Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

The cost of lockdowns, poor energy policy and new sustainability initiatives are conspiring to hit the poorest first and worst.

I’ve just got back from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a lot to contend with since I was last there in 2017.

In 2019 a series of bombs ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. Tourism collapsed overnight. One year later and the pandemic hit and the world went crazy – with a series of lockdowns causing the bottom to drop out of the travel industry.

Not many tears are shed when the travel industry suffers, particularly by the more extreme climate activists. What people forget is that many countries and communities depend on tourism. Revenues in Sri Lanka were estimated to have fallen to by $2.5 billion a year during the lockdowns, relative chump change to an economy like the UK, but pivotal to some countries.

And then, with the pandemic finally over the Sri Lankan Government officially declared the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years.

So far this year the country has cancelled school exams for millions of students after running out of printing paper, hospitals are stopping surgery and as I started writing this post the shops over the road from us were contending with 13-hour electricity blackouts.

As the basics slip out of reach (the header photo was taken by me of a queue for kerosene) and even school buses can’t afford to run, Sri Lanka sits on a precipice.

A badly managed economy hasn’t been helped by the introduction of some ill-thought out initiatives.

In 2019 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled his grand vision for Sri Lanka: it would embrace sustainable food production and become a world leader in fully organic farming.

Problem was, not many of these new food production techniques had been fully tested. The ban on pesticides led to immediate protests by the farmers who complained about the lack of preparation to switch to an organic farming mode at such short notice. The general public became angry due to food inflation caused by the low yields. Though the policy has been reversed (sustainability rightly goes out the window when people can’t feed their kids) it’s too late, the effect of the ban will reduce the rice harvest in 2022 by an unprecedented 50%.

As much of the world struggles with an energy crisis there are lessons for many of us here. Lessons of self serving leaders creating policies completely out of touch with the requirements of normal folk. Lessons of people becoming obsessed with switching to new and unproven solutions that are not fully tested or evaluated.

Policies rarely succeed or fail on their own merits; rather their progress is dependent upon the process of implementation as well as their timing.

Across the world we now face an energy crisis at the exact same time as we should be addressing a climate crisis. This is a failure of planning and an illustration of the lack of strategic foresight that exists in much of our leadership.

Innovation rarely happens in one great leap, but rather in a series of incremental steps. The first solution is rarely the perfect one.

More forward thinking economies will often accept that rather than resist what may be an imperfect step-change solution. For example, in the United States fracking is seen as an innovation, but in the UK is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. As Matt Ridley has written our instinct is often to resist innovation, as with coffee, margarine, GM crops and fracking, though it’s a retrograde step.

The successful introduction of behaviour change has to be carefully timed.

How can you convince people to upgrade their heating systems at the exact same time as their fuel bills soar out of reach?

How is it a good idea to introduce a ban on buy one get one free offers on cheap food just as as the cost of living crisis peaks?

A lot of these sort of policies smack of the work of middle class think tank types who have little grounding in the world of the poor or working class. This is nothing new. Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, George Orwell  laid bare Britain’s north-south divide. This is a passage from Chapter 5, and if you exchange ‘since the war’ for ‘since the pandemic’ and adjust the prices for inflation this could be written in 2022.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. 

There’s a reason that many Government’s introduce policies banning BOGOF offers, mandating calorie counts on menus, phasing out cheap fuel sources or introducing taxes on sugar or alcohol. They look good and it is a lot easier to do those things than tackle the big elephant in the room. Poverty.

Whether in Sri Lanka or in the UK it would be an interesting social experiment if the people most economically disadvantaged by new policy measures were involved at the outset in the design of them.

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEOs, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Rutger Bregman

It looks like this pandemic is, for the UK at least, coming to end. In terms of a narrative arc the story of Covid-19 started with people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and eggs and ended with confirmation of something we had guessed long ago – that those who create the rules for the little folk rarely stick to them.

People really are shit aren’t they? Left to our own devices social order breaks down and we reveal ourselves to be self-centred, selfish and uncaring.

Except there’s little evidence that’s the case.

Whilst the media has delivered us a daily stream of bad behaviour – with even community street parties being weaponised as deadly super spreader events – the real story of the pandemic has been one of mass cooperation.

It’s not just the traditional media who told us how bad we were. Facebook and Twitter were full of pictures of ‘covidiots’ – a term that came to be used by both anti-lockdowners and the proponents of Zero Covid.

How people truly behave is never revealed by looking at the extremes. True – there have been anti-vaxxers intimidating kids outside schools and disrupting test centres. And there have also been mask fetishists who wear face coverings outside when on their own, alone in cars, even in their social media profiles. These people though are outliers, to be used as totems of idiocy by both sides of the argument that Covid isn’t really a big deal/or is a potential destroyer of humanity.

The vast, the overwhelming, majority of people were in neither of these camps. Most of us took it seriously, cooperated and followed the rules as we wanted to look after each other. The jury is out on whether such severe lockdowns were needed as there is evidence that people were modifying their behaviour before many governments introduced restrictions. Sweden, both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic adopted a mass cooperation rather than mass restriction approach and is , at best, no worse off because of it.

Also the mathematical models that led to the most drastic restrictions have now been revealed to be exclusively bad scenarios based on the worst of us, never assuming that people would self-regulate their behaviour without enforcement.

Many would argue that this approach was necessary in a pandemic, that we couldn’t take the risk – and there is some merit to point of view. However, this is not a sustainable or even ethical way to form future public or social policy.

