Media muddles: the continued struggle to report poverty and Communities First

Media coverage of the recent report on Communities First suggests that the Welsh media continues to be uncertain about how poverty in Wales should be portrayed.

Last week the National Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee published its report into the Lessons Learnt from Communities First, the flagship tackling poverty programme that has spent £432m since 2001.

Typically, media analysis of the publication focused on the budget and the programme’s failure to make “significant in-roads” into reducing poverty in Wales.

Very little coverage seemed to recognise that the Committee’s inquiry was looking at how the 16 years working in Wales’s most disadvantaged communities should inform and educate future policy and strategy on poverty. The Committee was not evaluating the effectiveness of Communities First.

Given how stubbornly entrenched poverty in Wales remains, government and society should ignore the lessons of Communities First at their peril.

The overriding lesson – and one long-recognised by people working in Communities First – was that the programme had been set a “near-impossible task” of reducing poverty. No longer should we expect a single government-funded programme to address poverty.

It requires a much more joined-up, cross-government, multi-sector approach that recognises economic forces that suppress wages and make work increasingly insecure and short-term will always undermine the efforts made by community-based workers helping communities to mobilise and collectivise to tackle the inequalities they face.

These workers have seen at first hand the devastating impact on already disadvantaged communities of austerity policies that have served to suck money out of communities who could ill-afford to lose what little they had. Policies such as welfare reform, the ‘bedroom tax’, the benefit cap and the reduction in tax credits will continue to have a pernicious effect on a great many Welsh communities.

Cynon valleyThese policies are a result of political choices made at Westminster and over which the Welsh Government has little influence other than in a very marginal way. For instance, the funding of more advice services, the discretionary housing fund and financial inclusion activities.

Regrettably, but not surprisingly, mainstream media coverage has ignored these political and ideological determinants of poverty; the stark inequalities in the Welsh and British economy; and the constitutional flaccidness of the Welsh devolution settlement that places beyond the reach of the Welsh Government, whichever party is in charge, those levers that can reduce poverty, namely those related to the tax and benefit system.

Rather, the media coverage has focused on the traditional pillars of reporting such programmes: how much was spent and efficacy of government. It portrayed the programme as expensive, possibly flagrant, with its “significant amount of public money” and inherently flawed. This mirrors much of the reporting elsewhere of poverty and disadvantaged communities, which are usually pejoratively portrayed as a costly drain, morally lacking, feckless. They are poor because of their inherent faults and deficiencies.

There is no doubt that £432m is a lot of money; a great many steel rings could be built along the north Wales coast with it. However, as Sioned Pearce and Stuart Fox from Cardiff University point out in a recent Planet article, during its first decade Communities First funding amounted to approximately £55 per capita per annum. Public expenditure should, of course, be scrutinised by the media. But a more nuanced analysis of this headline expenditure might conclude that rather than a “significant” amount of money, expenditure on poverty in Wales over the last 16 years has been modest. 

That Communities First failed to achieve its exceedingly ambitious aims should not be the news item here. The media should be looking to hold the Welsh Government to account over its future plans for poverty – a word, incidentally, that has vanished from the manifesto and policy lexicon of late – because it continues to scar one in three children in Wales. Communities First, for all its faults, has imbued us with a wealth of evidence, experience and learning about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

The supposed failure of Communities First is not the news item here. Failure to not heed these lessons should be.

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