Anti-poverty strategies and equality policies – distant cousins?

Over the last few years, I have often wondered why it is that ethnic minorities barely feature in anti-poverty strategies.  Examining the relationship between ethnicity and poverty using income based measures of poverty, Glen Bramley revealed significantly higher poverty rates for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Blacks (including Black Africans, Black Caribbeans and Black Other) than other ethnic groups in both Scotland and England (Netto et al, 2011). And there is considerable evidence of the entrenched levels of poverty of other groups – refugees, asylum-seekers and Gypsy Travellers – documented in the same study. DSC_4244 crop IMore recently, a study for the JRF that I co-led with Maria Hudson on the impact of workplace cultures on progression opportunities for low paid workers from different ethnicities reveals that while all these individuals share common problems, ethnic minorities face added challenges related to employment practices which undermine equal opportunities policies and practices (Hudson et al, forthcoming).  Yet another forthcoming Glasgow-based study for the Coalition of Racial Equality and Human Rights on the situation of ethnic minorities in this period of austerity (Sosenko et al, forthcoming) reveals that long-standing problems such as finding affordable housing and employment have been exacerbated; new financial challenges threaten the survival of small businesses in which many find employment. These difficult circumstances are worsened by the constrained capacity of the minority ethnic voluntary sector – widely acknowledged to play an important role in filing in or bridging the gaps left by public services – to support vulnerable people within these communities in this period (Emejulu and Bassel, forthcoming).

Surely, on the basis of social justice arguments alone, those ethnic groups which are, to use policy speak – in ‘the lowest income decile’ – should feature prominently in strategies which seek to counter income and material deprivation? And yet, they commonly receive feather light treatment in anti-poverty policies. As I seek to understand why this is the case, I am led to conclude that one or more of the following assumptions must hold widespread credence among politicians and policy-makers:

  • ‘Universalist strategies’ work for all: Intractable problems such as worklessness and homelessness are believed to be rooted in common causes, despite evidence that reveals a much more complex reality.  Therefore it is not necessary to design specific strategies for different sections of the population. To give just one example that this assumption is misleading, a recent EHRC funded study (Sosenko et al, forthcoming) reveals that modern apprenticeship schemes, a major government-funded initiative designed to provide structured routes to employment is currently not benefiting all sections of the population. Indeed such schemes may serve to reinforce and reproduce existing inequalities in the labour market in terms of pay and occupational segregation.
  • The circumstances of groups that are, by definition, minorities, are difficult to understand, and the groups concerned are commonly viewed as ‘hard to reach.’ In the current period of austerity, limited resources must be spread across the majority. In contrast, it might be argued that as the title of another EHRC funded report on the limitations of place-based anti-poverty strategies reflects (Matthews et al, 2012), some of the most disadvantaged groups are typically ‘easy to ignore.’ Further, in Scotland, the small numbers of ethnic minorities in general may make those groups that are particularly disadvantaged, more likely to be marginalised.
  • Racialised attitudes towards ethnic minorities in the general population would make targeted strategies to alleviate the poverty experienced by these groups deeply unpopular, and could alienate large sections of the voting public. Thus, even politicians who are aware of specific issues faced by ethnic minorities and would like to address them need to tread carefully.
  • Ethnic minorities contribute to the problems that the UK currently faces. They ‘take away’ jobs and rely on the benefits system (and if sections of the media are to be believed manage to simultaneously do both!). They also place huge pressure on public services. Indeed, revealing the imagined magnitude of the challenges that ethnic minorities pose in tracing the history and settlement patterns of this population in the UK, Gary Craig (2012) highlights the results of a poll carried out by MORI in 2002. This revealed that most people believed that the proportion of ethnic minorities in the total population amounted to be 23% (rather than the actual figure then of 6%).

Hands on a globeIn contrast, more enlightened anti-poverty approaches towards enabling ethnic minority groups to navigate routes out of poverty would recognise the relevance of equal opportunities policies and practices in recruitment and progression towards better paid work. Such policies would also recognise the need to ensure that schemes designed to  counter poverty, such as modern apprenticeship schemes are accessible and appropriate for all sections of the population.   A first step towards achieving this could be achieved by pro-actively publicising such schemes through community networks. Furthermore, to support minority ethnic women to enter the labour market, more could be done to ensure affordable and culturally appropriate childcare. More attention could also be paid to ensuring that informal workplace practices do not undermine equal opportunities policies and practices, thus denying progression opportunities to better paid work including for those at the lowest levels of organisational hierarchy.

In short, given appropriate political recognition and will and joint working, even within these challenging times, there is considerable potential for anti-poverty strategies to tackle issues faced by all sections of the population, rather than side-lining those with fewest resources to articulate their concerns. Conversely, without political backing, anti-poverty strategies and equalities policies will continue to work in parallel with each other, leaving each set of strategies incomplete and impoverished, along with those people whose needs they are not able to address.

Dr. Gina Netto, Reader