For the last year, we have been working with several partner organisations in Scotland to find ways of tackling the unfair costs faced by people on low incomes. Kenny McBride, the project worker in Glasgow, reflects on what he’s found out so far.
Starting in September last year, we ran a series of focus groups with people living in poverty, asking how these issues affected them and what they thought needed to change. We also spent some time consulting with businesses, charities, church groups, academics, politicians and others to get their input. Then we brought all parties together at a number of roundtable events. The events provided a valuable forum for people living in poverty to speak directly to those who could effect the changes they wanted to see – and a chance for those with power to see just how serious some of these problems are. Together, they were then able to discuss what changes were most needed and what was possible.
The ‘Poverty Premium’ covers a range of the things we buy, from white goods to funerals, but we decided to focus on three that have the biggest everyday impact – food, fuel and finance. Some of what we heard was unsurprising. However, some of the solutions we heard were quite radical.
On food, for example, we heard overwhelming support for people being helped to grow their own food. This was not just a response to high prices in the shops. Many of our respondents also recognised the health benefits not just of the fresh food itself, but also of getting out into the fresh air and spending some time working in a garden. We also heard a great deal about supporting local retail, rather than relying on supermarkets and chain stores to run our whole food supply. One person even suggested a statutory limit on supermarket profits, reasoning that if people in an area can’t afford to feed their families then the supermarkets have no right to make a profit from them. It seems that instinctively, many people recognise that low prices are not the only issue in how supermarkets affect a poor area, as people commented on the poor quality of employment provided as well as the poor quality of food and service provided by supermarkets.
On fuel, we heard a great deal about problems associated with government initiatives like the ECO scheme to insulate homes. We were particularly concerned by the way this scheme affected people living in privately rented homes, as the efficiency improvements made ultimately accrue to the landlord, not the tenant. Indeed, we learned of people having their tenancies threatened after improvements had been made. And while reducing wasted energy is important, we saw much greater impacts achieved by things like district heating schemes.
Finance was another fascinating topic. Far from the stereotype of ‘feckless scroungers’, we met people with a fanatical desire (and ability) to avoid debt at all costs. Indeed, many avoided banks and financial institutions altogether – especially payday lenders – feeling that no one could really be trusted with their money. While more flexible and sensitive financial services would be useful to some of these respondents, the bigger issue is simply that people don’t have enough income to be able to save, leaving them extremely vulnerable to shocks.
The over-riding lesson has been to ensure we listen to people with real experience of poverty. They know best what they need – and it’s not always what you expect.
In October we’ll publish Food, Fuel, Finance – a report which will expand on all these issues, and call for action in support of the ways forward we have identified.
In the meantime, please visit our website to find out more about the Poverty Premium and see our other work on the topic.