When the economic recovery bypasses our most vulnerable it is time for volunteers to lend a hand, says Mark Carter
This month, as colourful images of the World Cup Finals in Brazil are beamed into households across the country, it’s tempting to imagine ourselves far removed from the daily grind of post-recession Britain. The housing market crash, job losses, welfare and service cutbacks have taken their toll on the collective consciousness of the nation – making escapism an attractive prospect. Despite assurances from politicians that the country is in recovery, many remain unconvinced.
According to a recent ICM poll, only a slight majority of the public believe the economic recovery is real and less than a fifth believe their own families are benefiting. Anxiety is rife regarding the failure of wages to keep pace with living costs, zero-hour contracts and immigration. The recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 20 per cent of people in working households are struggling financially, while a further 38 per cent did not consider themselves ‘comfortable’.
At Citizens Advice Edinburgh we are acutely aware of the struggles many individuals and families face. Our volunteers see first-hand the squeeze on living standards felt by those both in and out of work. Common worries don’t just relate to major life events – a job loss, funding retirement or raising a child – but to the basics of everyday life. Paying a gas bill or replacing a broken washing machine is enough to push many individuals and families into a spiral of unsustainable debt.
While the general economic news is billed as positive – a 9.9 per cent leap in house prices, 350,000 fewer people unemployed, wages rising by 0.7 per cent, – what tangible difference do these statistics make for people too ill to work? People who have been on relatively low, standstill wages for years? Those for whom the idea of home ownership is as fanciful as Scotland lifting the World Cup?
Citizens Advice Edinburgh recognises that these are the important issues for many people and communities and has expanded its services to reach the most vulnerable groups – at the point of need when help is most needed. We have reached out to families with young children, individuals with debts, people experiencing problems with benefits or sanctions and those struggling with finding or retaining employment. Often, it is the smaller-scale, personal changes that make the greatest difference for these individuals and families who have yet to feel the benefit of economic growth.
Last autumn, we launched an innovative project to reach people in crisis, offering both immediate advice and longer-term assistance. This Big Lottery Fund project – Broomhouse Connections – connects local services in a way that makes accessing advice and help quicker, easier and more effective. Through close partnership with Broomhouse Community One Stop Shop, the local Foodbank and a range of other local services, we deliver holistic advice and support from a location at the heart of the community. This support could be advice on money, benefits, housing, and other issues, a food parcel or support to find work. The project has even begun weekly advice surgeries at Sainsbury’s Murrayfield store. In just six months, Broomhouse Connections has helped with 1642 enquiries and has issued 540 emergency food parcels – demonstrating the urgent need for connected advice and support in just one small community.
The service was available at just the right time and in the right place for one family who appeared to have ‘slipped through the net’. A father, caring for his ill wife and children, two of whom were disabled, had been unable to search for work and his benefit had been stopped. Our adviser helped the family access crisis support from the Scottish Welfare Fund and the local foodbank, before helping them to claim the correct benefit entitlement to ensure that their crisis would not be repeated. The project also helped the father improve his employment prospects so he could look towards the future again with hope.
Another of our projects working in this connected way to address multiple needs is called Canny Families. This service supports Edinburgh families with children under 17 to take control of their finances. Our adviser helps families manage debts and, through our partners at Changeworks and Edinburgh Community Food, tackles problems with fuel arrears and cooking on a limited budget.
There is no doubt this is a challenging financial time for the majority of people, but by tailoring advice and support services so they can make a real and lasting difference to people in their community, perhaps more households will start to experience a real sense of “recovery”.
• Mark Carter is projects manager at Citizens Advice Edinburgh www.citizensadviceedinburgh.org.uk