Speaking as an ally: Learning from people with lived experience of poverty

© ATD Fourth World – Joseph Wresinski Centre AR0200120002_01

Looking at the growing number of child protection referrals based on ‘neglect’, on 19 October 2021, the International Parent Advocacy Network hosted a webinar entitled “Poverty Is Not Neglect: Who is responsible for neglecting our children?” ATD parent activist Tammy Mayes chaired the event and was also a speaker. She explained:

‘Poverty doesn’t make it harder to be a good parent. Parenting is hard regardless of poverty; what poverty does make hard is meeting the basic needs of the entire family.’

Tammy’s remarks are here. Most of the speakers were also parents who shared their expertise gained through experiences of poverty and child welfare. Tammy also invited Diana Skelton of ATD’s National Coordination Team to speak to the question: “As an ally, what have I learned from working with people with lived experience of poverty?” Her remarks are below.


1. Poverty is hard for the whole family

In a society where inequality and discrimination are rampant, and the screws of austerity and budget cuts continue to twist, poverty makes life harder for every family member and for families as a whole.

This past March, at a symposium run by Royal Holloway University of London, a parent activist from ATD Fourth World, Lareine, described how the pandemic has amplified the challenges of parenting in poverty. To begin with, keeping children home for a year has meant increased costs of groceries and heating, as well as the internet access required for their schooling.

The financial insecurity exacerbated by these costs can lead to situations that Lareine called “invasive, degrading and humiliating. […] You feel like you have to do something; and at the same time you feel like you shouldn’t be doing it. Because of the situation, you are forced to feel shameless”. Anyone with a calculator could see why finances have been stretched thin; but it’s Lareine’s lived experience that leads her to describe this feeling of shame and humiliation.

Feeling dependent

Her words were echoed by a mother in Scotland who told me: “Before the lockdown, my daughter stayed after school every day to use the internet there for her homework. Now, without wifi of our own, I had to swallow my pride to ask our neighbour if we could piggyback onto his network from our flat. He agreed, but I feel like I should be able to chip in for his bill so that I don’t have to rely too much on him.”

For her as a lone parent to feel dependent on a male neighbour causes her anguish; and yet she also feels she must do this for her child’s sake.

Knots of anger

Lareine also thinks about her children’s lived experience in poverty. A year into this pandemic, virtually everyone is struggling with unending uncertainty, loss of normal social interactions, and constant fear of the future. In the face of these hardships, parents in poverty have even fewer resources than others. Lareine laments the psychological effects of lock-down on children:

“The knots of anger just build up inside them. […] With nowhere to go and no choices, they feel forgotten. They lose hope. […] The whole family loses good habits of family dialogue. […] We would do anything for our children; we just need help. My social worker has said, ‘Sorry, we have no funding, my hands are tied’. A lot of us are left abandoned, and good parents and children pay the ultimate price.”

Another activist with lived experience of poverty, Moraene Roberts, said: “The reason so much doesn’t work is that social workers often think of protecting the children from the poverty of their parents. And yet if you look at outcomes from care, the government statistics alone from abuse, drugs, early pregnancy, homelessness go on and on. [What we need instead is] good practice that develops good relationships that respect that both sides [social workers and parents] are working for the children. This has a better outcome for children.”

2. The generational legacy

The second thing I have learned from people with lived experience is how their generational legacy of poverty traps them in a generational legacy of care.

Because indicators of neglect are often conflated with indicators of poverty, a majority of the people in poverty who are part of ATD Fourth World’s community were removed from their own parents as children.

One care-experienced young adult says she saw social workers remove her sisters from her parents’ care because they couldn’t afford to provide “fancy schmancy” stuff.

She called that damaging because when her 12-year-old sister had to quarantine, the bureaucratic care home where was placed “literally locked into her bedroom for 10 days. Staff weren’t even allowed to see her, they had to talk through her door with a mask on. She’s got autism, she’s tactile, she needs hugs. She had none of that and she was on the edge by the end of it.”

