Updated: Oct 15, 2022
Unfortunately, this week, someone criticised our decision to make some of our outdoor work more accessible to those on low incomes and with no transport. I have not stopped feeling upset about this and have become more concerned about the lack of understanding for people on the lowest incomes and what they have to fight, go without, or can’t even consider having in their lives.
Unfortunately, someone criticised this choice at the start of a frightening cost of living crisis, where our CIC is responding, responsibly and as immediately as we can, to make sure that those with the least have some of the opportunities that many take for granted.
This week, Jack Monroe aka bootstrap cook, wrote a blog outlining the outrageous insult of Tory MP Lee Anderson, speaking in the commons, about his pride of teaching those with the least, to cook meals on 30p. He explained that anyone needing a food parcel could only get one if they signed up for a cooking and budgeting course. To anyone with lived experience of poverty this will make hearts sink as they imagine the already humiliating experience of using a food bank now having more stigmatised strings attached. There is nothing here for Lee Anderson to proud of, least of all blaming systemic poverty on a lack of cooking or budgeting skills. Jack outlined a brief chronology of cuts and policy that have led to tragedy for those with the least. Whatever way you learn to dice it, poverty kills.
We all need to get up to date very quickly with what this means for us and our work outdoors. The cost of living crisis means that incomes are not going to cover the basic cost of living. This will have the most impact on the poorest households but will also impact those on middle incomes. Decisions will be made in homes about priorities, leading to the Eat or Heat dilemma for example. Dr. Mietta Fahnbulleh, Director of the New Economic Foundation, stated on question time this week "half of all children will struggle to afford bread and butter things and are going to make day to day sacrifices just to stay afloat."
"Half of all our children" is no longer a minority, the outdoor sector needs to act.
The food budget in a poor household is often the only flexible part of the budget and so we will see more families, coping with less food than before and skipping meals. If you don’t already provide food as default in your setting, maybe think about how this would work for you, or if you can link with a community larder and just provide food always and for everyone.
Food is the ticket to much social interaction in life and this is no different outdoors. No food=no ticket, even if the event is free and appears to not need a ticket. If the only food all day is a packed lunch from home or maybe they need specific outdoor expedition food for participation, that will be a barrier. If a child is skipping meals they may not be physically up to what their peers are doing and unable to respond to social and play cues, in extremes they may not be physically safe. Besides all that, when you are hungry you can only think about your hunger, no one learns when they are hungry.
Jack Monroe also did some research that found that the foods that are considered to be the cheapest and those bought most frequently by people in poverty have actually seen higher price increases than foods considered to be in the luxury market. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that families can provide basic foods at very low cost as this is no longer the case. It is now an inaccurate assumption that you can get pasta and beans for example at very low cost, as basic food items have been actively targeted for the biggest increases in price. The marketing that encourages us to purchase certain items for donation to food banks is one theory for why prices have gone up. Tragically, our collective kindness has backfired for those we seek to support, at the hands of big corporations. Freak-onomically pushing more people into to food bank use. This is another example of how those with the least resources actually pay more than those with healthy incomes. This spreads to energy bills, household appliances, borrowing, clothing and sadly now food. Jack discovered that there had been a 344% price rise on some basic items. Canned spaghetti was 13p but is now around 35p for example. Add to this the fact that even if the cost of food doubles incomes have not.
Jack said: “I did a £10 food shop in 2012 for the Sunday People and re-did the exact same shop over the weekend and it came to £17.11.
Now benefits haven’t doubled in that time, wages haven’t doubled in that time so people are being forced to buy less, and eat less and consume less.”
Transport is a huge part of the household budget, fuel prices are rising and journeys will be cut whether by car or public transport. Even if your provision is free, can people walk to it? Recently someone in a meeting suggested that cycling should be an option for some groups without transport, despite the obvious ableism on show here, this demonstrates that some will assume a bike is a standard item everyone would have. Many families can’t afford bikes and when sustrans or bikeability arrive at their school, those children will be learning to ride a bike for the first time. The huge increase in outdoor leisure, like cycling, over lockdown was not equal across all demographics but became more possible for those for who lockdowns meant they saved money but not for those in the low income bracket for whom lockdown meant increased costs.
