Five things I’ve learned about poverty

Karen SnowKaren Snow is the founder and executive director of For Common Cause, a crowdsourcing site that lets people work directly with people from underserved backgrounds, helping them to build micro-enterprises and financial independence. She worked alongside USAID and DFID on poverty reduction programmes and private-public sector partnerships.

As a humanitarian worker in Nigeria, South Africa and now London, I have found a great source of energy and talent in underprivileged communities. My research also showed that volunteers and donors have a real thirst to help but they want direct contact with the people they help. This led me to found a crowdsourcing site that will bring them together.

Here are five things I’ve learned about poverty along the way…

1. People have unreasonably low expectations of underprivileged people – even suspicion and cynicism

In 2011 37% of people surveyed thought that most people on benefits are taking advantage, and 56% believed that most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one, according to a NatCen report. In 2010, 23% thought people live in need because of a lack of willpower or laziness, as opposed to injustice in our society.

It’s easy to mistrust people we don’t know. On, we help everyone get to know each other. We share the personal stories of micro-enterprises as well as their business ideas and let people who want to help get in touch directly with people who need it. Plus, donors get rewarded with the products of those micro-enterprises, from French lessons to pottery. Supporters get to see their impact – it’s immediate, and personal.

2. Poverty results in a loss of control — as people lose resources, they lose options that would allow them to manage and control their circumstances

Poverty creates interconnected challenges that make it difficult for people to manage their circumstances. Chronic illness results in missed classes, lower graduation rates, and lost income for care-taking parents:

A good example is Sky, who has suffered severe epilepsy since he was six, which sometimes left him homeless. He has to be self-employed to get a job. Sky told us:

“I felt like there was no way up or out. At the time I had personal issues, was severely depressed with no support network, and I wanted to give up.”

After discovering his eye for detail, he started a successful badge-making business producing buttons for festivals and rallies. Now, he is managing his health better and is making his way off of benefits.

3. People in need have their own solutions for creating a better life, but simply lack access to resources to implement them

In South Africa, I worked with victims of trauma and torture to help them launch their own community initiatives. Their projects were well-developed, ranging from craft collectives to poultry farms. What they said they needed was “a way to penetrate the divide with the outside world.” I repeated this research with more than 100 people in the US and the UK, with similar findings. They all shared a need for knowledge, networks, funding equipment and moral support. Also, they would neither qualify for loans nor risk further debt.

4. Self-employment lets people do something that matters to them while earning an income on their own terms

Which of us would be motivated to work minimum wage if we also had to pay childcare or paint houses if we also had a health condition? Some employment options make it harder for people to manage their needs and circumstances. We all deserve the opportunity to act on our own aspirations, to get better at something that matters to us, and to direct our own lives.

Annette was a French teacher at a London university but couldn’t afford the childcare to return to work. With help from supporters on, she started a business to teach children French through webinar sessions, giving her flexibility to look after her children:

 “Thanks to For Common Cause’s help, I can finally go back to work on my own terms and create an income from my creativity.”

5. People in need have talent and energy and are often the most motivated to regain resources and options to direct their own lives

Unfortunately, our attitudes, language and approaches to poverty can be counterproductive, discounting the skills, knowledge, and relationships we have each developed to survive. We all have ambition to build a better life, and we all need resources and opportunities to act on our aspirations.

Meet Lisa, who formerly experienced domestic violence and is a single mother of four. Feeling isolated, she began to volunteer in her community at a costume studio, where she went from doing a few repairs, to making costumes, to running the shop. Through, she received start up money, mentoring and advice from volunteer professionals. Volunteers helped her write a business plan, negotiate premises and contracts, build a photo inventory, create cash flow projects and build marketing strategies. She says:

“For Common Cause made all the difference for me. When you’re starting out, you don’t which questions to ask or where to go. Without them, I would have quit, but people go to know me personally, my passion, and encouraged my potential.”

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5 Responses to Five things I’ve learned about poverty

  1. Rachel says:

    Good reminder that when exploring social issues, some of the greatest learning is about ourselves. We can’t give what we don’t have. Our biases, language and constructs profoundly impact how we understand the context, develop potential solutions and recognize outcomes.

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  3. peter wilford says:

    Two thoughts spring to mind:

    a)don’t judge anyone unless you’ve walked in their shoes first.


    b) there, but for the grace of God, go I.

    People in authority talk about “tough love”. Sadly, with too much emphasis on toughness, but not enough love and compassion. Unfortunately, to seriously help those who are unemployed or economically disadvantaged takes resources in terms of time and finance. It’s easy to condemn, but harder to help and get involved.

  4. Bruce M Kirk says:

    The price, to all of us, of failing to meet the needs of the poor in society is a cost we cannot afford. That paradox is most true with regard to the cost of childhood poverty.

    Few people understand the pervasive effect of poverty. When people are in poverty they are hit from all sides. First, through loss of a minimum income people lose the capacity to care for themselves and their families adequately. Then, we charge them more for being poor! The cost of some services and goods for people who do not have bank accounts is higher than for the rest of us who do.

