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People with experience of poverty want to be heard — are we listening?

Sarah Campbell
4 min readOct 19, 2020


Last Saturday was the International Day for Overcoming Poverty. A day with people with lived experience of poverty at it’s heart and founding. This day calls for the recognition that people with experience are the first to resist poverty and for civil society to stand in solidarity with them in solving poverty.

The APLE collective mobilised groups around the country led by people with experience — what was their ask to government, to services, to the organisations that are working to solve poverty on their behalf? It was to be listened to and to be heard.

At first glance, it seems a vague and intangible ask but I urge us all to deeply listen and listen hard.

Interesting on a day to overcome poverty the main ask from people with experience is to be heard. Was there anything in there about income levels? Anything about humiliating hand outs? Keeping free school meals or small scale incremental tweaks to woefully inadequate systems?

No, what we heard was a powerful ask to be listened to, to be heard and for solidarity. To overcome stigma, shame and isolation. An ask for compassion but overall justice. for people to come together in solidarity and state that they too deem poverty as unacceptable. An ask to be included. It’s all so devastatingly human.

These are all really intangible things — what does this even mean for policy? Poverty is all about income right? So lets just get that bit sorted…that’s something we can measure and show progress on. It’s understandable that this is where we often land.

The overarching problem definition for solving poverty always comes down to income but when you work alongside people in poverty, it is ALWAYS so much more than that. And I think we need to really listen long and hard.

Perhaps if institutions had more compassion and understanding for our fellow humans, we wouldn’t be able to implement such draconian policy and services. If we had an inclusive society where people in poverty weren’t stigmatised — seen as feckless or as victims waiting to be saved, as a society we might be able to come up with different responses. What might happen if everyone’s voice was welcome at the table — entering into the process of problem definition, solution development and advocacy? What might happen if we designed a system on the basis of a deep understanding of the impossible situations that people find themselves in, rather than on the basis of assumptions from our own world experience and view?

The analysis across the civil society is more or less the same, lots of different organisations asking for pretty much the same thing with varying opinions on amounts. Same for institutions — tweaking amounts here and there — never nearly as much as it needs to be…its not a particularly diverse set of solutions but then again it’s not a particularly diverse set of people coming up with them.

In my experience, when you work with people in poverty in a genuine way, you always land at a different analysis of the problem and the priority areas for action are always different. This is something we could notice and maybe start to question and approach with humility.

We’ve been trying to overcome this issue forever and a day and I don’t think the analysis has changed — what was that quote from Einstein?

Maybe it’s time to respond to the call of APLE and groups across the country and to deeply listen. Might we interrogate the progress that we’ve made on solving poverty? Might we have the courage to interrogate how inclusive we have been in the processes we enact to define and then solve the problem?

Although ‘working alongside people with lived experience of the issues’ is in vogue now, I don’t see the analysis changing anywhere nearly enough. People’s stories are ‘amplified and they are providing ‘powerful’ stories but the analysis doesn’t seem to have significantly changed. I’m not sure people are really being heard. There are pockets of good practice where we see this happening — but they remain that — pockets.

There’s a pressing need to move beyond emergency reactive piecemeal policy responses, grappling to hold together a deplorable system that was already in dire need of an overhaul. Difficult, I know in these particularly impossible circumstances.

But there is a deep need, I would argue to create spaces for diverse forms of experience to come together to solve big issues. We need to move beyond the usual suspects because the usual suspects haven’t cracked it and haven’t done for decades. Time for a new, more inclusive approach — one that responds to the ask from groups across the country affected by poverty. To be listened to, to be heard, to be respected and above all included. Poverty can be overcome, but only when those who have the biggest stake and most nuanced understanding of it are included.

[Note of clarification — I write this, not as a representative of JRF but as a person who has spent 15 years of my working life dedicated to solving poverty. The challenge set out is to all of us as individuals working in this area — not as organisations. I invite interested readers to engage in these musings in a spirit of honest reflection]



Sarah Campbell

Head of Participation and Advocacy for JRF. I lead our work on participation and co-design approaches to policy development and influencing.