Poverty Oscars

The 87th Academy Awards last week was a special evening and not just because John Travolta’s antics. I think it was special for the composition of the winning films and in particular the evening’s stand out acceptance speech. Headline awards went to films that tackled some of the biggest challenges people face in life. Speeches instead of being the standard Mum, Dad, Wife, Partner, Osteopath tear jerkers (for those speaking) were instead impassioned with heart-warming rhetoric.

The best actor’s award went to “our man” Eddie Redmayne who made it clear in his speech that his depiction of Steven Hawking with the debilitating Motor Neurone Disease should be dedicated “to people all over the world battling the disease”. Patricia Arquette, winner of the best supporting actress award, used her acceptance speech to challenge inequality with people calling it “the moment of the Oscars”. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” were her words that achieved a symphony of support from the black ties and ball gowns.

It was good to see that for all of Hollywood’s plastic back slapping, the event could be used to pour more exposure on the difficulties that people face on a day-to-day basis.

Similarly, but closer to home, we have also been reading and hearing about the challenges and difficulties people are facing in our very own country. In fact it has been a very important couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the producers of these pieces of work didn’t manage to achieve the exposure that comes from a red carpet in Los Angeles but the messages, all the same, are critically important for us in the UK.

Firstly, we had the results of the largest piece of research into poverty ever undertaken in the UK. “Breadline Britain” a landmark study undertaken by economist Stewart Lansley and academic Joanna Mack. Headlines were in abundance, but to perhaps give you an indication of scale, the study found that 20 million people were living in poverty in the UK. The figure has doubled since 1983 and is more worryingly set to increase. One of the most memorable quotes for me was from Lansley “Today’s huge imbalance between people and profits, built around poverty wages and huge corporate and private surpluses, is unlikely to hold indefinitely.”

We then heard from a corner stone of UK social support, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). Their Consumer Challenges report is notable for it’s slightly different slant on the complexities of people’s financial problems. In particular it highlighted consumer spending as an area missed in the debates on the living standards crises. Within the report they state “consumers are under intense pressure because of weak or woefully outdated protections. Pressure on consumers is not only high, but also uneven, and we need to understand its shape as well as its scale.” This is challenging for the UK as consumers have effectively driven the recovery in the UK but CAB does have optimism “assertive action on consumer problems becomes an even more important way to help hard pressed households – and one that all parties can get behind”.

We also feel optimistic about creating ways to help consumers. Our report, “Scraping the Barrel”, released this week shows there is significant opportunity to improve millions of lives. To be progressive services need to adopt a ‘preventative’ approach, steering people away from increasing debt and potential financial crisis, they should create alternative approaches to exploitative premium business models and importantly work to strengthen communities.  By designing services in this way we can improve lives.

Our own practical step in doing this is our pilot service “Canny” which launches in the London Borough of Waltham Forest this spring. Collaboratively working with the Credit Union, the Local Authority, Housing Associations and most importantly the community, we have designed a service that provides access to discounted products and a link to information and support to improve people’s finances. Importantly all of this is backed by our research.

So if there were Oscars for research (Roscars!?) then I think Stewart Lansley, Joanna Mack and CAB would be front-runners, but I would imagine like us, they’re not interested. Change and improving lives is the greatest award anyone could give us.

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