Just Coping

Esro have produced a insightful report written by Sophia Parker and Robin Pharoah with Tamara Hale on their ethongraphic research into families on the borders of poverty, in partnership with Kent County Council and the SILK lab, set up by Engine. It takes a thoroughly qualitative stance, but the stories used and rawness of the situations of the participants of the research makes for incredibly compelling reading.

It is positioned as a policy development guide, with the end experiences of those ‘just coping’ in mind, rather than a top-down set of guidelines and approaches. Essentially, this user-centred report puts people before statistics.

The book is inspiring both in the insights it picks out, and also its ability to force to you question your pre-conceptions about people living ‘on the breadline’. From some very harsh case studies, there is hope built on the observations of the researchers that the subjects are incredibly entrepreneurial and resourceful, in order to make the best of what they have.

There are also some blatant flaws in the systems and services of local government, which although are set up to protect and support people struggling to make ends meet, can in fact obstruct that very goal and turn vulnerable situations into spirals towards much more serious ones.

Key insights include:

No matter who you are, poor people are always seen as ‘other’. No-one wants to admit that they are in that bracket, which would be seeming to concede that they are not trying to get out of poverty.

Prevention strategies can be much more effective both in costs for the providers (councils and national government departments such as the job centre and benefits) and in the experiences of the users, who hopefully can get support in avoiding worse situations before they arrive at them. (Surprise surprise)

Preconceptions of others who are not in poverty (the general public). There is an interesting comparison made to the purpose of the 1970′s disability social model, which “demanded that economic, environmental and cultural barriers were recognised as constituting the disability as much as the condition itself.”

Putting children first. The book contained some powerful examples of children who were growing up before their time, with responsibilities and situations they should not have to be forced to cope with. However, parents commonly will do whatever they can to ensure their children get the best ‘life chances’, even if that means skipping meals to ensure their child can get a new school uniform or take the bus to school.

The book ends with a number of opportunities and system challenges to realise them, and calls for a ‘Copernican shift’ in the way services are delivered, from a top-down approach, to designing services from the ground-up. It can be downloaded for free here.