Why are so many youth workers blaming the young for being poor?

There’s so much work that happens for disadvantaged young people (the most common proxy word in the UK front line services for “poor”), and while it may seem odd for me be saying it given my line of work, more than a shade of it bothers me. A lot of the work is brilliant and admirable, but inadvertently and unintentionally, some ends up ‘blaming’ the poor and responsibilising the young for their predicament. And I think this – like many foibles – is borne from a lack of clarity.

So let me start by being clear myself. Poverty is a lack of material resources that means you cannot enjoy a respectable, decent way of living in your community. There’s a load of different debates about how you measure this and what the consequences and causes are, but without adding confusion by conflating these discussions, that’s a relatively straightforward definition. Building on this clarity, I’d like to be clear about defining the important strands of work that happen with young people affected by poverty, as I see it.

Firstly, there is what I would describe as poverty relief work. Poverty (i.e. a lack of resources) is a pretty nasty state to live in. Young people affected by poverty go without suitable clothing, heating and often meals. Many awesome programmes exist to relieve these situations, and youth clubs do a bunch of these, such as;

  • Lunch and breakfast programmes, which help provide nutritious lunches for young people in vacations when school meals aren’t available, or breakfasts for young people all year round.
  • Home re-decoration programmes, which get rid of mould, paint bedrooms and make safe spaces to sleep and study.
  • ‘Gift programmes’ which help provide all the necessary things young people need to thrive, such as books and uniforms for school, to mobile phones and suits to young people looking for work.

The aim of these programmes is to provide relief from one or some of the lived consequences of poverty, rather than to systematically lift young people out of poverty.

Secondly, there’s social mobility work. These are the awesome, often evidence based, programmes aiming to help ‘now’ poor young people avoid being poor when they grow up. These programmes identify the ‘best’ pathways out of poverty – often through education and access to decent jobs – and set about putting young people on these pathways. These programmes include:

  • Tutoring and motivational programmes designed to encourage young people to take up further and higher education
  • Skills, Training and Traineeship programmes designed to provide young people with the skills they need to make super successful transitions in to adulthood
  • Aspiration, character, social skills and informal education programmes, that aim to inspire and skill up young people so they can take up and create opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty as adults

These are super common in the youth sector, and the aim is to get individual young people out of poverty at some stage in the future, not to address poverty now. (As an aside, as I have written about elsewhere, without significant improvements in the labour market, many of these interventions may fail to translate in to adulthoods free of poverty).

So far, that describes most of the ‘poverty’ work within the youth sector, and yet, here I am claiming ‘it’s not quite anti-poverty’. What would anti-poverty work look like, in my ideal-type framework?

It may sound like common sense, but what you define as meaningful anti-poverty work will depend on what you define as the causes of poverty. There’s a really great piece by an Australian academic, Bacchi, who argued that if you carefully ‘read backwards’ from solutions presented you can see – and interrogate – what a problem is represented to be.

For example, if you were to read backwards from some of the albeit awesome programmes described above you may get a troubling picture if they label themselves as anti-poverty programmes.

Take for example, labelling an aspiration programme as an ‘anti-poverty’ programme. You could read backwards and join the dots to get:

  1. a young person’s lack of aspiration is ‘the problem’ they’re trying to solve, so
  2. by saying this is an anti-poverty programme, they are claiming that low aspirations are the problem at the heart of poverty.

Aside from the fact that there’s not really any evidence to suggest aspirations really can tackle poverty alone, it’s a troubling claim. The cause of poverty, in that chain, lies within individual young people. That’s my rub.

I don’t think poverty is caused by individual young people’s deficits, lacks, or moral choices. I think poverty is a social problem of powerlessness and inequality. Power leads to material resources, and if you don’t have it, you end up poor.

Meaningful, non-stigmatising anti-poverty work with young people then, would tackle this collective powerlessness. It would look like getting organised about poverty, challenging the demonising narratives about the poor as well as finding places for young people affected by poverty to find their voice, be heard and campaign.

This sort of work roughly corresponds to what Lister described as strategic collective work (drawn below). When she looked the agency people had to challenge poverty, she described two axis, everyday vs. strategic, and individual vs. collective. Anti-poverty work, for me, is at its best when it is collective and strategic. Few places do this, but there are some examples as food for thought, such as work in the North East of the UK or my work with the APPG on poverty.

Axis

But there’s not enough of it, and as always, it’s pretty unsexy to fund. You’re not aiming to help poor little Fatima pull herself up by her boot strings, your helping Fatima and all her friends point the arrows of their energy at monopolies of power … to often a category funders themselves fall into.

I’d also love to see a programme that is everyday and collective, and looks at how young people could subvert or resist the system that creates their material circumstances. (Think, less criminal, more stigma-free life hacks guides or something). I reckon that would be even less fundable!

Fantasy work aside, all this to say I find it confronting when I hear social mobility or poverty relief work badged as ‘tackling the causes of poverty’. When I hear that, I suspect workers either haven’t thought through what they’re framing as the problem of poverty or they have and they’re OK saying terrible things about the young people they work with. Young people aren’t poor because their bedrooms aren’t well furnished, they’re hungry, or they don’t have the right social skills yet. If you’re badging programmes that address these as ‘anti-poverty’ you may be blaming the poor, and inadvertently become a part of the real problem of poverty and powerlessness.

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