There are those who think all this stuff about meaningful relationships is touchy feely fluff, a nice to have perhaps but not as important as, for instance, policies for tackling poverty, reducing crime or improving health. And there are those who understand that we are four times more likely to find work through friends than through the Job Centre (1), that stronger neighbourhoods have significantly less crime (2), that loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity (3) and that living in a supportive community increases our chances of good health by 27% (4). In other words they understand that attention to relationships is not an alternative to a big vision, it is the making of it.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I am in the latter camp!
Of course it is unworldly to talk about stronger communities and more effective relationships without understanding the corrosive centrality of inequality, particularly income inequality. Over many years as a community worker I have witnessed the terrible power of poverty and most obviously this is about money, but importantly it isn’t only about money. It is also about relationships.
Over and over again I would meet young people whose circle of real relationships was very limited, often including no adults outside of the immediate family and sometimes including no adults, full stop.
This “relational poverty” links to three effects
• An absence of “cultural capital” – the knowledge and capabilities we acquire from mixing with others about how to behave, how to dress or how to speak in certain situations
• An absence of networks – the people who can arrange a useful work placement, tell us about college, help us understand a wider world and set us an accessible example.
• In part as a consequence of the first two, an. absence of belief, confidence and self esteem
I came to realise that the absence of relationships is every bit as aggressive and destructive as material poverty and that the two are inextricably entwined. It is obviously possible to be isolated but not poor, or poor but not isolated, but there is a particular probability that the two will coincide and a trap is sprung when they do. Relational want compounds material hardship, material hardship compounds relational want.
The Trussell Trust gave out 1.2 m food parcels last year, seven years ago it was 41,000. Returning to a position where we don’t have the level of penury that necessitates such large scale charity isn’t about right and left in a rich and civilised country, it is about right and wrong and our politicians should be under no illusions about the importance of this issue but tackling poverty and inequality also demands something else –something of us all. It is this that takes me back to the central proposition at the heart of this series of short blogs – the idea of meaningful relationships running through everything we do – and the headline message from my conversations so far: This is no small task.
There are quick wins but it is also a long term mission. The voluntary sector too often takes a problem and reduces it to the size of the resources available. A two year grant for three workers becomes the scale of the problem because it is the scope of the funding programme. I take my share of responsibility for doing that many times but this issue cries out also for a different order of thought, depth and reach. We have to fundamentally rethink the way we live our lives. Get cracking now but plan for the land of our children.
I will be talking about Land of our Children, the link between material poverty and relational poverty at London Tedx next week http://tedxlondon.com/tedxlondonsalon-november/
1. Brook, K (2005) Labour market participation. the influence of social capital. Office for National Statistics
2. Sampson, R (2013) When disaster strikes, it’s survival of the sociable. New Scientist 2916 (May)
3. Victor, C.R. and Bowling A. (2012) Longitudinal analysis of loneliness among older people in Great Britain.. Journal of Psycology146(3), 313 -31
4. Gilbert, K. Quinn, S. Goodman R. Butler J. and Wallace J.(2013) A meta-analysis of social capital and health: a case for needed research. 5 Journal of Health Psychology 18 (11) 1385 99.