Why ethnicity matters for local authority action on poverty

With racism on the rise and poverty higher among all ethnic minority groups than white British people, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) believes we simply cannot ignore the links between poverty and ethnicity. JRF believes local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales need to understand those links and play their part in addressing them. Anna Nicholl, Director of Egino, has been reviewing the evidence from the JRF’s Poverty and Ethnicity Programme and argues that accurate and joined up information are key.

Photo credit: Karin Bultje

Poverty is a growing problem. Already one in six people in the UK live in poverty and it’s getting worse. In six years’ time, the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that one in four adults will live in poverty, and one in three children.

Poverty is also a problem we can’t afford to ignore. Apart from the human costs of poverty, it is also expensive for the public purse. Research commissioned by Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that in 2008 child poverty cost the country £25 billion a year. Much of this expenditure falls on additional costs to local services.

A recent JRF Viewpoint argues that in order to tackle poverty, we need to understand the relationships between poverty and ethnicity. The Viewpoint is based on recent research published through JRF’s poverty and ethnicity programme, which provides new insights into the clear, yet complex relationships between poverty and ethnicity.

There are significant differences in the proportion of people in poverty by ethnic group. Poverty is higher among all ethnic minority groups than among the white British population. The research found that racism and discrimination remain one of the main barriers to ethnic minority progression.

But what can local government do? Neither poverty nor racism is a new issue and many people have been working over many decades to address them. Given historic levels of budget cuts, what scope do they have to respond? The research provides some timely guidance. It outlines how understanding these relationships can lead to more effective and, crucially, more efficient approaches to tackling poverty across all ethnicities.

People and places

A key finding is that although there are strong relationships between poverty and ethnicity, we should not oversimplify. People and places are unique. Factors such as gender, religion, disability, social class and migration experience also shape people and their relationship with poverty.

Place is perhaps surprisingly important. Relationships between poverty and ethnicity depend on the make-up of particular places, the histories of different communities, relationships between ethnicities and whether ethnic groups are concentrated in particular areas. This explains significant differences between seemingly similar places. The uniqueness of each locality is one of the reasons why local authorities have such a significant role to play.

Another key finding is how softer issues, such as workplace culture, social networks and how we care for our loved ones have a much greater bearing on outcomes than we might have previously imagined.

The role of social networks cuts across many of the research papers. Social networks can help people cope with poverty and sometimes to progress out of it. However, people living in poverty often have restricted networks. This makes coping harder and has a knock on effect for health and wellbeing, putting pressure on services.

People living in poverty often have poorer links with people from different ethnic, income, occupation and educational groups. Having to rely heavily on community and kin-based networks can result in limited or distorted information and advice. It can make it even harder to access information about jobs (and job progression), services and other opportunities. This restricts people’s ability to use informal pathways to move out of poverty.

Local Authorities big players

The Viewpoint argues that local authorities are well placed to support local interventions that can address the particular local context. They have a central role in providing strategic leadership, not least in terms of the local economy. As big players locally, the way local authorities do things, including within their own workplaces, can also make a big difference.

To do this effectively, local authorities need a proper understanding of, and relationships with, the people affected. Without this, even theoretically good policy and practice can be ineffective.

For example, despite good policies, local authorities continue to be perceived as poor employers among many ethnic minority groups. This is supported by workforce statistics, particularly at senior levels.

Understanding social networks could be key to this. What information is reaching who about job and progression opportunities? Could proactively supporting social networks that reach across different groups of employees and between the council and minority groups – through mentoring for example – do more to break down persistent social barriers?

Local government responses cannot involve increased spend. Fortunately, they need not. The Viewpoint argues that mainstreaming solutions into core local authority activities should be more effective. The way local authorities behave as employers, what they expect of employers in their supply chains, the direction of local economic strategies, the quality of services and their relationships with different ethnic groups, all impact on poverty and ethnicity.

Gaining credence

The Viewpoint sets out more detailed suggestions on what local authorities can do within each of these areas. Some build on approaches that are already gaining credence in local authorities. For example, procurement can be used to promote good workplace practice, accessible services and a living wage for local citizens.

Gaining social value through public value may not be happening in all local authorities, but it is a well established idea, promoted by local government networks across the UK. JRF has gathered case studies to demonstrate how public procurement can be used to reduce poverty.

Other proposed actions are less embedded and will, no doubt, benefit from more evidence and dialogue with local authorities.

Local authorities have a key role in shaping the local economy. The Viewpoint argues that in order to shift local economies away from jobs which trap workers in cycles of low-pay and no pay, local authorities and their partners need to have a much greater focus on skills demand. Unless skills supply is balanced with skill demand, low-paid and low-skilled jobs will continue to drive low or under-utilisation of skills. Low-pay no-pay cycles affect workers across all ethnicities, and ethnic minority workers in particular.

This brings us to the final but crucial finding to highlight. Understanding the links between poverty and ethnicity gives us another valuable insight into the factors that are driving poverty. The research reveals that actions that reflect our understanding of these relationships should help address poverty among all ethnicities, including among white British people.