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Power, poverty and place: why the local matters


5 min read Partner content

Challenging norms on poverty.

In a classroom of 30, nine children will be in poverty. Place plays an important role in poverty, with the figure being closer to twice that level in some areas of the country. These differences don’t only exist between regions, but often within the same locality.

In Greater Manchester, for example, we can see this across the 10 boroughs. In Manchester’s leafy suburbs of Chorlton the child poverty rate is 24%, in Gorton only a mile down the road, that number more than doubles to 55%. Some parts of Salford have child poverty rates as low as 13%, while others a few miles away are closer to 59% (ONS Local Area Data, 2018).

This story of the hyper local experiences of poverty is replicated across many parts of the country.

Dr Carl Emery and Dr Louisa Dawes, lecturers in education at The University of Manchester, shared these statistics with policymakers based in Greater Manchester during a university-policy engagement seminar this month, hosted by Policy@Manchester. Their research with local communities explores attitudes to poverty. ‘Local Matters’, exists to challenge the norms surrounding poverty, and to create a structural response to a structural issue using these local findings.

They argue that the dominant model of one-size-fits-all in regard to reducing the attainment gap doesn’t work, and advocate exploring alternative localised approaches, thereby connecting the narrow ‘what works’ policy agenda to ‘what matters’ for people and place.

The evidence base for poverty in the UK is fragile, and their work aims to deconstruct and rebuild it using, what Carl and Louisa refer to as, ‘thick’, localised social research instead.

A ‘thin’ approach might take top-level data on, for example, the percentage of children receiving free-school meals in a given area, to understand the levels of poverty. These ‘thick’, localised approaches ask us not only to look for a greater level of granularity in the data on deprivation, but also to understand the stories of people experiencing poverty. In so doing, to move away from some of the myths we hold about people experiencing poverty. Myths about poverty include the idea that ‘anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ or that ‘those that are in poverty are lazy or irresponsible’.

These myths about poverty are still widely held beliefs. A survey that formed part of their research demonstrated that attitudes to poverty mirrored those from many decades ago, suggesting that perceptions and ideas of poverty are inherently outdated. For instance, participants were asked to give five words to describe the poverty that they see in their school community, and the most frequent words included ‘hunger’, ‘hidden’ and ‘poor’. In the same survey, participants were asked whether they thought that families living in poverty had high aspirations, to which over half of respondents said that they strongly or somewhat disagree.

Carl and Louisa go on to emphasise that our belief systems about poverty, and the way we talk about it, significantly shape our actions and what we do about it, and they are calling for a change in attitudes.

The importance of working with local organisations

One example of a frontline organisation already implementing Carl and Louisa’s approach is Manchester Central Foodbank. The foodbank use the findings and frameworks offered by the Local Matters approach to help to shape their action plans to target assistance where it is most needed based on local needs and local knowledge. By leveraging this approach, Manchester Central Foodbank are helping children and families in poverty by providing school uniforms and setting up ‘cash first’ assistance schemes.

Speaking about the partnership, Patsy Davies, campaign coordinator for Manchester Local Foodbank, identifies how “working with the Local Matters research team has provided [them] with a theoretical and methodological framework that [they], at Manchester Central Foodbank, can use to develop our practice and projects to support local communities.”

Instead of providing policy response to poverty locally based on preconceived ideas, they now use the Local Matters approach: “Rather than assuming what communities and families experiencing poverty need, we worked with residents and local organisations to co-design interventions which we have been piloting in educational settings over the last twelve months”

Crucially they call for a need systemic implementation to ensure the sustainability of these policies in the longer term. This approach can be applied more widely and to greater effect at the level of local and national policy. Manchester Central Foodbank implore policymakers to adopt the ‘Local Matters’ research framework to create meaningful action on poverty in both local or national government.

Making the local matter

At the current rate of reduction, it will take over 500 years for ‘disadvantaged’ children to match the exam success of their ‘advantaged’ peers.

By implementing a Local Matters approach, that identifies the localised and varied experiences of poverty, we can hope to make policy that brings that 500 year timeframe for eradicating that gap a little closer to the present day.

The research in this article is based on Carl Emery and Louisa Dawes’ presentation during Policy@Manchester’s GM Policy Hub seminar ‘Power, poverty and place: why the local matters’ on Thursday 1 December 2022. Academics, policymakers and practitioners from across Greater Manchester attended to learn about poverty, marking the first event of this year’s GM Policy Hub seminar series.

Within Policy@Manchester, the GM Policy Hub seeks to build relationships between researchers and regional stakeholders to resolve societal challenges and optimise collaborative opportunities across the region.

Each month, the GM Policy Hub hosts a seminar that focuses on a different regional policy agenda, with academics from The University of Manchester presenting their research on the topic, followed by an audience Q&A.

You can contact for information about the upcoming calendar, and check here for information on upcoming seminars on transport, net zero and smart cities.


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Partner content
Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

Find out more