More than money: understanding poverty relationally

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.

Social Capital: we’re nothing without it

Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationships support, have launched a Best Medicine campaign “to put relationships at the heart of the NHS”. Their report details how “good quality relationships matter for our health and wellbeing and can improve health outcomes; but long-term health conditions can also have a significant impact on our relationships”. It goes on to argue that “it is important to ensure our relationships are resilient and robust if we are to draw on such relationships as assets to health and wellbeing.”

The evidence for the link between relationships and both physical and mental health is strong. Weak relationships can lead to unhealthy behaviour (for example substance abuse), whilst supportive relationships encourage health promoting behaviour, particularly for men (who are more likely see a doctor or change diet if encouraged to do so). Relationships also buffer stress with significant physiological benefits, whilst loneliness is known to damage health. A meta-analysis concluded that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death is greater than that of physical inactivity and obesity and comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol.

Relationships are also essential in the provision of care: 6.5 million people in the UK currently care unpaid for an ill, frail or disabled family member or friend. But 75% of carers were found by Carers UK to have difficulties in maintaining relationships and social networks due to the demands of caring. As one carer put it: “Friends have drifted away so I am exhausted from caring and have little support. I am becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.”

Over the last five years the Relationships Foundation has consistently argued for a more comprehensive family policy with clearly designated responsibility. Rather than it being seen as a narrow agenda around parenting, childcare and the funding of relationship support services, it needs to recognise how policy in all areas can both influence families and depend upon them. We’re therefore encouraged to see more relational approaches to policy being adopted across the political spectrum. The ConservativeHome website has just run a series on the family as the missing link in policy to promote ‘aspiration’ which quotes our assessment of the costs of relationship breakdown. Earlier in the year the Labour MP John Cruddas spoke at an event organised by the Relationships Alliance (of which Relate are a part). In referring to the problems that can be caused by weak relationships he concluded the:

“These problems aren’t a failure of public services or even the economy – though both these play their part. They are a failure of relationships. So we need to stop making policy as if grandparents, mothers, fathers and children exist in separate silos and not as part of a whole family. Throughout our lives we are dependent upon others for our wellbeing and sense of identity. Relationships give meaning to our lives. They bind us all together into society and give us our sense of belonging. We are literally nothing without them. …  We need government that helps create the conditions for families and people’s relationships to thrive.”

The Best Medicine campaign should therefore be seen as part of a wider movement to recognise the importance of our closest relationships, and the potential for many government departments to play a part in supporting them. Too often social capital, and particularly that which resides in families, is an invisible and neglected resource in policymaking. Relate make ten recommendations for ways in which relationships could be better addressed by the health system. These illustrate the kind of specific changes that are necessary of relational thinking is to turn into relational practice.

  1. The UK Secretary of State for Health becomes Secretary of State for Health and Wellbeing
  2. Couple, family and social relationships become a core part of the work of local Health and Wellbeing Boards
  3. Government establishes an inquiry into how relationships can be included in health policy frameworks, including outcomes frameworks
  4. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing commissions research into long term health conditions and relationships
  5. Public Health England establishes a National Health and Relationships Intelligence Network
  6. Directors of Public Health consider the best ways to gather data on the quality and stability of relationships to inform local authorities and commissioners
  7. Clinical Commissioning Groups and local authorities have a duty to undertake a ‘Family Test’ when considering new local policies and in the commissioning cycle
  8. Relationship support and impairment-specific charities partner to provide support
  9. Public Health England supports local authorities to embed plans to strengthen relationships and incorporate relationships into Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategies
  10. The Department for Work and Pensions pilots a local ‘family offer’ with a focus on health and wellbeing, particularly on the couple, family and social relationships of people with long term health conditions.

The Relational Student: developing social capital capacity

CAMBRIDGE – By Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project.

