New research and a set of interactive charts and maps are launched today by the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group (GMPAG), together with the University of Manchester, revealing the continuing extent of poverty among the city region’s poorest residents.
This new research sets out key poverty data for Greater Manchester, made available through an interactive Greater Manchester Poverty Monitor website for the first time. Alongside is a report about the views of people who have experienced poverty, conducted by volunteer Citizen Poverty researchers. Liz Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Politics at The University of Manchester discusses the findings about citizens’ perceptions, and assesses the potential for citizen-led science.
Some of the statistics uncovered by the research are depressingly familiar. One of the many alarming findings is that 9 per cent of the economically active were unemployed, 3 percentage points higher than in 2007. On average across local authorities in Greater Manchester, more than 1 in 4 children were living in poverty in 2013, including nearly 40 per cent of children in the city of Manchester.
As researchers and anti-poverty campaigners, we know that statistics sometimes mask the lived realities of what those figures mean for people experiencing them. The accompanying report was a qualitative study of 81 people living in eight of the Greater Manchester authorities. Participants were selected to include people who had experienced living in poverty. The work aims to drive the issue of poverty up the political agenda both locally and nationally. It is backed by calls from local anti-poverty campaigners for local leaders to do even more in addressing the issue.
Experience of poverty
The results built on the testimonials heard in the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission of 2012. What people had to say is, at times, harrowing to read, and illustrates how harsh the experiences of living in poverty can be:
“[Poverty is] Just about manage to pay the bills. Eating is a luxury. Not putting the heating on because can’t afford to… Not being able to afford to feed grandchildren or give them a treat.”
People explained how poverty was stigmatising: “It’s so hurting when you are poor – it affects you, your family and we suffer a lot… When you are poor, nobody likes you.”
But will any of this make a difference? What good is more data – can it help create change? One of the questions we asked in the qualitative study was ‘Do you see a role for statistics and other facts in changing poverty?’ This generated some key messages. One was about the value of supporting data in policy decisions: “Nobody is going to make changes without some facts and figures.”
Secondly, people’s pessimism about the prospects of change, and whether data will make a difference, serves to reinforce the need to try different and more effective ways to use evidence to convince policy-makers. Thirdly, evidence can also help mobilise public opinion to lobby for change: “If some statistics about this could be brought into the public view, it may wake people up to the reality of people’s situation.” But, as has been amply demonstrated elsewhere, there is mistrust of official statistics.
Put together, this offers a compelling case for independent research to help create change. But this research needs to be deeply connected to the statistical data, and the depth and range of individual experiences, as well as to wider campaigns for change. For these reasons, we used a radical approach to collecting the qualitative material.
A team of volunteer Citizen Poverty Researchers conducted this study. This type of research is sometimes known as Citizen Science, which is now used internationally across many different types of research. A core principle is to do things in as participatory and democratic way as possible, including conducting primary research. The University designed the questions together with GMPAG, and we co-designed the framework for analysing the data afterwards. Some researchers also helped write and edit sections of this report. We believe this approach has huge untapped potential to bring universities closer together with other partners for change-focused research. Citizen-led social science is one way to marshal the resources of academia for social good.
More broadly, some of those involved in this project are committed to the idea of evidence-based policy-making, but have been frustrated at the limits of conventional approaches. One barrier is where academic evidence is falsely opposed to expertise based on direct experience. Citizen science helps to bring in the advantages of experiential knowledge to the design of research methods, and frameworks to understand and analyse data. It also brings lay people more closely into contact with data, to give people a bigger range of tools with which to make sense of issues in the world. It not only democratises social science, but also incorporates science more closely into democratic dialogue about policy decisions.
A focus on robust data does not need to be lost when citizens are brought into science. Neither is science the preserve of professionals; as academics we have a responsibility to share our methods with others. Citizen science is one of the new forms of discovery in the social sciences that could help policy makers to facilitate progressive policy outcomes.