News and Comment

Do those on the lowest incomes care most about their community?

Wednesday 24 July 2013


A study published recently in the US makes an interesting contribution to our thinking about what makes people ‘conscientious neighbours’ – i.e. the extent to which they care for their area and for the people who live around them. It was a study of 70 individuals in an unnamed Midwest city, and sought to assess ‘levels of community care and vigilance’. All who took part in the study lived in low-income neighbourhoods, but they were not all equally poor. The research found that it was those on the lowest incomes who cared more about their communities.

Is this surprising? Many of us quietly make assumptions about neglected-looking neighbourhoods being occupied by neglectful neighbours, but it isn’t that simple. The less disadvantaged residents of a run-down, unpopular area may well aspire to leave; and can be more invested in the idea of getting out than improving the place itself. As such, it makes sense that the poorest residents, who have little chance of leaving, are those who care the most about what happens to it and are potentially more willing to invest energy in making it better.

We should bear in mind that this research was based on just 70 respondents in one American city and we can’t be sure that its findings would be replicated so clearly elsewhere. That withstanding, it is a useful reminder that there can be a pragmatic as well as an ethical motivation to involve the lowest income residents when seeking to build energy and consensus around local change. In struggling neighbourhoods, it is those who possess the most obvious confidence, skills and inclination to engage with decision-makers who may also be those most likely to ship-out at the earliest opportunity. Building the capacity and resilience of those in the worst economic situation is not just ‘nice to do’, therefore, but crucial.

So, for organisations like local authorities, health providers and housing associations, the question is not just ‘who cares?’ but ‘how do we help involve people who do care become part of the response?’ Finding ways through to the often mis-named ‘hard to reach’ residents is nothing new for public services – that’s been a staple of consultation exercises for more than a decade – but asking those people to build a wish list of what they think and what they want is not enough. They need to be supported to take part – yes, in decisions, but also in making things happen themselves. We need to ask: how can a conscientious neighbour feel invited and enabled to go on being contentious – and to turn that into something empowering and active that galvanises others to follow? How can we make it easier for those individuals to tap into the knowledge and expertise of local organisations, so they don’t feel they’re on their own, or swimming against the tide? In too many focus groups I’ve heard residents of low income areas say that they started off ‘being neighbourly’ or ‘taking an interest’, but had come to feel there was ‘no point’ – they cared, but didn’t feel their efforts changed anything.

So, are people on very low incomes more likely to care about their community? In many cases, yes, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The challenge is nurturing and harnessing that commitment so that it translates into something positive both for individuals and their communities.