Poor Economics got us talking afresh about a theme from the first year of work. As change makers, do we focus on place or people? Should we address the context in which people live – because in the right context people make smart decisions– or the conditions with which they live? Do we work with groups of people, with communities, towns, cities and regions, or with the individual citizen.
There is an easy way out of this conundrum. The first year of work encouraged us to be pluralist. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. It’s about people and place.
If we took a scientific perspective, we would concentrate on the aetiology of social problems, their root causes, and design interventions that attack the catalyst. But there is far more intervention focused on individuals than is warranted by the science. Something more than the science is pushing towards the focus on the individual.
In my early days working on child maltreatment, we encouraged people to look at the issue from four viewpoints: A moral perspective –what was right for the child; A pragmatic perspective –what was possible in the real world; the scientific perspective –as described above; and the consumer perspective –how would people categorised as abused or abuser see the situation. To take smacking for example. It is morally wrong. It is also ubiquitous. Most people smack their children at least once, and then immediately regret it. In environments that are high in warmth and low in criticism for children, smacking isn’t harmful. Any parent drawn into the child protection system for smacking their child would likely be outraged. The analysis points to building high warmth/low criticism environments for children, but in the 25 years since we did the work, the state’s direct involvement in family life (generally the lives of economically disadvantaged families), which is to say the lives of individuals, has skyrocketed.
By accident it seems, or maybe it reflects current fashion, our network is more interested in place than person, and there were good examples of its potential offered in the reflection about Banerjee and Duflo’s work. There has been lots of investment in the economically disadvantaged communities in the West End and East End of Newcastle, with apparently greater impact in the West End. The anecdotal evidence points to the stability of the population in the West End. The community was cohesive. Then we heard about evidence from the New Deal for Communities initiative, a series of 39 partnerships in England from 1999 to 2009. (Newcastle’s West End was a recipient). The impacts at community level were limited until a border was crossed, a moment when the change was felt by the community, when they felt safe to walk on the streets at night. And then we considered evidence from Earls and Carlson’s Voice, Choice and Action, future reading for the network, that identified a threshold for trust building between members of a community, a stepping stone behind which trust was difficult to break.