How Humans Really Behave

According to Rutger Bregman we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves, but of everyone else. Without rules and leadership we are days away from anarchy. It’s been named “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out.

His research on over 200,000 years of human history counters this and shows that in reality we are hardwired to be kind, cooperative and caring. He has talked about how during the pandemic we have seen an explosion of cooperation and altruism with people organising stuff from the bottom up.

In his book Humankind he recounts numerous examples from history that show disasters don’t cause us to descend a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation, but often bring out the best in us. The media stories of looting, stockpiling are usually true, but selective – highlighting the behaviour of the outliers.

He writes that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we didn’t see New Orleans descend into complete chaos. In fact in seven hundred field tests following disasters since 1963 it’s never every man for himself. Catastrophe brings out the best in people.

As an explainer he quotes from Rebecca Solnit “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image” and notes that “dictators and despots all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self interest, just like them”

Exactly that. The people making the rules assumed the worst of us because that’s how they would behave if they were left to their own devices. And behind closed doors left to their own devices that’s precisely what they did.

This isn’t a lesson just for the politicians – it’s relevant to any of us who work with the public. If your job involves you encouraging someone to take a vaccine, to eat more healthily , to exercise more, to look after their home, to pay their rent or mortgage – there are lots of lessons from the past two years.

People can do good things, and more often than not that’s what they do when things are explained to them. The more we impose top-down rules and directives the more we risk paternalism or even authoritarianism.

If all we did was view how people behave slightly less cynically, maybe we’d create a much more relaxed, healthy and happier world.

Why We Stigmatize The Poor And How To Fight It

Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

George Orwell once said England was the most class-ridden country under the sun. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly”. 

Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, which was first published in 1937, the conditions of the poor are described in vivid detail. The most pointed language is reserved for those of the opinion that the poor bring those conditions on to themselves through wilful acts of choice.

Over 80 years later, those opinions are still prevalent. Everyday in the UK, people are judged negatively because their economic worth is less than others, to the extent that some are even actively discriminated against simply because they rent their home from a social landlord.

So begins a new report on Stigma and Social Housing in England, by Amanze Ejiogu & Mercy Denedo. Although stigmatization of social housing has long been a subject of conversation amongst landlords and tenants, actual research has been scant.

The word stigma derives from the Greek word stizein – a tattoo that was placed on slaves to identify their position at the bottom of the social structure and to indicate that they were of less value to society. Today stigma is understood to mean a social construction whereby a distinguishing mark of social disgrace is attached to others in order to identify and to devalue them.

The key words here are ‘social construction’: stigma doesn’t occur naturally. Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

Stigma has real world impact. Programmes set up with the best of intentions can inadvertently label people. My best friend at junior school received free school meals and literally had to stand in another queue in a very public demonstration of whose father had the best job. This had the inadvertent side effect of the ‘free meal kids’ tending to eat together, sitting on the ‘poor table’.

The reality is that most people have a view on the poor. Is their relative poverty tied to individual failure to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really try hard enough? Or is it really the product of forces beyond someone’s control?

Poverty is not only an economic or social condition that can determine real world outcomes – it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting to people’s dignity. The poor know they’re poor. So to reduce stigmatisation we may all have a role to play.

I’ve written before about how I feel fail we have failed to correctly diagnose the causes of stigma. The report confirms my view that social housing stigma is much more complex than is usually assumed because it intersects with other stigmas such as poverty stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma.

As the report says the stigmatization material produced by the media through TV and news further conflates social housing with poverty, anti-social behaviour and dysfunctional value systems and is consumed by all facets of society. This has had a significant influence on the stigmatization of social housing and its tenants by the public at large. 

Importantly the authors point out that this stigmatization material is able to thrive because of the lack of a strong counter narrative. I’d agree. We’ve seen in recent years what happens when a movement begins to create a strong counter narrative. Social movements like #metoo #blacklivesmatter and #timetotalk are not without faults , but have undeniably changed how we talk about gender, race and mental health discrimination.

I recently interviewed a job candidate who talked openly about their mental health journey and clearly assumed that we would not make a judgement about them. I’d say that even five years ago that would not have happened.

It’s not perfect by any means, but if we can change the narrative around mental health we can do the same with income inequality. I’d rightly face public censure and possible sacking if I used a racist or sexist term. But if I referred to a group of people as chavs, or if I suggested people didn’t try hard enough, or joked that poor people’s homes smelt badly – would I be? Truly?

We must recognise that the social sector itself is sometimes guilty of stigmatization. For instance, we still talk about vulnerable customers and clients. The term ‘vulnerable’ implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other, ‘normal’, people.

The way we talk to and talk about people has a material impact. It leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box. It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.

In last week’s post I reacted rather defensively to accusations that I, and my organisation, had sometimes been complicit in stigma. Alison Inman , a long time sparring partner and a fierce debater, private messaged me. Reading it back from her perspective I amended some of the text. She was right – it’s vital that we challenge each other and continue to do so. Even if it hurts feelings sometimes.

Reversing stigma means having uncomfortable conversations that risk offending all parties. Are we up for it?

We have to be, because if we don’t challenge this narrative of rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, of thriving or vulnerable communities, of winners and losers, we’ll not only fail to fight stigma, we’ll be complicit in its continuation.

This is an adapted version of a post that first appeared in Inside Housing

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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