Get Talking Hardship
By Andy Meakin, Director, VOICES
This may be an apocryphal story, I can’t remember where I heard it, but it illustrates a point…
A doctor was about to do a first shift in charge of a busy A&E department and expressed some anxiety to their supervisor. Their supervising consultant offered some coaching through the following advice:
“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, under pressure, so you don’t know where to turn, or what to do, if you feel lost and alone. Don’t hesitate to cope.”
The message was that struggle is normal, rely on your training and skills, rely on your network of colleagues, overcome problems, grow, and be ‘resilient’.
Promoting resilience has become an inescapable message of public dialogue on hardship and wellbeing. I think we need to re-examine this refrain.
The implication of the resilience narrative – for some – is that the solution to hardship and poverty is found in the individual. And, that hardship and poverty, as well as its consequences for physical and mental wellbeing, is the result of ‘lifestyle choices’.
Our popular dialogue on the subject tends to organise – consciously or otherwise – into categories of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Sadly, we sometimes see these judgements documented in eligibility criteria that force people into reciting their most personal details to strangers for their appraisal and judgement.
The idea of resilience also has, for some, a comforting flipside. That those with financial security deserve that status innately through their positive lifestyle choices, efforts, and demonstrable social resilience which, perhaps, signals the triumph of virtue over vice.
It is also, perhaps, the origin of the unhelpful ‘strivers’ vs ‘skivers’ contrast that we sometimes hear in political narratives.
This is not a modern attitude. Max Weber, among others, documented the idea at the turn of the 19th Century. It is a belief engrained deep into western culture.
But, how does this belief manifest itself in policy and practice, practically?
At perhaps the most acute end of hardship, a person experiencing street homelessness seeks shelter, warmth, and safety – for example – in an abandoned chest freezer.
Professional observations might include that the person:
- has the mental capacity to make their own decisions
- that their lifestyle choices have led to the situation; and
- use of a shelter is a sign of their resilience and safety
All too often, what is unseen or otherwise hidden from observation is of direct relevance to the circumstances. We know that this could include combinations of:
- adverse childhood experiences
- bereavement and loss
- relationship breakdown
- mental ill-health
- physical disability
- many forms of exploitation and abuse
- addiction to numb the mental and physical pain that may run alongside
These experiences are not a sign of people’s weakness or lack of resilience. Friends, these are not lifestyle choices. And, I suggest to you that an approach based on the premise that they are is not compatible with one of the largest and richest economies of the 21st Century.
Instead, we need to try harder to see the full picture of people’s lives.
We need to see how people’s circumstances and living conditions can intersect and lead to their unintentional social exclusion and isolation.
I’ve worked for over 20-years with people in the contexts of long-term unemployment, adult education, and homelessness – one thing that has struck me throughout is that people, generally, “don’t hesitate to cope”.
There are two questions this raises:
The first is, necessarily, over what timescale is their coping strategy?
For people experiencing street homelessness, the planning horizon may be measured in hours or even minutes.
- Where will I sleep tonight?
- How will I get to sleep?
- How will I keep myself warm and safe?
Tomorrow is to worry about then.
For other people, the planning horizon may be days or a week.
- How will I get coins for the electricity meter?
- How will I feed the kids this week?
- How will I get credit on my smart phone (so I can participate in a 21st century economy that assumes I have one)?
Managing such competing priorities can become the full-time focus of people’s coping strategies. Indeed, of their entire waking lives.
The second question is perhaps more difficult.
How does wider society feel about the coping strategies of people in difficult or desperate circumstances?
- Payday borrowing
- Illegal borrowing
- Petty criminality
- Self-medication to ‘drown sorrows’ or simply ‘forget’ for a while
Particularly, where it’s apparent that accessing the alternatives may be difficult or require support.
Does society see these strategies for coping and meeting immediate priorities as signs of resilience? Or, are these lifestyle choices? And, what do the answers mean for policy and practice in this city and elsewhere?
Far from the people experiencing hardship failing to cope, or lacking resilience, I suggest to you that the failure is found – in a large part – in the systems that makes such struggles inescapable for what appears to be an increasing number of people.
Far from lifestyle choices, too often people experiencing hardship and poverty face something like a “Hobson’s Choice” where all the alternatives for meeting their immediate needs may be detrimental to their health and wellbeing in the longer-term.
We cannot answer the necessary questions without listening to people with lived experience of hardship and poverty. We cannot understand what needs to happen without reference to the real dilemmas and trade-offs’ people face daily and how hardship makes people feel.
To do this, we must get talking.
We’re beginning a journey to a better understanding by listening actively and developing a community of people to help us see the full picture of hardship and poverty in our city. A first step for us, here in Stoke-on-Trent, is the publication of the “Get Talking Hardship” report from the Hardship Commission.
The Hardship Commission has worked alongside Staffordshire University and a team of community researchers. They have spoken to hundreds of people in several venues around the city and many different sections of the community.
I’m delighted that VOICES has been part of taking this first step to #seethefullpicture.*
* #seethefullpicture is a national campaign designed to help people better understand and empathise with others who are experiencing multiple disadvantage.