The Public Silence of People Living in Poverty

On 2 November 2023,  University College London organised a seminar largely about the lack of visibility of people in poverty in public debates in the UK over time. But Fran Bennett (University of Oxford, and a long-time ally of ATD Fourth World)* brought this up to date, by talking about the lived experience of poverty and its place in debates about poverty today. Her presentation, “The Merging of Knowledge? Lived experience of poverty and its place in poverty debates”, focused in particular on how ATD Fourth World works to bring together different kinds of expertise, including that acquired from lived experience, to create a richer kind of knowledge and better-informed practice. This is her presentation.

The importance of hearing from people with experience of poverty

Experience as an academic and also in the voluntary sector has taught me a lot about the importance of listening to the voices of people in poverty talking about their lived experience. In particular, I have learned a lot both from ATD Fourth World itself and from individuals living in poverty who have been associated with it.

We might wonder whether people living in poverty have sometimes been silenced by those with greater power; this was raised, for example, in an event at UNESCO involving ATD Fourth World in October. But their silence may instead be a tactic of resistance, a form of agency, to protect themselves from the personal harm that speaking out may result in — part of the violence of poverty that ATD has emphasised before.

But it is crucial that the lived experience of poverty is represented in public debates. This is important, first, for participants themselves — in principle, because they have a human right to a voice (and not to be used just to add interesting quotes to a research paper); and in practice, because being heard can result in empowerment and dignity, as well as more opportunities. In particular, knowing that other people have similar experiences can mean feeling less isolated.

It is also important in a wider sense.

A richer understanding of poverty results. An organisation that includes lived experience can be seen as being in touch with the reality of what it is talking about. And most importantly, policies and practices affecting people living in poverty can be more effective.

Including the voices of people in poverty is also crucial to combat what has been called ‘epistemic injustice’ — when some people’s knowledge is ignored or left out of the public conversation. Their knowledge may be devalued because of prejudice and stereotypes. And it may be allowed no role in creating the concepts and meanings shared by the rest of society. Participation in public debate can potentially tackle unequal power relationships and also be transformative for people taking part (including those who do not live in poverty), as described in the recent UNESCO/ATD event.

The ‘turn to lived experience’

Recently there has been a trend towards putting more emphasis on ‘lived experience’ in both academic contexts and the work of non-governmental organisations in the UK. This is not so much the case in government, although the Scottish government has set up ‘experience panels’ of benefit claimants whom it consults about social security issues. Heard (previously On Road Media) is also working on helping those with experience of poverty to do ‘safe and effective media work’.

Examples of this turn to lived experience include the Grassroots Poverty Action Group set up by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; the APLE Collective; and Poverty2Solutions. In the academic field, a subgroup of those interested in working on lived experience has been set up by the Social Policy Association and at the SPA’s recent conference several sessions discussed this. The British Journal of Social Work recently published a special issue on the voice and influence of people with lived experience of social work or relevant situations. And Covid Realities, now called Changing Realities, was an academic research project set up to partner with the research participants involved in it, who help to create and communicate its outputs.

Potential pitfalls

Significant financial and human resources are required to work together with people with experience of poverty to ensure their voices are heard in public debates. So some of the issues raised about this work may result from examples of when this is not done very well. In addition, for some individuals and organisations, funders’ requirements and timetables may impose constraints which result in shortcuts being taken or activities remaining incomplete.

But more fundamental questions can also be raised.

For example: is there a risk of individualising issues of poverty, rather than seeing these as related to what is going on in society as a whole? But we do not have to see people with experience of poverty as having to act as representatives; instead, we can see them as ‘connectors’ to a world of experiences with which many people are not familiar.

Another issue raised is a tendency to see ‘lived experience’ as representing the truth. But we may all be wrong about our experiences, for example by over-emphasising individual actions (including our own) rather than social structures, or by seeing one thing following another as causing it rather than just coming after it. And the ways we all see our experiences are influenced by the wider society – including how people in poverty are seen. This applies to people with experience of poverty as much as to anyone else.

