Yvonne Roberts says community groups and self-help show the way
forward for people in poverty.
Researchers monitoring social exclusion, based at the London
School of Economics, tell us we have no permanent underclass. Only
3 per cent of a large panel of households have been in poverty for
eight consecutive years, they point out.
A new website launched this week, run by progressive social
justice think-tank New Policy Institute, publishes an analysis of
how poverty has changed during Labour’s first term see www.poverty.org.uk
Figures have fallen by a million from 14 million adults, while
the numbers of children in low-income households has dropped by
half a million. The breadth of poverty has declined, but its depth
has not. Many affected are the working poor – and what little they
have is as good as it’s likely to get, even if they don’t qualify
as the underclass.
The LSE research also affirms what local activists have long
known: self-help and community groups make a difference. Yet still,
sustainability is difficult because funding is often tortuous, set
in traditional thought patterns and the short term.
A visit to Community Links based in Newham, London, one of the
poorest boroughs in the country, should be compulsory for all
policy makers. It is an extraordinary achievement. David Robinson,
born locally, returned after university and began the project on a
turnover of £360 in 1977. Twenty-five years later, turnover is
£4m. It has a paid staff of 120 – 80 per cent of whom
originally came for help. It employs 450 volunteers and, in
addition to occupying every corner of a converted Canning Town
hall, has 60 satellite sites, supporting 30,000 adults and children
The groups it runs include child care, debt counselling,
juvenile offender programmes, summer camps, support for older
people from ethnic minorities, respite care, and a food and clothes
bank. Community Links also trains and educates, as well as lobbying
on a national level. It regularly publishes an innovatory manual,
collecting ideas from community groups around the country.
Individuals approach Community Links as users, move through to
trainees, practitioners, managers and, eventually, become mentors.
The aim, Robinson says, is not just to deliver services, but to
shape perceptions. How you feel about yourself is often as
crippling as the lack of assets in your grasp.
A review of the project’s first 25 years lists its values. Among
them are “…to build a network not an empire …. to never
do things for people but to guide and support; to train and enable,
to simply inspire”.
Community Links at 020 7473 2270