Poverty smells of damp clothes and mouldy walls, it feels like cold bones and tastes of another missed meal. We recognise what it looks like too – poorly insulated homes, damaged roofs, worried families. But what does poverty sound like? As I sat down with a Wise Group support group for employability and skills, the most distinctive sound was laughter.
People shared stories of “drafts so strong they blow doors open”, and the jumble of slippers, onesies and coats you would wear to keep warm; it was a relief to know you were not alone. But the laughter stopped as we discussed a more familiar sound of poverty, one which too many people encounter when they take that first step to seek support – the crackle of a bad phone line, and the words, “I’m sorry but I can’t help.”
Across the group, being rejected for support was a common experience. Where support did exist, a maze of procedures and processes failed individuals who disproportionally require training in numeracy and literacy.
One individual, who worked as a welder until recently, spoke about how he had lived on £63.50 a week. Within this budget, he spoke of how essential it was to set aside money for a mobile phone, describing it as a “lifeline” to services without which he would be “lost”. His incredibly tight budget meant that he was already stretched beyond the limit, meaning that he “couldn’t save any more” to provide for the steep rise in bills. As individuals opted to ration food and self-disconnect energy, the prospect of fair and sustainable work became distant.
At the Wise Group, it is our job to lift individuals, families and communities out of poverty through relational mentoring. We work with people of all ages looking for fair work, struggling with bills or trying to break the cycle of reoffending. Last year, we helped 50,000 people through trusting, compassionate relationships, one conversation at a time. A million such conversations have taught us that systemic change on an individual level requires systemic change at a societal one.
The group I visited is part of a project which has helped nearly 1,000 individuals find and maintain employment, and nearly 500 to go on to further education and training. This was possible through sustained support – everything from a fresh set of clothes to energy advice, from digital inclusion to numeracy training, both before and during the employment process – sometimes for as long as 18 months.
Reaching those who are furthest from the employment market requires relationships built on trust and compassion; in a time of crisis, kindness goes a long way.
If we can boldly state “I can help”, and put people before process, we will unlock deep wells of potential across thousands of communities. Let’s do that, together