Blamed and assessed

Another care-experienced young adult spoke about how her removal from her family impacted her identity, her mental health, and her self-esteem. She said, “When you’re still at home, if you’re acting out, they always blame your parents. But then the minute you’re in care, any behaviour issues you have get blamed on you and no one else. It can make you more inclined to do reckless things.”

‘Cassie’ is a young mother. When she first got pregnant, her own experience in care meant that she was automatically referred to the multi-agency safeguarding hub for an assessment of her potential to become a good parent. She said:

“In that first trimester, you’re hormonal already and on top of that this kind of assessment is massively triggering.

“The way they interrogate you about everything in your past makes you think you can’t parent. I’m not in touch with my birth family and so the assessment made me feel even more alone and anxious about having a baby without support. The assessment is done to you, not with you. It’s used against you.

“And they took my daughter away when she was born because they base everything off likelihoods and say ‘Even though you think you’re fine, if your child comes home, things could break down’.”

3. I’m wary of certain assumptions underlying academic research

The parents in poverty I know have taught me to be very wary of research showing that poverty causes stress and trauma. Of course it’s important to acknowledge how harmful poverty is and how much people have to cope with; but at the same time it’s this research on the traumatic nature of poverty that can lead to what Cassie called “basing everything off likelihoods”.

Assumptions are made that because poverty weighs so heavily on parents, this will make parenting harder.

And instead of giving the parent extra support that could make the difference, this can lead to removing children and breaking family ties that should never be broken. One example of this is a study that states: “Money and housing are known to be key stress points in people’s lives and relationships. […] Several quasi or natural experimental studies from the USA found that income alone makes a significant and substantial difference to rates of abuse and neglect.”1

That’s much too big a jump!

Predicting doom

Of course money and housing are key stress points — but for one thing it’s not helpful to consider “abuse-and-neglect” as a single category when we know that signs of poverty are often confused with signs of very minimal neglect or, as Cassie described simply assumed to predict possible future neglect. And for another thing, it’s highly possible that the huge correlation being observed is not to actual proven “abuse-and-neglect” but simply to child protection investigations that may be based on assumptions, predictions of future doom, and old-fashioned prejudice.

Another mother described to me the problem she had with a social worker who had an aversion to large burly men — like this woman’s partner. Her partner was a gentle, soft-spoken man, but being aware of the aversion, he made himself scarce whenever the social worker visited, which reinforced her prejudice and led to her proclaiming that the couple ought to separate “for the sake of the children”.

4. The importance of peer networks

I feel I have been able to learn a lot from parents with lived experience of poverty because ATD Fourth World’s approach is to introduce families to our family network where they can find solidarity, advice and understanding from peers who have faced many of the same struggles.

When a parent or a couple lives in poverty on their own, the solitude and anxiety that Cassie described can make everything feel even harder. Having grown up in care can compound this. Another care-experienced young adult said how frustrating it was for her to know that in her local authority there were 500 other looked-after children — and yet she almost never had the chance to meet any of them. She said:

“You’re never able to be as open with others as you can be with kids going through the care system. We understand each other because we’ve been there. That helps you to see yourself in a different way. Talking to others who’ve had similar experiences can help you feel like part of a community and it can even help you to avoid bad influences in life.”

The collective wisdom of peers

This is the first reason that we create a peer network for parents: to offer them the opportunity to listen to and support one another in irreplaceable ways.

Another reason that peer networks are crucial is that when people with lived experience decide to become parent-to-parent advocates and activists, the peer network is a source of strength and collective wisdom. I’ve heard one grandmother caution a young mother about speaking publicly about the specifics of her own children’s situation, saying: “Your children are still in primary school now, but when they’re teenagers, you just don’t know how they’ll feel about things you want to say about them now. Why don’t you speak anonymously so that you can protect your relationship with your kids later down the line?”

A third important aspect of the peer network is that it’s often the first place where a parent can express themselves safely without fear of judgement. This creates the opportunity for parents to reflect together on the similarities and differences between their experiences.

The conditions for free expression

Here I’m going to quote my teammate Thomas Croft writing (in Socially Distanced Activism) about the approach to peer support developed by the founder of ATD Fourth World, who grew up in deep poverty himself. This approach requires specific conditions so that people in poverty can: “claim the right to develop and share their own knowledge about poverty in a reciprocal exchange with others.

