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.

16 Jan

Relational Living (2): World Peace

World Peace (2)

CAMBRIDGE – By Simon Fowler –

“Social Networks are fundamentally connected to goodness, and what the world needs now is more connections.” – Nicholas Christakis

“I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we’ll project into the world, and the more peaceful our world will be.” – Jill Bolte Taylor

“When people of all different persuasions come together working side be side for a common goal, differences melt away and we learn amity and we learn to live together and to get to know one another.” – Karen Armstrong

I have a contrarian side to me, and whenever I see hyberbole like this my snarky side switches on. Besides, I’m wikid tired right now so I’m not in my usual upbeat and bright-side mood.

Relational Proximity® Dimension #5 is ‘Overlap’: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

There’s rarely been a TED (www.ted.com) talk I didn’t enjoy and which didn’t fascinate me. It’s a great platform, wonderfully presented, and the technology, the discovery or the personal experience is invariably gripping and exciting. And what they’ve done to spread the ideas and concept is excellent. It has been accused and defended of elitism. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic way to make use of rich people’s money and to spread great ideas. If anything, however, the problem is that the speakers just can’t seem to help overstating their point. With an audience paying six grand a pop, just 20 minutes to pour out your life’s work, the spotlights … I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

But I also think they and their audience actually might believe their overstatement. Unfortunately the overstatement takes the talks from being mostly excellent, scientifically grounded and true-to-life to, well, amazingly utopian wishful thinking. (I speak as an idealist myself).

Jill Bolte Taylor’s amazing description of watching her own brain have a stroke (truly, jaw-droppingly amazing) ends with an apparent choice between left brain individualism or right-brain universal life-force. My emotional & violent right brain freaks me out sometimes. And what part of the brain is the ‘we’ that’s doing the choosing anyway? Nicholas Christakis asserts that connections will solve the world’s problems. Connections like the Stazi had? Like the world banking system had?

And Karen Armstrong’s talk seems grounded neither in anthropology nor anything like a robust theology. The ending actually I agree with (“get to know each other” would presumably comes first – I’m sure it wasn’t her best line, she looked exhausted). But the ‘common purpose’? It’s the “Compassion Charter” signed up to by 46,179 compassionate people so far. Sorry if you’re a fan but isn’t the problem uncompassionate people?? And I don’t want differences between me and others to go away, I want them transcended. I’m not saying we couldn’t do with more love, but not even the Ten Commandments prevented human ingenuity for evil. A group of people simply agreeing to be more compassion isn’t, I’m desperately sad to say, going to solve our deepest problems. I totally commit to be being more compassionate. Then another day happens. As Solzenitsyn said, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

I love and appreciate the longing for peace and goodness and love in these people and in their statements. The confirmation of relational proximity found in these social science, neuroscience and and humanistic statements I wholeheartedly welcome. But, firstly, mere ‘relational proximity’, socially networked togetherness, isn’t the whole answer; it just points the finger more acutely on the problem.

The five dimensions of Relational Proximity® (Touch, Time, Breadth, Overlap, and Balance) are nothing without love and commitment, and love and commitment can barely consist without them. That’s why Relational Proximity® I think is so powerful, and so much more powerful than nebulous ‘social networks’. If used to examine our lives, I think it reveals the reality of our choices and our relationships. Secondly, the understanding that these connections are FOR something is crucial. What is the common purpose or ‘overlap’? Christakis says in his video that our global human network is a super-organism, it has a life of its own. I think world peace and compassion are good goals, but I actually think they’re penultimate; they’re derivative of something bigger, something, perhaps Someone more creative and dynamic and Personal.

And that is way too much thinking for one night. Find some time to see all three videos mentioned in this blog and let me know what you think?

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first in this series was published on 9 January.