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Feb 13 QSA addresses Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission

Judith Moran, director of Quaker Social Action, spoke at the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission on 31 January 2013. The Commission was set up the Tower Hamlets mayor, Lutfur Rahman, with the aim of tackling inequality in the borough.

The Commission is holding three public meetings focusing on the themes of community and housing, income and employment inequality, and safety nets and mutual responsibility. Judith Moran spoke at the second meeting, to address the question of whether Tower Hamlets is rich or poor.

Below is an edited version of Judith's address to the Commission.

What we deliver changes over time but the range of work we do is broad because our definition of poverty is broad; yes, tangible material poverty, but also poverty of connections, of choices, of community. Currently we offer:

  • furniture reuse, Homestore.
  • tenancy creation for homeless young people, Homelink.
  • building neighbourliness on local estates, kicking off with a street party,  Knees Up.
  • helping families communicate better about money, Made of Money.
  • building coping skills and resilience by using coaching & mindfulness, This Way Up.
  • supporting bereaved people to source affordable and meaningful funerals, Down to Earth.

Last year we supported over 1,100 Tower Hamlets residents. Though our work has changed over the years, that we have been around since 1867 suggests we have much first hand experience of walking alongside those on low incomes in the borough and seeing what we could usefully do. 

I was asked to illustrate some of the realities of life on a low income, as we have seen in our work. It is hard to condense even my decade of experience at QSA into a few minutes, but  I'm going to offer you three different ways of answering the question the commission is looking at today Is Tower Hamlets rich or poor?

Clearly, it is rich and poor. Standing here in Canary of being reminded of what others have and what I'll never get".

Our  Made of Money project supports low income families to manage their money, and to challenge our materialistic culture and to become canny consumers. One mum noticed that in a supermarket, while branded goods were at eye level, you had to bend down for the value goods. "They make you bend low and it makes you feel low," she said. 

There is ample research showing that people on low incomes manage their finances with great care and resourcefulness because they have to. But this job is made much harder when our society seems to reinforce messages that suggest we are judged by what we have, rather than who we are. So, in a borough that is both rich and poor, equipping low income households with what we would call "emotional financial literacy" can assist to provide a tiny bit of wiggle room in the household finances. Ninety-two per cent of people we support report that they now feel more in control of their money, rather than a sense of powerlessness and shame that they previously felt.  

Is Tower Hamlets rich or poor? It is poor and its poverty is desperate. The Tower Hamlets residents we support tell us the reality of living on a low income can be relentless, demeaning, stressful, isolating.  Let me give you just a few examples of that.

People suffer behind closed doors. One man we supported knew he wouldn't have sufficient money to fill his belly and heat his home. He chose to eat and not to have his heating on at all, all winter. His insulation, he said, was to keep his curtains closed.

People's lives are devoid of basic comforts. One family who had lost their mother, did not have enough money to even buy teabags and milk, as our worker discovered when he visited them at home. Imagine not being able to just have a cup of tea, to soothe you, when your mum had died. And of course not being able to offer even basic hospitality. 

People put precious resources into putting up a front. The drivers for our furniture reuse project see what goes on behind many closed doors in the borough. They often say that people can look really quite okay and then you take something into their home and you find out they have nothing and they have invested all they can in keeping face out in the world.

Is Tower Hamlets rich or poor? It is rich in diversity, resourcefulness, and tenacity. And it could be richer because posing these questions enables us to think about what would make this a fairer borough.

Of course there are larger structural issues here, which will be addressed later when we look at income inequality, but our experience at QSA shows us the basics that matter incomes maximised, support to stretch household budgets as far as they will go, access to affordable credit, protection from those things that part you from your money very quickly (like extortionate interest for goods or services).

There are other things that can enhance the wealth of this borough and I'll give you a few quick examples.

In one session we got quite emotional. We talked about things people usually feel ashamed of but it was OK It was good to know that we are all in the same boat".  Our young people who are searching for a secure tenancy come together and see the benefits of spending time with others in similar circumstances one young man told us "it's such a relief to know there are others like me. I blame myself less for being homeless".

People can feel impoverished by feeling stuck and time spent with a trusted person exploring and uncovering some options for change can re-energise. We have heard people say "I have found inner resources" and "I can do something if I put my mind to it".

People can feel impoverished by a sense that no-one else cares, but demonstrating otherwise builds trust and the social glue that communities need. We have seen the willingness of others to pitch in often if asked for help, people will help. In our funeral project, we support people who are really struggling to pay for a funeral. We had one couple where the wife had died, and the husband really had no money at all. She had been a cleaner and we went to her previous employers and just asked if they would help. They did, and we were able to support her husband to give her a simple, dignified funeral.

People can feel impoverished by a sense that nothing can change and no-one cares so finding that others will pitch in can be transformative. Like our Knees Up project, which operates in the art of the possible, going onto estates and using a street party as a catalyst to bring people together over the longer term to think about what they themselves can do. As one person said: "We've got problems here, sure. You'd be a fool to say that we don't. But that's nothing as to the potential on these estates. There's lots that think like me, they just don't know other people are out there too. If we all get together, nothing can stop us."

I know that the work of this Commission is to uncover the challenges faced by the borough and to offer solutions but I would also promote the benefits of not just looking at the problems, but also at the unrealised potential, to look not just at what we can fix, but what we can foster.

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