Policy and decision makers all too often have little or no comprehension of the precarious nature of the lives of those in low-income, disadvantaged and left-behind communities. Put bluntly, these communities are low on the political agenda; far too few people vote or have faith in the democratic processes that arguably are supposed to ensure communities are represented. The voice of low-income communities has, many a time, been ignored. The skills, knowledge and expertise contained in these communities is disregarded and deemed inadequate, and barriers have denied people access to mainstream debates.
Dole Animators are a group of benefit claimants based in Leeds who initially worked with Ruth Patrick (a researcher now working at the University of York) on an ESRC-funded study titled ‘The Lived Experiences of Welfare Reform’. This research followed David Cameron’s election as Prime Minister in May 2010 and the announcement of a broad programme of welfare reforms which included changes to welfare-to-work schemes, cuts in the real value of many benefits and increasing conditions attached to the receipt of benefits. The research sought to explore benefit claimants’ experiences of welfare reform and consider how far the government’s characterisation of benefit claimants actually fitted with the lived reality.
Speaking at his first Conservative Party Conference as Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne talked of accessing benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’, while David Cameron used his own speech to promise:
“If you really cannot work, we will always look after you. But if you can work, and refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.”
The research findings afforded the opportunity to forefront the experiences, perceptions and attitudes of benefit claimants and people with direct experience of poverty. Through the project, Dole Animators made a short film about their experiences of welfare reform, a film that has been widely shared since.
The project, and the formation of the group, helped the voices of those who were directly affected by the welfare reforms to be heard, such as that of Cath:
“I am in receipt of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA). I’d rather be well and able to work, earning my own income. Recent benefit reforms, such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and the transition from Incapacity Benefit to ESA, and the upcoming changes to DLA and endless reams of form-filling add to the anxiety I am already experiencing. I think it’s made as difficult as possible for those of us unfortunate enough to have to live on hand-outs.
My disabilities are not self-inflicted; I didn’t choose to become disabled. I’m grateful for benefits but it makes me feel like someone else owns me, like I don’t have a future. I disagree that benefits are a ‘lifestyle choice’. Life on benefits breaks your spirit, destroys families, makes folk homeless – who’d want that? You’d have to be a masochist.
Politicians can talk about benefits claimants, they can hold the idea of a ‘good life’ on benefits as an idea, conceptually, but until they experience it themselves, they have no knowledge of it. It’s no easy ride.”
But the Dole Animators’ journey did not end here. The next step was to look at solutions to poverty, with the development of a ‘five-point plan for a brighter future’. This blueprint identified the issues that were of real concern to people living in poverty and suggested solutions to problems through insightful recommendations that could support an effective anti-poverty strategy.
Coming together with ATD Fourth World and Thrive Teesside, Dole Animators launched their five-point plan which then led to the formation of the Poverty2Solutions coalition in September 2016. The partnership is led by people with lived experience of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage. Since the group started working together (less than four years ago), it has achieved a great deal. At the beginning of 2020, Poverty2Solutions was named as one of the Top 100 Changemakers of 2020 by The Big Issue who described the coalition as ‘a righteous torch bearer lighting the world, leading the way and changing the world for the better in 2020’.
The approach of Poverty2Solutions seeks to put lived experiences at the heart of policy making, and adopts innovative, visual and participatory approaches. No longer wanting to be locked out of mainstream debates,
“people with direct experience of poverty [have shown how they] can be key active participants. No longer do we want to have things ‘done to us’, but we demand the respect and space to allow us to have the opportunities to be able to adopt a stakeholder position in relation to taking our solutions forward. We can have a significant role in making changes that have a real, sustainable impact – but this takes time and is reliant upon being provided with the space and opportunities for people to come together to build consensus. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, “first they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win”. We will not be ignored and we will rise up against all the adverse comments made. This is important to us – it is our lives and we will work with others to ensure we have a mandate to take action.”
Kath Carter, Thrive Teeside
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on our under-resourced and failing public services, our inadequate social security system and our precarious labour market. Without the voice of lived experience elucidating the issues at hand, it is becoming increasingly apparent that sustainable, meaningful solutions will not be forthcoming. If we are to #buildbackbetter, it is imperative to involve and work with the expertise that comes with experience. Denying the participation of these voices and expertise in policy-making debates would be a missed opportunity to develop transformative policies which progress our core goal of a fairer and more equal society, where everyone has the opportunity to realise their full potential. It is this that inspires and advances the work of the Dole Animators, and their involvement in the Poverty2Solutions alliance.
One of the great things about being part of the Dole Animators was how diverse the group was in terms of background, race and age. What brought us together were the issues we had all experienced in coping with the social security system and our belief that it was (and is) possible to have a fairer, more compassionate and less judgmental system. It just needs the will of government and politicians, together with those who have lived through the experience to make it so. I can happily say that I am very proud of what the Dole Animators have achieved.
Sue, Dole Animator
Tracey Herrington is Project Manager at Thrive Teeside.
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