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 ForCommonCause.org, 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 ForCommonCause.org, 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 ForCommonCause.org, 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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