Where you live makes a huge difference to what public transport is even available in the first place and then what schemes, if any there are to reduce costs. So again, it’s easiest to ask, what do we provide that people can walk to? The Natural England-people and nature survey demonstrated that most people arrived at places of outstanding natural beauty/National Parks, by car and also found that it was least visited by those in the lowest income bracket. Often public transport does not go to beautiful natural places and there is a danger that many would think them beautiful directly because of their remoteness and because of lack of access. That’s outdoor privilege in action right there.
COST OF ENTRY
It is obvious that the cost of entry to any provision is an immediate barrier to participation. Now though, it is worth considering that even families who have previously afforded your provision, that leisure will also be one of the first things to go when the budget doesn’t work. It is worth mentioning that Forest School and some outdoor leisure already has a reputation for only providing for certain demographics. My point is, through the cost of living crisis there will be a shift in what people can afford even in the middle income bracket. What can you do to acknowledge new financial constraints? We offer scholarships, subsidised places, offer flexible payment options and as many events as possible for free.
The minimum Income Standard (MIS) measures what incomes are needed for people to live in dignity and access leisure activity for a good quality of life. This is the right way around-unlike the back to front-forcing hungry families to go on cooking courses in order to get food support. We all deserve to live in dignity. People deserve to be able to access our provision to enjoy a good quality of life. Outdoor learning and leisure should not be a privilege. We all know the outdoors is good for nearly everything so we all deserve to have access to its benefits. How you offer your provision says lots about who you think the outdoors is for. Check yourself, give your provision a dignity MOT, does it all function well?
Many families will not have a clothing category in their budget. Those with the least will do without clothes to afford other essentials. Many children have a pair of school shoes and that’s it. They will not have wellies or walking boots or waterproof anything because they may not even have a coat. Be very aware that parents are wildly sensitive to their children being stigmatised by poverty and so don’t assume anything about appearance and certainly don’t criticise choices of what you think are expensive trainers or pink fluffy jumpers that make no sense in a woodland. This is what I would call “poverty masking”-making choices that make no sense to those without lived experience of poverty-to avoid and mitigate poverty stigma. Stigma is where a lot of damage is done and the repercussions of poverty stigma can be worse than the reality of having no money.
It is an enormous error that I have heard and witnessed too many outdoor leaders make, do not go down the route of judging why you see certain brands or types of clothing. One of the only ways that young people can leverage any self esteem and respect from peers is via clothing-it is social survival. Parents may have taken loans or gone without meals themselves to afford to buy items to help their child belong. We all know that the outdoors has a culture of its own and young people will have high anxiety about looking as if they don’t belong and so also about swapping their white trainers for wellies. Take it easy, go in gently and try to understand. What matters most? Culturally acceptable outdoor clothing or a valuable, positive, experience outdoors?
It is useful to have a bank of items that can be borrowed in bad weather conditions or when safety and well-being is a concern but insisting on certain outdoor clothing items or kit is the short cut to build barriers to access or alienate altogether. We have done away with logo hoodies etc as this becomes the quickest way to show up kids who can’t afford them, immediate stigmatisation in other words. Children and young people are hypervigilant about noticing and avoiding stigmatisation and so regardless of talent, interest, need, or commitment to an activity or club, the requirement for any kind of uniform-casual or not, optional or not-will prevent participation.
Lockdown demonstrated more than any research project could have, that access to nature and green space is a socio-economic issue. Cast your mind back and see if you can remember that not only did it come down to garden or no garden but that also some public green spaces were heavily policed, closed or just too far away to access in an hour. Those with green space attached to their homes were happy to have the opportunity to spend more time in it and those with woodland, beaches or moorland very close to home, later in lockdown were also delighted and reported enjoying more time in nature than ever before. For those people for whom the available green spaces were limited, exercise and fresh air choices were limited and maybe even less enjoyable than usual as they were very busy and had restrictions such as no benches, no play equipment or no toilets.
