WHAT if people living in poverty could take the lead on challenging city leaders to work with them on tackling poverty? Would new solutions be discovered? Would people listen and, if they did, would they better understand the challenges?
For the last 18 months, I have had the privilege of being part of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission, an innovative initiative which seeks to do exactly this by bringing business and civic leaders together with people experiencing poverty.
I will own up to joining this group with a degree of trepidation but I can honestly say I have met people and heard stories that deserve a much wider hearing.
When you’re experiencing poverty, what really grinds you down is the way other people perceive you. The national media often portray low-income families in unsympathetic, and sometimes insulting terms. Feckless. Scroungers. Skivers.
And this leads the public to think that the hard-up have only themselves to blame, and they treat them with disdain. Attempts to get help with money, benefits, housing and other basic essentials can sometimes be frustrating, complicated and bureaucratic. This reinforces the impression that anyone who is experiencing poverty is a problem.
Even people who aren’t on a low income can be affected by the dehumanising effects of poverty in our city. People who deliver services to the low-paid often have to use systems that get in the way of treating their customers as real people with real lives and real stories. No one wants to make life harder for folk. Blaming “the suits” does not make things better. And any society is weaker when some of its members are excluded. The commission’s “Humanifesto” sets out the principle that poverty dehumanises us all.
A recent Centre for Cities report highlighted the successful growth of the Leeds economy and much was made of the high numbers of jobs created over the last decade.
There is good evidence to say that is easier to get a job when you are already in a job. But what if you don’t have these connections and what if you are cut off from the labour market? How do you go about finding opportunities? Through the Poverty Truth Commission, it became increasingly apparent to me from our conversations that companies in Leeds are missing out on talented individuals because, as one of our commissioners put it, “the buildings are faceless, we don’t know which companies are based in them and we don’t know if they have any vacancies”.
In the Chamber’s latest survey, over half of companies said they struggled to recruit in the last quarter. I speak to companies who consistently fail to attract applicants to apprentice vacancies because they can’t get their messages through to those who need to hear them.
I met with a charity that supports young people to develop engineering skills and less than 200 yards away there are a range of companies who are crying out for young people with an interest in engineering who are struggling to fill vacancies – they didn’t know each other.
I am a huge advocate for apprenticeships. They provide social mobility and, with the development of degree apprenticeships, people can progress through to the highest levels. Despite this, many still think it is where you go to be a builder (a career in very high demand, by the way) not if you want to be a lawyer, accountant or programmer.
As the commission drew to a close, each of us was asked to make a pledge on how will we make a difference. My pledge is to ensure that apprenticeships are visible to all in the city, and I am building links to make it happen.
I can’t sum up my experience any better than using the words of one of our commissioners, Christine. She said: “When we started it was them and us, now it is just us.” Today the Poverty Truth Commission is making a deputation to Leeds City Council, where they will invite all 99 elected members to make a pledge also. I hope that they too become “one of us”.
Mark Goldstone is Head of Policy at West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. The Humanifesto can be found at www.leedspovertytruth.org.uk/humanifesto