Removing the shame from a poverty trap

SERIOUS problems suffered in life are not a personal choice, says Moira Tasker
Anti-poverty rally in George Square, Glasgow. Picture: John DevlinAnti-poverty rally in George Square, Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Anti-poverty rally in George Square, Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

For many in our communities, this time of year – with its biting winds and darkening nights – brings not warm thoughts of Halloween and preparing for winter festivities but increasing worry and anxiety about how to get by day to day.

Many people view poverty these days as relative, caused by an individual making poor choices, failing to grasp opportunities or just not working hard enough. The belief that everyone in the country can afford the basics – if only they didn’t smoke or drink or have a giant television – is pervasive. Some link growing affluence with their own activities – unaware of the deepening inequality which sees one in four working households claiming housing benefit to keep a roof over their heads. Primetime TV shows characterise “the poor” as lazy, feckless and oblivious to the rest of a hardworking, connected society doing the right thing.

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Every day at Citizens Advice Edinburgh our volunteers see the reality of poverty in the 21st century.

A woman who hadn’t eaten for days as her employer of 30 years had “gone bust”. The news received by text. Failed direct debits, bank account charges, no access to the documents required to “sign on” and even then weeks to wait for payment. A husband – grieving and thrown into turmoil by the death of his partner – who hadn’t opened his post or kept track of his finances and now faced eviction. A woman with severe mental illness, unable to access the healthcare, financial or community support she desperately needed.

All were hungry, worried and – outrageously – felt shamed by the situation they found themselves in. All turned to us as a trusted, valued source of advice and support.

These people weren’t lazy, feckless or reaping the seeds of poor life choices. They are our fellow citizens facing challenges that could affect any of us, at any time, in our lives.

At Citizens Advice Edinburgh we – and our funders and supporters – understand this and know the immense value in the very human act of citizens helping citizens. The holistic, person centred advice our volunteers offer is unique. It works, it is high quality, it is heartfelt – and it is incredibly cost effective. One recent study put the UK cost to public services of the personal debt burden at £8 billion. This reflects the cost of re-housing due to evictions, NHS Services and lost employment. The same study stated effective help could save the public purse at least £3bn annually.

Our 260 plus volunteers sort immediate problems on the spot, unravel complex issues and empower people to prevent a problem escalating or a future crisis. The woman who lost her job by text message was referred to the Scottish Welfare Fund and a local food bank whilst we contacted her former employer. Her wages were paid the next day. Her existing contract, with its terms and conditions intact, was transferred to the new business owner and she started work again the following Monday. With our assistance, the bank removed the charges and payments were re-arranged with her creditors.

Every day we see more than 120 people face to face and deal with more than 27,000 enquiries each year. Our reach now extends beyond our five bureaux to a staggering 23 community locations across Edinburgh including food banks, GP surgeries, the sheriff court and other charities. We also offer home visits to those unable to leave their home. Thanks to the dedication of our volunteers and small staff team, we achieve all of this with very lean budgets and in the face of continual funding challenges and growing demand.

The City of Edinburgh Council is a key and much valued funder and partner – without their support we could not deliver frontline bureau services, nor raise the additional £750,000 of investment our projects bring to the capital’s advice services. We also rely on the support – both financial and in-kind – of a diverse range of businesses and organisations from RBS and Edinburgh Partners Ltd to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.

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As the nights draw in and your thoughts turn to winter activities and festivities, please do think of us and give some consideration to the ways you or your business can help our charity.

One day you may need Citizens Advice Edinburgh and we want to be here for you.

• Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh