A report from the Poverty in Sheffield meeting

Speakers argued that we need talk together about the kind of society we want to live in, hearing from people in poverty. Those who make policy do not hear do not understand their stories and so make poor decisions. There is a big issue of mental health, with those in poverty more likely to have mental health problems, and those with mental health problems more likely to end up in poverty. Many questioned Government cuts to support that assumed people could cope with bureaucratic processes and online forms, instead of personal face-to-face help for the complex problems people faced.

The voice of poverty

The ListenUp report was handed out on the day, and is also available online, hearing from those who are finding ways to cope on the margins. One of the strong themes of the meeting on poverty in sheffield was the need to give voice to people made voiceless by circumstance and beaucracy.

“When I tell richer people some of the stories, sometimes they judge people for wasting money. But then I ask them … whether they would have the kindness and determination, while living with serious mental health problems themselves, to set up a local self-help group for themselves and others facing similar issues”

The importance of stories in countering Government denials and media stereotypes was highlighted at the meeting.

Sanctioned to starvation

Sheffield CAB found that benefit sanctions are a main cause of them needing to refer people to food banks. Their report includes many stories from people in Sheffield left with no support. Research has found that benefit sanctions push some people into work in the short term, but make it less likely people will move into stable long term employment. DWP statistics released this month outline how over one million people have been sanctioned, 120,000 of those losing all their benefits for weeks on end over trivial or non-existent reasons.

“Asha was wrongly sanctioned but successfully challenged the decision and the sanction was lifted. Her JSA was not put back into payment for a further four weeks as she was again told, incorrectly, that she had another sanction for the same period. Not only did she have nothing to live on but her Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support were also suspended.”

Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield took the report to a debate he had arranged in Parliament on the subject of sanctions, you can read that here. Sheffield CAB asks that if you have been affected by sanctions or know someone who has, then please think about submitting evidence to the parliamentary inquiry on benefit sanctions by December 12th. Evidence can be sent in, no more than a couple of sides of A4. Get in touch if you need any help.

Charity and opposition

There was discussion at the meeting about how food banks should be seen as a desperate response rather than normal. There was tension in only accepting referrals when that meant being part of the system that was causing the problems. A member from St Cuthbert’s, one of two food banks in the city that has an open door policy, spoke passionately about support for all that need it being a basic duty. A strong message was that food banks, whilst helping those who need, need to continue opposing the situation that requires them being there.

It was clear that poverty is a socially constructed thing. It is about how people do without, but also about how people cope. Making use of friends and family. Joining together in community spaces. People in poverty often had suffered difficult lives and fractured family relationships, finding themselves without place or power, struggling to keep things together and many suffering depression and addiction. The importance of people helping to lead people away from isolation was clear, whether through community groups, activities, or food banks. People being able to find a place for themselves in life was important, if not through paid employment then through helping out and volunteering.

Championing fairness

The role of Government and Council in adding to, or saving people from, poverty was clear. A little money could help people cope with crises, yet the Government has increased sanctions and introduced the bedroom tax. This has put people into the position of asking others for help or starving. The Council has put resources into advice and support, but also sought rent arrears from over a thousand tennants and evicted some of those (though this is against current policy). There has been a massive impact in Council funding being cut by over 40% when need was increasing due to cuts in national support.

Alan Walker of the Sheffield Fairness Commission was the final speaker and sounded a positive note that committing to fairness locally, not just within Council but across the city, could prevent much of the harm caused by Government. A note of caution was sounded by an attendee that a commitment to fairness needs to be encouraged by and come from communities. It could not be driven down from the top. You can sign up to making Sheffield a fairer a city, from making a pledge to becoming a fairness champion at the Our Fair City site.

A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members

The meeting closed with unanimous support for the following resolution:

‘Gandhi said that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” We call upon those seeking to become Sheffield MPs in the 2015 General Election to commit themselves to policies which will clearly improve the standard of living of the more vulnerable people in our city, whether employed or unemployed, and create more fairness across the city.’

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Forthcoming

Equality and Sustainability: a society better for us and the planet
Wedneday 10th December, 7.00pm, Central United Reform Church, Norfolk St, Sheffield

Richard Wilkinson (co-author of ‘The Spirit Level’) will be speaking on how income equality and sustainability can work together for a better society – see equalitytrust.org.uk. Followed by Green Party AGM.
http://sheffieldgreenparty.org.uk/2014/11/06/is-inequality-unsustainable/

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The Sheffield Food Collective presents:
Trembling Bells and Mike Heron ( The Incredible String Band)
Monday 15th December, 7:30pm, Victoria Hall (opposite the Crucible)

Featuring original music as well as 1960s classics from the Incredible String Band, Trembling Bells will be supported by Leeds classical-folk group, Big Eyed Family Players. £15, £12 conc. Proceeds will go to Parson Cross, Fir Vale and Firth Park food banks. Tickets are available through Party For The People and from Rare & Racy

https://www.facebook.com/events/1577657162455104/