This week saw the final day of filming for “The Relational Teacher”. The film explores a pedagogy for relationships and has followed six outstanding teachers and their classes. Whilst we have sought to highlight teacher practice/behaviours that lead to strong relationships in the classroom, the film has explored the view of students as well; their objective perspective has been crucial in understanding the subtle nuance of relationship building.

In turning the spotlight on the students, it becomes clear that being a Relational Teacher is not a solitary pursuit. The best Relational Teachers describe the environment of the Relational School (highly suited to their way of working); the Relational Staffroom (teachers who build relationships in community) and the Relational Student. A fundamental question has arisen from our work; to what extent do we need to develop the relational capacities of young people so that relationship building in the classroom becomes a shared responsibility?

In an attempt to analyse, observe and describe the ways teachers build social capital with those around them – I was struck by the need to develop the same social capital capacities in the very young people in their care.

Do relationships with teachers even matter?

The theory of social capital was distilled into two words by Field: “relationships matter” (Social Capital, London, Routledge 2003). The significance of a relational dimension is depicted in most models of social capital. The building blocks of social capital include: trust; engagement and connection; collaborative action; shared identity as well as shared values and aspirations.

When students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behaviour difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse et al., 2009). They are also more active participants in class, express a greater interest in [schooling], and maintain higher grade point averages (Hallinan, 2008)

Although both parental and teacher support are important in predicting students’ achievement, several studies indicate that student-perceived teacher connection was the most closely associated factor with progress through Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). Positive student-teacher relationships serve as a resource for students at risk of school failure, whereas conflict or detachment between students and adults are the foundations of disconnection and, specifically, outcomes such as truancy. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (2000) suggests that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with ‘relationship with the teacher’ cited as one of the principal grounds for relational breakdown. Where relationships are strong in the classroom, they can surmount social inequality; where they are poor or dysfunctional, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage. Simply put, students who have difficulty forming supportive relationships with teachers are at a greater risk of school failure (Ladd & Burgess, 2001).

Developing Relational Resilience 

So, how do we actively create social capital within school communities?

Research indicates that not all students have equal access to the opportunity to develop close relationships with their teachers. According to Jerome, Hamre, and Pianta (2009), some subgroups (including certain ethnic minority groups, males, those of lower ability or those who exhibit externalising behaviours such as aggression or hyperactivity) experience teacher relationships with more conflict than their peers. Likewise, students with emotional disturbances, mild learning disabilities or students who display more problem behaviours at home have more conflictual relationships with teachers than with students without these problems.

Whilst education has witnessed a shift in focus in relation to the students’ role, the learning and assessment processes, teacher-to-student relationships remain asymmetrical. As such there is, perhaps, an expectation, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to develop the  professional working relationship between them and the student. But that some groups of students struggle to build close relationships with teachers, more than others, suggests relational capacities of young people are exceptionally important to building strong relationships and need to be developed. We need to help to develop relational resilience in students so that when they meet others who aren’t as good at developing relationships, they can overcome perceived obstacles. Students need to know where to begin and not passively to expect the teacher to initiate the process.

picThe Culture of Open Dialogue

One area that can be focused on to build relational resilience is the area of communication. Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and consequently students with poor communication skills will struggle to build relationships. One way to develop this is through the practice of dialogue (West-Burnham & Otero, 2004). This dialogue needs to be rich – not just focused on ‘instructional conversation’, but including community conversation, where people can share views and develop social capital. When students practice dialogue with their teachers and classmates, they will develop their communication skills, and likely feel greater mutual respect, thus building relational resilience.

The National College poses eight interrogatives to assess the Relational culture of your classroom/your school. How open is your school’s culture of dialogue?

In our view, there is no surer route to community building and to fulfi lling the promise of democracy and lifelong learning than through the deepening of good, ongoing dialogue. Such dialogue can increase student achievement, transform teaching and learning and renew relationships that connect communities to schools (Preskill et al, 2000)

The Relational Teacher is released this September.