Researching poverty series

18 August 2021

Nothing About Us Without Us

Image: Lukas Blazek @Unsplash

Poverty: Individuals, systems, and statistics

The mission of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is to solve UK poverty, a mission that was established over a hundred years ago. A truly rounded conversation about poverty will illustrate the problem using statistics, consider the systemic context that drives poverty, and provide a vehicle for people with lived experience of poverty to have their voices heard. A report or briefing that combines these three elements gives a complete picture of the reality of poverty in the UK today. Dry, number-heavy based reports without lived experience input can be difficult to engage with. On the other hand, stories that focus on individuals are incomplete. Statistics are critical for giving a sense of scale and challenging misinformation. Useful for giving a sense of scale, challenging misinformation, and drawing audiences’ attention. Explaining the systems that have led to an individuals’ circumstances gives a much more powerful narrative.

Until recently, JRF’s work has drawn heavily on the first two components, embedding strong evidence-based research alongside proposals for policy solutions. But our approach to working with people with lived experience of poverty needed development.

Alongside this, the wider UK poverty narrative has long focused on one particular ‘superficial manifestation’: poverty defined as insufficient income to meet basic living costs. Whilst this is relatively easy to define and estimate, its narrow framework makes it difficult to challenge the unhelpful cultural models that still persist within the public about poverty. For many, poverty is seen as a set of non-negotiable needs that are not met, effectively conflating poverty with destitution. Further to this, the so-called ‘Culture of Poverty’ outlined here gives rise to several persistent stereotypes. The ‘benefit scrounger’ who comes from ‘three generations of worklessness’, who has ‘poor impulse control’, ‘loads of children’ and indulges in ‘feckless spending’. Furthermore, many believe that the UK is ‘post-poverty’ or tend to blame the individuals for the poverty they face. Individual poverty is seen as a result of self-makingness, a person’s motivation and choices. These persistent, challenging models of UK poverty, alongside

COVID-19 – the social security response

The COVID-19 outbreak has bought into stark contrast pre-existing inequalities in the way that we work, live and play, whilst highlighting and extending existing forms of inequalities and social injustices. It has also shown us that life can sometimes steer us off course. Our social security system is vital for many in providing support during times of crisis. Whilst many of the government’s responses to the pandemic have provided much-needed emergency support, and demonstrated that where there’s a will, there’s a way, it has also highlighted just how inadequate the system is.

Whilst the pandemic has been devastating for so many, it has the potential to provide a catalyst for change, and a real opportunity to reimagine our social security system. As part of this, we need to take care to consider whose voices are included and excluded from the debate. Until recently, there has been limited willingness from the government to really work with and listen to those hit hardest by the pandemic. Rather, the debate has relied on elite perspectives and expertise. We hear much from politicians, think tanks and third sector representatives (and JRF can be included here). Whilst these groups have a lot of expertise to share, we hear rather less from those with the expertise that comes from having lived experience of poverty and having to rely on social security as a source of income.

With nearly half of those living in poverty relying on some form of welfare support (UK Poverty 2020/21 | JRF), those who have experience of the system best understand its challenges and where the solutions lie. A redesigned social security system must be developed in conjunction with those with lived experience if it is to be realistic and authentic. By extending the discussions beyond the practical design of the system to considerations around the principles and visions that should underpin social security policy, engaging with those with lived experience could, and should lead to radical changes to social security over the coming months and years.

Co-designing solutions to poverty

At JRF, we recognise the vital role that lived experience has to play in solving UK poverty. We are increasingly drawing on lived experience, using that expertise to drive our work. Last year’s UK Poverty 2020/21 report found here looks a little different to its predecessors. As well as the coronavirus pandemic forcing us to re-evaluate the data sources we used and how we responded to a rapidly changing world, we knew we wanted to provide an opportunity for people with lived experience of poverty to shape the report. This blog shares our experiences of the process we went through.

This report is one of many where JRF are seeking to provide a seat at the table for those with lived experience. Each of them represents an opportunity to learn and reflect as we move towards a partnership approach with people with lived experience of poverty. You can read more about our learning journey so far here.

Participatory research, like that the Covid Realities project entails, and that JRF are increasingly incorporating into their work, is critical in ensuring the voices of those with lived experience are central in the debate. The Covid Realities research programme has already underlined how often families on a low-income have felt excluded and crowded out of policy discussions. Further to this, it has drawn out solutions such families identify to the challenges they face, providing a mechanism to listening to and engaging with their expertise.

If the Government really wants to ‘build back better’, it must recognise the many forms that knowledge and expertise take and include as many of them in the conversation as possible. That way, there’s a greater chance that we can come out of this pandemic a better and fairer society.


Gemma’s research focuses on the role that social security has on providing a route out of poverty. She is particularly interested in the nature of public attitudes towards poverty and social security, and the impact that disabilities and limiting long-term illness have on people’s experiences of poverty. You can contact Gemma via her profile here.

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