Last week, in one day alone we saw three shocking poverty stories make the headlines in Wales.
A new report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that there could be 50,000 more Welsh children in poverty by 2021 whilst the Resolution Foundation report states that a whole generation of young people in the UK face the prospect of never owning their own home. ITV Wales shared the stories of the people behind such headlines, such as Deanndra from Swansea, who lost her mother last year and now lives off £57 a week while studying and sleeping on a sofa in her uncle’s house.
This, unfortunately, is not news and doesn’t seem to prompt the outrage you might expect. I think that most of us are aware that there are high levels of poverty in Wales, and there have been for a long time. Almost a quarter of households in Wales live in relative poverty even though half of these households already have one salary coming in.
What worries me just as much as these stories is a narrative that has normalised poverty in Wales – and that we have come to accept it as inevitable. Globally, extreme poverty has halved in 15 years, but that progress hasn’t been replicated in Wales. It is time for the focus to shift away from the problems and towards the solutions. At Oxfam, we believe that those best placed to come up with the solutions to poverty are those with real, lived experience of it.
We recently ran a 10-month project in Cardiff in partnership with South Riverside Community Development Centre called Skills for Life, which supported the Communities for Work Programme and was funded by Welsh Government and the European Social Fund. The project focused on supporting Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women, because research shows that BME communities, and particularly women, are some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups and suffer disproportionate levels of poverty and social exclusion.
In just 10 months the project supported 54 women to gain some of the skills and confidence they needed to progress into decent work, and out of poverty. We’re now at the end of the project and to date 14 women have found employment. What women in this project told us was that the lack of decent jobs that pay a decent wage was a barrier. The much-quoted adage that a person can work themselves – and their family – out of poverty, is no longer true.
Let’s talk about solutions: All Welsh public services should pay their staff a Living Wage as a minimum, which is £8.75 an hour as set by the Living Wage Foundation. As Wales’s largest employer, public services need to lead the way in terms of decent work. It should not be acceptable for our public services, such as social care, to pay a wage that does not meet people’s basic needs. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that many of the majority of low paid sectors are staffed by women.
Childcare was also identified as a key barrier by the women in our project seeking to enter paid work, which is critical to tackling poverty. So, another way of tackling poverty in Wales is to increase affordable, high quality childcare which, alongside the traditional offer, reflects the atypical hours that non-traditional work patterns impose. This includes overnight and weekend childcare to accommodate the growing service sector in Wales – retail, care, hospitality – which are increasingly met by women.
Free and effective public services, such as health and education, are one of the strongest weapons in the fight against inequality. They benefit everyone in society, but the poorest most of all – and where public services are poorer, it tends to be women who undertake this work unpaid. This means that if good quality healthcare, childcare or elder care isn’t available, it tends to be women who leave work to provide it. Our previous projects across Wales have also demonstrated that it is the most vulnerable people in our societies that fall through the net and are not adequately supported by our public services.
Our Skills for Life project is just one example of a small, community-based project that has empowered people to move out of poverty, but there are dozens of other such projects across Wales. Just as our project was able to draw out information about the reforms that could be made to help women in Cardiff move out of poverty, other projects in Wales will have their own learning, some of which will overlap and some of which will vary by community.
Throughout Wales we are tackling different strands of poverty – food poverty, period poverty, fuel poverty, childhood poverty…the list goes on. There are different funding streams, programmes and theories for each, and everyone is competing for an ever-dwindling pot to fund their work. Food poverty, fuel poverty and period poverty all have the same root cause: Poverty. Which is why my greatest wish is for everyone who is working to tackle poverty in Wales to work together to achieve the structural changes we want to see.
Gordon Campbell, former Mayor of Vancouver, said, ‘If you focus on putting your resources where you agree, you will run out of resources before you run out of agreements.’ Surely now is the time for co-ordinated action – a re-invigoration of Wales’ commitment to tackling poverty, bringing together business and employers, our public sector, large charities like Oxfam and those community groups who have the best knowledge in the areas where they work. Yes, poverty exists here. We are aware of the scale of the problem, but we also know what the solutions are, we have all been testing them for a long time. We need a national conversation about how we can use the experience, learning and expertise of all the sectors in Wales. A conversation that puts people who are experiencing poverty at the heart of the solutions. A conversation which challenges the narrative of inevitability and unites those of us who are working towards the same goal to work together for change, and an end to poverty in Wales, for good.
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