  • “The first condition is to safeguard the freedom for people in poverty to construct their own thinking, to express and name their experience and to conceptualise it. [This means] freedom in terms of resources such as time and space, but also the ongoing freedom as an individual to honour one’s own experience and construct one’s own thoughts.

  • “The second condition, once the first is in motion, is for people in poverty to share their thinking and exchange ideas among themselves as peers, safe in the knowledge that they each have a grasp on the lived reality of poverty. Here, working as peers is a means of protecting their thinking from potential domination by others, who may unintentionally co-opt their efforts and impose their own ideas. […]

  • “The third condition is for the autonomy and independence of their thinking to be recognised and respected by other partners in the process of knowledge co-production; and for them to be able to identify with the goal of that process. Fundamental to this identification with the goals of a research project is for people in poverty to feel that they are serious participants and that they belong to a collective effort to bring about a more just world; that they are contributing to a cause larger than themselves. Much more than righting a wrong or preventing psychological harm, this is about self-liberation.”

5. The impact of poverty on the right to family life is a human rights issue

Moraene Roberts, who grew up in poverty and who was part of ATD Fourth World UK’s National Coordination Team, it was crucial that people recognise that poverty violates human rights. She said:

“In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a way of building peace. My parents and theirs experienced the war. Rights are not just ways to assert ourselves; they are a way of building peace between communities and nations. Nowadays, people roll their eyes when you mention rights like you’re some kind of do-gooder. I am very proudly a throw-back to the past.

“There was a campaign against rights in the media so that now many people think rights are needed only in other countries. When you say that poverty violates human rights, that’s not obvious to anyone. People can’t make the connection. But if you give the example of the right to health being undermined as the NHS gets cut and cut and cut, then people begin to see it. We have a right to housing and yet there are policies that deliberately make thousands of people homeless. We have a right to be protected from the state but there are sanctions and people dying from austerity cuts.

“The first time I thought about poverty as a violation of human rights was in 1994. It was the Year of the Family. People were talking about the right to family life, which I didn’t know existed. And there I was fighting to keep my family together among so many families who were torn apart. Because I queried this right, I was given a book on the Indivisibility of Human Rights. That really opened my eyes. […] The important thing is to think about what kind of society we want to live in.”

6. The importance of framing

This final point is another one I learned from Moraene Roberts. More than a decade ago, she helped to develop a project where parents with lived experience would address social work students about how to make their practice more poverty-aware. Speaking in 2019, Moraene said:

“When we first went to the university, it was a bit adversarial. We put their backs up by saying, ‘This is what you’re doing wrong and it’s not working for us or our children’. What we try to do now is to work with social workers, to have an engagement with them, we don’t lecture them. We try to say: ‘What is good practice?’”

As Moraene pointed out, being adversarial is not an effective way to change minds hearts and behaviour. A researcher from the Frameworks Institute2 outlines the risks of communicating without looking at how people are likely to understand what we say:

“…If being a good parent is just about loving your kids, what does it say about those times we struggle to do what society tells us we should? And what does it say about parents whose struggles are more severe and chronic because of poverty, discrimination, mental illness, or other factors of life that overload our attention and drain our capacity to provide responsible care? […] Calls to help vulnerable children and populations can boomerang and lead to less rather than more empathy for people experiencing adversity. These calls can depress the structural changes required to address the root causes of adversity and inequity. […]

“Most importantly, it doesn’t get people to rally behind the idea that parents need support, and that it’s society’s responsibility to provide it. If parenting is hard and that’s that, then it’s quite alright that people struggle at it. Logical, even. No action is necessary—for parents or society. For people working hard to make changes to our public policies, “okay as is” is not the goal. It doesn’t motivate and it doesn’t make change.”

I think that there is already some good language that we can use to frame this the difference between poverty and neglect in a way that will be convincing; and I also think there’s much more work to do on framing this issue with parents who have lived experience of poverty leading the way for us to develop even better language that is rooted in their lives and their thinking and that will also win over people who are new to considering this issue.