Taking seriously the most excluded people

There is also a danger of failing to recognise that people with experience of poverty, just like everyone else, vary in terms of their background and capacities and personal power. And in any case this is a shifting population, with many people moving in and out of poverty over their lives. Regardless of any ‘poverty line’, there is in practice no fixed boundary between those in poverty or not; and within the state of poverty there are different degrees, from destitution to relative poverty. ATD is committed to ensuring that no one is left out and that those who are most excluded also get their voices heard and taken seriously.

A further danger may be to overburden people living in poverty by imposing an expectation, even a duty, to participate in the public arena by talking about their lived experience. In addition, those taking part may face the risk of becoming separated from their communities because of taking on a more public role.

So what are the best ways to realise the potential of including the ‘lived experience’ of poverty in public debates?

Realising the potential of including ‘lived experience’ of poverty in public debates

The APLE Collective has listed what it calls some ‘key considerations’ for doing this in ‘Taking Voice Seriously’. These include co-creation — meaning that people with experience of poverty should be involved in shaping the project at the start and then all the way through to analysis and dissemination, not just in providing evidence of their realities in the middle stages. APLE also emphasises real listening, which means recognising the implications of the fact that having lived experience of poverty also means living it now; the sharing of very difficult experiences can take a toll mentally and emotionally and, if those experiences are then not used, this lands another blow.

A recent article also argued that the ethics of participatory action research are too general for work with people living in poverty and that this needs additional principles. These include respecting privacy and confidentiality; taking care about the choice of words, to avoid causing harm; not imposing questions, but having conversations instead; aiming to ensure that the activity results in direct benefit to participants and avoids risks, with participants knowing what is at stake, and the activity contributing to the eradication of poverty; avoiding low expectations of people in poverty; and being aware of one’s own biases.

The merging of knowledge (and practice)

However, for public debates about poverty, other perspectives are clearly also required, alongside those of people with experience of poverty. ATD developed the Merging of Knowledge method in the 1990s — although it is continuing to evolve — and also added the Merging of Practice later. This goes beyond consultation, or telling one’s story (witnessing), and introduces elements of joint reflection, deliberative inquiry and deliberative democracy, with collaboration and control by those taking part.

The Merging of Knowledge begins with peer groups, usually of people with experience of poverty; practitioners or policy makers; and researchers. The idea is to merge the different forms of knowledge derived from lived experience of poverty, working with people in poverty and researching poverty. The peer groups first meet separately to clarify their thoughts as a group and then some members of each group meet some from the other groups to construct a common understanding together.

Resources are needed to support people with experience of poverty in particular as they may not be so accustomed to exchanges of this kind; and skilled facilitation is required. The aim is to co-produce ‘merged’ outputs which combine and integrate the different forms of knowledge reflected in the groups. These could be written documents or in other formats.

Research and training

One recent example of this kind of work is research by ATD and the University of Oxford to investigate the ‘hidden dimensions of poverty’. This found that, in addition to the elements usually taken account of – material and social deprivation, insufficient and insecure income and lack of decent work — poverty involved suffering in mind, body and heart; disempowerment; and struggle and resistance. The additional dimensions emphasised by those with experience of poverty — maltreatment by others and by institutions, and not having your contribution to society recognised — are less likely to be considered in concepts or definitions of poverty, even leaving aside poverty measures.

Other ways in which the voices of people with lived experience of poverty can have an impact include the training of practitioners. ATD organises the training of social workers and social work students by people with experience of poverty and the care system. And in Wales the Department for Work and Pensions has used Oxfam’s ‘sustainable livelihoods framework’, a way of understanding the lived experience of poverty, to train social security officials. Lastly, the findings from the research on the hidden dimensions of poverty by ATD and the University of Oxford are being taken forward with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights to inform a tool to enable the design and evaluation of policies together with people with lived experience of poverty. Watch this space!

*The presentation on 2 November gave references for the issues discussed here. Please email Fran Bennett at if you would like to have a copy of the presentation with references. The presentation also draws on learning from people with experience of poverty, who are not named here.