Monday, 4 November 2013

"Statistics are people with the tears washed away"

One of our Commissioners, Jen Wallace, reflects on her involvement with the Poverty Truth Commission:

Blog for Poverty Truth Commission

Jen Wallace, October 2013

When I was approached to become involved in the on-going work of the Poverty Truth Commission earlier this year I confess to being slightly sceptical of the process.  Some of my reticence was due to being identified as a ‘civic leader’ who could help them to make change happen, but in all honesty more of my unease centred on whether direct conversations with people living in poverty would make a difference to my world view.  As a social researcher by trade, I’ve spent my professional life reading, writing and commenting on reports on social exclusion, with their associated quotes and statistics. 

The extent to which the Poverty Truth Conversations have impacted on me has therefore taken me by surprise.  The activities are best described as ‘semi-structured’ with regular meetings of the whole group, sub-groups covering a number of identified themes (stigma, in-work poverty, the costs of poverty and welfare reform) and occasional cups of coffee and cake with other members. 

Peppered throughout are testimonies from people living in poverty.  With great strength, they have spoken to the whole group about their experiences of domestic abuse, benefits sanctions and the powerful stigma associated with living in poverty.  There is contained anger at the rising need for food banks across Scotland in the 21st Century.  They remind us of the people behind the headlines. 

The impact is not just emotionally powerful, with years of careful policy development behind me I have become used to using the traditional tools of influence (reports, briefings, meetings with civil servants).  Our recent sub-group conversations about the use of zero-hours contracts ended with the decision just to write to Cabinet Secretary John Swinney and ask him directly about the government’s views on these contracts.  A simple letter, containing testimony from people directly affected, cutting through the usual time consuming and frustrating processes.  But why shouldn’t we ask directly, they are our elected representatives after all. 

Part of the difficulty in writing about the work of the Poverty Truth Commission and these subsequent conversations is that the outcome of the work is unclear.  Allowing the focus and activities to come from the conversations themselves instead of a pre-set agenda is brave and at times disconcerting.  At the end of the day, outcomes will rely on the relationship that have developed, the links that are made within and beyond the Commission, and a little bit of luck in terms of identifying where we can make most difference to people living in poverty. 

For those who attend the Poverty Truth conversations, they are by equal parts challenging and inspiring.  The other members will know I have a strong predilection to using quotes when my own words fail me.  At the end of the one of the meetings I reflected on the quote by Victor Sidel – ‘statistics are people with the tears washed away’.  The Poverty Truth Commission is an inspiring way of bringing those people, their tears but also their laughter, back to the heart of policy-making. 

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