The Inability to Participate – Alan’s Story

Poverty is a deep complex concept – a concept that impacts many different areas of the lives of those who experience it. But it was through his personal experiences and general awareness that Alan’s understanding of what poverty entails has deepened over time. For him, poverty is the inability to participate in life as much as society enjoys.

“Poverty doesn’t come in one dimension. It doesn’t come in just in one flavour, so to speak”, Alan explained. “One can say there are certain triggers or life events, maybe certain conditions – particularly economic conditions that exist generally in society – that either improve or worsen the levels of poverty experienced by groups of people.” For Alan, poverty and financial hardship came as a result of both physical and mental ill health. As he explained, that landed him in the ‘morass’ which is the benefit system in the UK. “On the one hand, it works great. And on the other hand, it works awfully. And I experienced both aspects of that”, he shared.

For years, Alan had to survive with less than £65 per week. He also had to rely on food banks and on external funding to pay for his bills. Furthermore, he spent over a decade without any central heating, gas cooking facilities or hot water derived from that heating system. “That’s the tip of the iceberg” – he expressed – “but that was largely down to situations which have been exacerbated by living within the benefits framework and my lack of income.” As an anecdotal piece of evidence, Alan shared how big of a toll this situation took on his health: “At one instance of being very poorly, I spent over 27 days in bed. So that’s the extreme. There are obviously other instances of that, but that characterizes the complexity, but also the nature of how poverty and financial hardship affects an individual.”

Alan believes poverty has a compounding effect and does not only impact people’s health, but also their sense of wellbeing and ability to engage with the system, steering them away from the potential relief of financial hardship that might be available. Consequently, there was initially a strong reluctance from Alan to engage with the system to address those issues: “I think it’s a matter of conformity, and the wish to belong and not seen to be different in society. But it was left as my only option.”

Alan later recalled some of the services he received support from, including the Community Law Service, Citizen’s Advice, and an organization based in the Doddridge Centre.  According to Alan, these services and their assistance were crucial in alleviating the elements of poverty that he suffered, and also represent his situation in front of the Tribunal. This is because, in order to secure benefits, most of his awards had to go to tribunal: “They get less than an hour to make decisions about your life and the quality of that life. And then they make those decisions and – as my tribunals have proven – a lot of the time, a great deal of information which is relevant and pertinent, is simply ignored because there isn’t sufficient time to assess or to understand it”.

Whilst discussing the barriers in getting out of poverty Alan noted how, on one hand, the capability of an individual is sometimes inhibited by their mental or physical inability to secure full-time and part-time work. On the other hand, there are also the attitudes of those people in positions of influence – the people who can actually enact or enable measures to alleviate poverty. This is enhanced by the general acceptance (or lack thereof) from wider society that these are significant issues that do need addressing. Alan therefore concludes that poverty alleviation strategies are highly valuable not only for those who experience it, but for society as a whole: “It might be politically that you can ignore these people, because their ability to find a voice for themselves that is powerful enough to be paid attention to is weakened”. “But even though those individuals (people in positions of power) may not see direct benefit to themselves, I think it’s fairly well established – whether it’s well accepted or not is a different matter, but well established – that measures to alleviate poverty and financial hardship benefit society as a whole, not just individuals who are targeted by those measures.”