There is no single fix for poverty
New research highlights the many things that make poverty persist in East Belfast. Problems are not limited to the expense of food or electricity – a lack of digital access is a problem, even in such an urban area.
Most people would agree that poverty is a bad thing but that doesn’t mean tackling it is straightforward.
There is no single fix because there is no single cause. Poverty emerges from, and is perpetuated by, several different factors.
Realistically, making progress against poverty requires work to address each of these factors. Understanding the nature of poverty is crucial to improving people’s lives.
The Scaffolding Project is a partnership organisation that wants to reduce poverty in East Belfast. Last month it launched a report based on detailed discussions with local people.
The experience of poverty and community responses in East Belfast was put together with support from NICVA, the Executive Office’s Urban Villages Initiative, and funding from Communities in Transition.
The paper looks at both the broader and more locally-specific reasons for why poverty persists in East Belfast – home to around 5% of the population of Northern Ireland.
NI has several economic weaknesses which contribute to this problem. Economic inactivity is high, employment rates are low, and many of the jobs that do exist are low paid.
Some of the more specific issues are maybe unsurprising (families struggling to pay bills, including rising energy costs) but digital access – often seen as a more rural challenge – was also a major problem. It’s one thing to have a reliable signal, but quite another to be able to afford to pay for data, or have access to appropriate devices that suit your needs.
The Scaffolding Project, part of EastSide Partnership, was established in 2017 by representatives from community and voluntary organisations that work in East Belfast. Its principal aim is tackling poverty.
In late 2020, the project began talking with various groups in East Belfast to examine the nature, extent and impact of poverty in the area – which has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Northern Ireland. Within the Inner East Neighbourhood Renewal Area, for instance, 49% of children live in poverty.
The project carried out an online survey based around three key questions – What type of poverty do you see in East Belfast? What is currently happening there to address poverty? What more is needed? – as well as carrying out several town hall-style meetings with residents and community workers. Several themes emerged:
- Poor mental health was both a cause of poverty and affected people’s ability to respond to their circumstances
- Digital poverty meant people didn’t have the skills or resources to participate fully in social and economic life and was hindering educational development
- Loss of employment meant lower incomes and insecurity
- Increases in utility costs were placing even greater burdens on those on low incomes
- Food poverty was growing and families are increasingly using foodbanks
- Fuel poverty meant people could not heat their home sufficiently particularly as much of the housing stock is very old
- Isolation was resulting from people not having enough income to socialise
- Navigating the benefits system is difficult meaning people are not getting the support they are entitled to
The briefing report said that the lack of access to digital technology was brought up by a “notable number” of respondents.
“Not having affordable internet connectivity, nor the necessary hardware, was having an impact on home-schooling and the ability to work from home. If not addressed this digital exclusion will reinforce the poverty cycle…
“The basic lack of income was a constant pressure. One participant crystalised the experience; ‘Food and fuel, also meeting needs of children in relation to school uniform, stationery and school supplies, and worry of providing at Christmas. Not having money to replace white goods when they break down’.
“The discussions with the participants demonstrated that many families are struggling to purchase the daily essentials, and on some occasions choosing between whether to heat their house or feed their family. Sometimes the choices were starker, whether to feed the children or the adults. In particular ‘holiday hunger’ had been prevalent in the community, and the lockdown regulations including home-schooling, had exacerbated this with more families feeling the effect of it…
“Participants also said it is important that communities and individuals know how they can help themselves and who they can turn to. Having an effective advice service that is tailored to the needs of the community and facilitating individuals in helping to understand where they can turn to in order to get the right help.”
Access - including signposting - to whatever help exists is obviously important. People will generally struggle to reach services they do not know exist.
Examples of work being done in East Belfast right now include providing direct help, such as with food or with financial help to address fuel poverty or other immediate costs, as well as wider advice to try and plug people into other existing help – such as help navigating the benefits system.
“They [community groups] offer tangible support with fuel costs, food, toiletries, school uniforms other household items and some crisis funds. Groups also provide emotional, social and spiritual support, as well as advice on benefits applications and signposting to other organisations for help. Others are addressing educational disadvantage and in particular working to address the digital divide.”
The Scaffolding Project identified six central policy responses required to tackle poverty:
- Access to employment that provides a good standard of living – NI needs more jobs, and those jobs need to pay more.
- Affordable and energy efficient housing – a lot of housing in East Belfast is old, substandard, and energy inefficient, which only increases the financial pressure on people who live there and need to heat their home.
- Support for low income families – the ‘working-poor’ struggle to afford even a basic standard of living due to low wages and unsustainable jobs.
- Better benefits and a user centred approach – the benefits system should be friendly to people who can and do find employment, but also provide a good standard of living for anyone without a job, and all this should happen within a system that is easier to navigate that is currently the case.
- Better mental health services and supports to reduce isolation - poor mental health is a cause of poverty and affects people’s ability to respond to their circumstances, and NI has long struggled to address the significant mental health challenges among the population.
- Digital inclusion – internet is infrastructure and should be treated as such, otherwise it is difficult to participate in society and any lack of access is a barrier that prevents people from escaping poverty.
The paper also calls for better communication and intelligent partnership working between all groups that work to tackle poverty, including statutory agencies and third sector organisations.
Tracey Wilson, chair of The Scaffolding Project committee, said: “In this report we have a reflection of what is happening in our community regarding the issue of poverty and insight from those on the ground of what is needed to address it.
“Whilst it is vitally important that we support those affected by poverty at this current time this report further makes some recommendations on how we might address some of the causes.”
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