information for transformational people

Poverty 1 246Money Can't Fix Everything - a relational approach to poverty

From a report by Jubilee Centre

A report published by Jubilee Centre demonstrates that family dysfunction is a key driver in poverty and, because of this, healthier families are a big part of the solution. Looking at the manifestos of political parties on both the left and the right, you’ll see a pattern emerge; in many cases, tackling poverty is seen as a left-wing concern, whilst strengthening family is the sole province of the politically right. But what if, after taking a holistic look at the ugly wound of poverty, we find that it’s not just unhelpful, but impossible to talk about poverty without the family?

Three principles emerge from the report:

Poverty is best understood as a symptom of relational dysfunction, especially in families, rather than a purely financial condition. Because of this, it should be treated by addressing relationships as a fundamental priority. A relational approach requires that we recognise three principles:

  1. Poverty is understood through relationship
  2. Relationships should be understood holistically
  3. Family relationships have an economic impact.

Poverty is understood through relationship

Attempting to understand and deal with poverty without close knowledge of those who are in that situation simply does not work. It is the equivalent of a doctor trying to treat someone after walking past them on the street and greeting them. With medicine, physical examinations provide some of the knowledge needed for appropriate treatment, though a longer term relationship with patients helps this process.

It would not be realistic for every person who is poor to develop a relationship with a key person in political power. But the reason why election candidates make so much effort to talk to their prospective constituents is that this kind of personal knowledge is recognised as a good thing. Whether or not this is done sincerely is quite another matter. But knowing the reality of people’s lives, and for them to be able to have a voice in expressing their predicaments, makes a huge difference in the task of devising appropriate and effective economic and social policies.

You can see this basic idea at work at the most fundamental level of economic life, in the home itself. Children need financial and other support in ways that change drastically over the two decades or so of dependency. Parents need close understanding as they share resources and expect children to develop in their capacity to use such resources.

Relationships are vital to understand personal situations and, as a result, certain things about poverty more generally. Only through such detailed insight could be such economic problems be alleviated. But relationship is more than just a means of understanding; it also plays a part in the actual alleviation of poverty. This brings us onto our second principle within a relational approach to poverty.

Relationships should be understood holistically

Poverty is never a straightforward case of material lack - it is tied into broader relational dysfunction. Financial resources depend on relationships to the people and networks through which these things come, whether they be those in households, employers or social services.

When these interconnected relationships break down, poverty is the result. This means that relationships, even those that we do not characterise as being ‘structural’ or related to ‘business’, have an economic significance. Although those who are financially secure feel independent, they are also subject to relational dynamics. Home life, access to services, and relationships to employers all play a part in ensuring that one’s needs are met.

Likewise with retaining a bank account and debit card, all of which are part of a global network of financial relationships. If there is one lesson that the 2008 crash should have taught us, it is that even the actions of a small number out of the millions in this network can have a devastating impact when they neglect their relational responsibilities to others.

‘Relationships’ can be associated with a sense of emotional wellbeing or a vague idea of togetherness: good for our interior world, but not much use in facing the harsh realities of physical deprivation associated with extreme poverty. Yet we should remember that key relationships always have an ‘economic’ dimension - shelter, assistance, etc. Anybody who has been a parent or a child will know that a home is not purely about emotional wellbeing. As we already alluded to in our first principle, the responsibility to provide for (or be provided for) is a non-negotiable aspect of household relationships. In fact, this dimension that deals with basic resources is vital for establishing bonds from the earliest age of infancy.

Beyond biological family, relationships in which ‘economic’ factors are central are usually distinguished from ‘friendships’. However, friendships are incomplete if there is no sharing of goods, even if only in the form of gifts.

Family relationships have an economic impact

The two principles above argue that economic issues cannot be treated in isolation from the wider relational matrix shared by the various parties concerned. In fact, the economy is this relational matrix, seen from the perspective of its production, distribution and use of material resources. Instead of being a hidden or 'dirty' aspect, the economic element should be acknowledged as a vital component of relationships.

Conversely, broken relationships are not only a cause of poverty, but an aspect of poverty when seen more holistically. A particularly important set of relationships that has emerged in both these points is family. The pervasive influence of family breakdown is plain, shaping mental wellbeing, establishing healthy spending patterns, and encouraging a mode of relating to others that have profound consequences for economic livelihood.

A breakdown in relationships at home are a cause of poverty. Yet different relationships exist which help lead people out of it. In the case of the church, this is explicitly ‘family-like’. Other relationships are what anthropologists call ‘fictive kinship’, a term first coined by Carol Stack to refer to ‘non-kin who… conduct their social relations within the idiom of kinship’. This includes not only religious contexts, but also close friendship, especially where the element of economic necessity became pressing. This can even work at the apparently impersonal level of social services, where institutions take on a pattern of kinship in their structural organisation.

One example of this is Pupil Referral Units, where children excluded from mainstream education are accommodated in alternative arrangements. The holistic care on offer means that these function much more like homes, with institutional relationships resembling that of parents to children. What is being tacitly recognised here is what every teacher knows; no amount of formal education can replace a healthy home life. This is not explicitly ‘fictive kinship’ of course, but is part of the same phenomenon. Socialisation through such formative education is economically crucial; it not only shapes a person’s ability to relate to the various networks (including employers) that sustain them, but, on the other side, it comes at a high financial cost to the state.

It is one thing to recognise that families are hugely important within the relational matrix that constitutes the wider economy. But it is another thing to properly theorise the place of family in such a way that rightly discerns its connection to the other institutions of society with economic roles to play. We need to paint a bigger picture around the relational understanding of poverty developed so far in order to make a coherent response to poverty.

Such knowledge can be applied even at the bigger structural levels of society where crucial decisions are being made about the populace. Taking into account the role of family relationships in economic understanding is not to shift focus from the structural to the domestic sphere but to adopt a more holistic and realistic approach. When those in positions of power neglect the relational nature of poverty, policies will reflect that and may become self-defeating as a result. Family units in particular can be damaged in a quest to promote economic wellbeing.

Read the full report here.

One way for churches to help is raise awareness in the community of the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences and so improve family life and life chances. Why not host the Resilience Challenge?

Retweet about this article:



From a report by Jubilee Centre, 15/09/2020

To submit a story or to publicise an event please contact us. Sign up for email here.