Local green space is a socio economic problem. The new economics foundation did some research that uncovered that housing estates post millennium showed a 40% decrease in green spaces in new housing areas compared to that around the 1930’s. The amount of green space around housing built post millennium, continues to decrease as housing is newer.
Financial cuts to services also shows that parks and green spaces have seen a decline in how well managed and cared for they are. Research on outdoor play has shown that parents restriction on their children’s roaming range is affected by perceptions of safety in local green spaces where children may go independently. Cuts in local government budgets also mean that green space assets may be sold off or used for other purposes. A local green space in Bodmin, between two housing estates, was converted into a car park for the benefit of the development of a new hotel. The argument was that it would help to bring economic growth to the town, which was hard for many to argue against considering the levels of deprivation in the area. Tragically the car park was built and sat unused and fenced for many months as issues between town council and hotel development could not be resolved. I am still angry every time I pass it.
I am aware that as outdoor providers if we focus our energies on remote beautiful green and blue spaces outside of residential areas then the vital community green spaces in towns, cities and villages lose our expertise and understanding about the benefits of the outdoors. I feel very strongly that part of our role is to also advocate for those who are already underserved, under heard and marginalised and will suffer even more when green spaces become car parks.
If you feel you can’t afford to make changes that will affect the cost of running your business or provision then there is one thing you can do for free-CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE! The person who complained to me this week that the change in our plans designed to further include those on low incomes and with no transport-to access what many take for granted-was mainly a complaint that it would impact how their child experienced our provision. They were not impressed by our commitment to making the outdoors as accessible as possible in our area but were disappointed that the provision would no longer look and feel the same for their family, despite their child being able to still access everything in the new plan and some of it now, even being free of charge!
In order to improve access to nature and the outdoors for more diverse sections of the community, we must have the courage to challenge privilege and call out entitlement, even with people who we may have worked with for some time. The subject of this blog is poverty but calling out privilege outdoors will encourage access for other marginalised groups too, poverty is intersectional. The positionality, the power of having enough money, privilege and entitlement means that it may be difficult to empathise with circumstances that have never been a lived experience. I suspect that the increase in food bank users, household budgets being stretched for groups who have previously been financially comfortable, will start to challenge further what it means to not have enough to live on or to live well and with dignity. We will see and hear more divisive arguments in the media, politics and in our communities. Arm yourself with knowledge from those with expertise gained from lived experience, (SHARE THIS BLOG AND ALL ITS LINKS AS A START) question assumptions about poverty behaviours, usually this is poverty propaganda. People in poverty can cook they just can’t afford the ingredients or the fuel to cook it, their choices are removed. Never take choice for granted.
Being poor takes more time, more energy and a scarcity mindset uses more cognitive bandwith than for those who are financially comfortable. Consider the necessity of having to visit different supermarkets to search for the cheapest food options where a few pence means all the difference. People in poverty are usually spectacularly good at budgeting unlike the poverty propaganda suggests. We are told by the media and politicians to believe that living in poverty or on a low income is the result of a multitude of character and moral failings-don’t believe it for a second, don’t fall for it, it is how hungry children and food bank use is justified and it is simply not justifiable. The outdoor sector, more than most, has many beliefs and assumptions about character building, resilience, psychological, emotional and physical strength. If a child, young person, adult or family on a low income has made it to the threshold of your provision they have travelled further to get there than you can imagine-this is always a demonstration of immense character-never a lack of it.
Nik Elvy is a director and outdoor leader at Curious School of the Wild CIC
Nik is an outdoor blogger focused on poverty and access to the outdoors
She grew up in poverty and is still grateful for the tasty free school meals spam fritters and spaghetti hoops) she had over her whole school career and is a low income single mother, surviving on benefits.
Nik and the fantastic crew at CSoW work hard to improve access for local marginalised communities where they live and encourage others to do the same further afield