15 Jul

More than money: understanding poverty relationally

relational poverty

Poverty is a pervasive and global problem, but it exists in different forms and has many different effects. Something approaching a billion people are hungry worldwide. One in six people have inadequate access to water and a quarter live without electricity. Global inequality is increasing. The richest one percent of people in the world own nearly half of the world’s wealth, and the figure is expected to grow in the coming years.

In higher income countries like the UK, we tend not to experience poverty in the same way as many of those in low-income countries, but it is still a feature of life for many. Charity foodbanks supplied people with emergency food for three days on over a million different occasions in 2014-15, with around 500,000 unique users.

The definition of poverty
Like so many other things, we are used to seeing poverty in terms of its material dimensions. Generally speaking, we understand it as a financial issue: poverty simply involves not having enough money. This may be the most obvious symptom, but poverty is a much broader issue.

Three of the most commonly-used definitions used in the UK today are Absolute Poverty, Relative Poverty and Social Exclusion.

• Absolute poverty is defined as the lack of sufficient resources to meet physical needs for health.
• Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the national average. It is concerned with the absence of the material needs to participate fully in daily life.
• Social exclusion is a fairly new term, broadly similar to relative poverty but including both the causes and effects of poverty. It includes many different factors that can drive and result from poverty: unemployment, substandard housing, education, low income, addiction, crime, health and family breakdown.

Relational capital
Social exclusion starts to get to the heart of the matter, but doesn’t go far enough. We would argue that, more than being about money – which is important but really only the symptom of a deeper issue – poverty is ultimately about relationships. Very often this involves global relationships and injustices, or the structural and institutional relationships that create and perpetuate poverty (including government corruption and inefficiency; punitive interest and debt repayment; labour practices, and so on).

In wealthier countries, it is still those people who are most marginalised and who live on the edges of society, who also tend to be poorest financially. This week we heard the news that children brought up in the care system are heavily overrepresented in the prison population. ‘Fewer than 1% of children and young people are in the care of local authorities, but a third of boys and 61% of girls in custody either are in care or have been.’ A comment from one young offender was particularly telling: ‘If I’d had the support around me when I was younger, I would have stayed as smart and sweet and innocent – but it was the fact that I’ve built myself up with so much anger. I’m not used to anyone supporting me.’ Those with a criminal record will be discounted from around half of all job opportunities and just a third of those leaving prison go on into education, training or paid work.

Those with fuller and broader networks of relationships are often able to cope with a setback such as a divorce, redundancy, debt, eviction and so on, that might trap those who do not have the same relational capital in a cycle of poverty. This is neatly illustrated by Mark Granovetter’s 1973 well-known paper, The Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter’s research demonstrates that opportunities (in this case, for employment) come most often not from our closest circle of relationships, but from the ‘weak ties’ in our social networks – the friend-of-a-friend, acquaintances and contacts who bridge different and otherwise disconnected social groups and therefore offer access to new and useful information. Despite the language of ‘weak’ ties, these bridges are a key element of relational capital, and those without this richness of relational network are at a serious disadvantage.

Guy Brandon works as a researcher for the Jubilee Centre.