    Contrary to popular belief, banks are not obliged to provide people with a bank account. Many people are excluded from having accounts because they are poor. The effect of that is that it costs more to live without a bank account. Any payments received by cheque have to be redeemed through a “moneyshop”. They take a commission for the privilege. So, the amount received is already less than was paid.

    Without a bank account people in poverty cannot get access to direct debits. That immediately adds a 5% charge to some of life’s essentials. Gas and electricity supplied through prepayment meters, for example, come at a minimum 5% premium. Then ofcourse, come the exorbitant interest rates of the legalised moneylenders. Its one of life’s ironies that the people who are charged the lowest interest rates for loans are the people who need them least.

    We charge the poor higher prices to buy the things that most of us would pay for out of salaries or savings. People who do not have savings or available credit rely on the services of Perfecthomes, Brighthouse, Shopacheck, Payasyouview, Provident and other similar commercial organisations who charge comparatively high interest rates, sometimes into thousands of percentage points per year when those people with mortgages are shopping around to save a half per cent and those with ISAs are trying to find the account that will give an extra 0.1% per year. This is not economically sensible and is not sustainable. It would be more productive, economically, in society if the poor could buy goods cheaper. Then they could buy more good for their money to meet their family’s needs. More goods bought would put more money into the economy and create more wealth. Its not the amount of money in the economy that’s important so much as the speed with which it goes around.

    Parents with children are more likely to be in poverty than adult couples or single adults. The reason is simple. They have more mouths to feed with fewer people, if any, bringing income into the family. Its hardly surprising there is so much debt among poor families.

    Furthermore, when children are born into poverty the effect is that poverty transfers from one generation to the next. Unemployment in the 1960s was a rarity in any generation. In 2014 its not uncommon to come across three or four generations of unemployment and resultant poverty in families. That may present as familial culture in the 21st century but it was the exception fifty years ago. It was not the poor that invented unemployment. Society and the successive governments we have elected have responsibility here.

    Then, to add insult to the injury of parents who already feel guilty because they are unable to provide for all their children’s needs, buying school uniforms and the cost of educational trips are cost prohibitive. So, consequently, the children are consigned to having an incomplete education, with the risk that they will be unable to escape the poverty they have been born into by accident of birth.

    When did our society lose the ethos that those with more have responsibility for those who have not? “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. People in two World Wars fought to establish those principles. Those expectations led to free health care and education at the point of delivery for all. Within a couple of generations the over-riding ethos has become “each for themselves”. In that context its surprising that the results of the surveys that Karen quotes do not demonstrate more prejudice towards the poor. Paradoxically, the perpetual election of governments all committed to increasing wealth of the wealthy at the cost of reduced services has created a cycle of deprivation and poverty that has become so entrenched in some families that low aspirations have become prevalent.

    The irony is that recent social and government policy towards the poor is false economy and is not economically sustainable. The effects of poverty are not only a loss of control for the poor, as Karen explains but they also result in a loss of control in economic terms, particularly for the public purse.

    Larger numbers of people in poverty leads to increases in ill health, as Karen shows. Not only that, it leads to poorer educational outcomes. At its most simple, more ill health leads to more lost days at school (although that’s not the only contributor to poorer educational outcomes). Poor diet also leads to poor educational performance. The overall effect is that it costs the education sector more to produce less educational attainment per capita.

    It was Tony Blair’s quest to eradicate childhood poverty by 2020. Neither the policy’s of the Labour Governemnt nor those of the Coalition, committed as it is to reductions in public spending, have resulted in any reduction in childhood poverty. It is still a sad indictment of a modern democracy that one in four children, live in poverty. In some parts of the country its higher than that. The poor will still be with us in 2020.

    Also, disaffection increases with poverty. Disaffection leads to less engagement among the poor in universal services, leading to greater need for chronic and emergency services with all the costs associated with it.

    Disaffection with society and the local community also contributes to anti-social and offending behaviour. Why would you bother contributing constructively to a society and a community that has no interest or investment in you? Consequently, that leads to more offences committed, more police officers and support staff required to deal with it, increased insurance premiums because of the consequences of crime, more courts, barristers, solicitors, judges, magistrates, court clerks and ushers, etc., etc.

    In short, failing to provide for the material needs of those in poverty is false economy. Cost benefit analysis shows that the more disposable income we make available to the poor, the less we would have to pay for public services and that’s without taking into account the impact of substance misuse and the mental health consequences of poverty.

    It is no accident that in Cuba, where the gap between the richest and the poorest in society is less than in most other countries in the world, health inequalities, for example, are among the lowest, resulting in more productive lives for the greater part of the population; to the benefit of everybody.

    There needs to be a complete rethink of policy towards those in poverty: just ask The Children’s Society. To give money away to the poor would be more cost effective and lead to greater prosperity for us all than what we have been doing for many years to solve the problem. There is a way of meeting the needs of the poor in a systematic and human way which benefits society as a whole whilst promoting individual dignity and the integrity.