoods and we escape who we know. We feel we’ve lost our sense of belonging and our sense of trust. We may feel less trustworthy of our neighbours, less attached to our extended or even immediate families, and yet friendship and trust are even more critical in our increasingly atomised society. We need to create safe spaces for people to talk and look out for one another through better access to mutual support networks and cheaper relationship counselling. Supporting caring, not penalising it.
Outsourced relationships and hidden assets
Through how the the state defines its “services”, public servants can only engage in specific moments in people’s lives which ignore the complexities of the rest of their daily life. This creates assumptions by the “state” which are reinforced by people themselves. Indeed, for many people there is an antagonistic relationship with the state. They feel assessed and judged from all corners – from their neighbours, the media and the state itself. This fuels a vicious circle of avoiding the state to avoid accusations made by others, about whom they make accusations themselves, that they are somehow “cheating the system”. It’s not they feel ungrateful, but they feel that the institutions don’t understand the realities they live in.
For public servants too, that antagonistic relationship exists, they feel they can’t be trusted to serve the public efficiently. The compulsion to performance manage, to privatise and to personalise drives them even further away from being able to understand the people they serve.
We need to re-invest in the emotional and social resources for staff and service users to make the “tough choices” on issues like community cohesion, chronic conditions or climate change. They can work out the tensions between different people’s needs and their capacity to participate. Only then can the state show its citizens it is not only “on their side” but working with them “on the same side”.
We need to unlock these “hidden assets” of reciprocity and trust and refashion social capital that values these assets as much as more recognised forms of engagement. Of course we need to get people into work. But that means nothing to the communities we serve if we don’t help people help themselves by supporting each other, rewarding care rather than penalising it.