The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a detrimental effect on the economy, both here in the UK and globally. More than half of the UK’s 33-million-strong workforce is currently working reduced hours, furloughed or unemployed, according to the Chief Economist at the Bank of England. This is equivalent to an Eighties-style unemployment crisis. Even with unprecedented government support over the past few months, and public borrowing exceeding £89bn, the latest IHS Markit Households Finance Index shows the largest fall in overall perceptions of financial wellbeing since the survey began in 2009.
In the first eight weeks of lockdown, 2.6 million people claimed Universal Credit. As the crisis continues, low paid workers and those who had already been managing on variable and unstable incomes will be more likely to be affected, creating an even greater sense of financial uncertainty. For many of the most financially vulnerable, this uncertainty has been and will remain a daily experience.
At Nesta we have been supporting innovations that focus on reducing financial uncertainty, providing access to well paid and meaningful employment, and on improving financial inclusion for a number of years, including; the Affordable Credit Challenge supporting partnerships between affordable credit providers and UK based fintechs, the Open Up Challenge 2020 to support consumers through open banking and the Inclusive Economic Partnership where we enabled five financial innovators to scale by developing meaningful cross-sector partnerships. With our partners at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Skills (DCMS), Nesta have also backed a number of innovations that centre around people supporting each other in our communities, as a key type of good help, such as the innovations that are part of the Savers Support Fund.
The Savers Support fund supported 5 organisations seeking to scale social action approaches to improve money management skills and reduce debt for individuals and families in England. Across the fund, almost 9,000 people were supported to take action to improve their financial wellbeing.
Based on the learning of these innovations, we have collated 5 key lessons from their experimentation that should be used by others designing approaches to aid economic recovery from the effects of COVID-19.
People powered approaches to financial wellbeing are not intended as a panacea for financial inequality and poverty, however, utilising the time and talents of citizens to provide both formal and informal help to others can shift power structures, increase the value of relationships, and ultimately lead to better outcomes for all.
People powered approaches for financial wellbeing go where people already are and recognise the value of social connections. Rather than being a ‘service’ approach, they reach into communities, helping people to work through situations with someone within the community, who can help them understand other approaches, in forms that mean something to them.
The settings across the 5 innovations were all local, accessible and familiar. This established a sense of trust upfront. It broke down barriers to learning and development, and it allowed people to build on strengths and capacities that they already had.
For example, Purple Shoots works in communities and with community groups, to bring together small groups of people. Together they develop shared interests and ideas in Self Reliant Groups (SRGs) to meet regularly, save money, develop skills and decide what they would like to do to take more control of their own lives.
One SRG member mentioned that “I have grown in confidence and also in my ability to make a difference in the community”
Each person comes with their own set of unique skills and abilities. In order to enhance those and enable people to move towards a more secure and financially healthy future, those innate abilities needed to be fostered. This is another important area that was recognised and stood out across the 5 innovations supported. Rather than creating a service delivery model where citizens are treated as individual problems to be fixed, their focus was mainly on using asset-based approaches to community engagement.
This was demonstrated well by the team at Toynbee Hall who through the Community Money Mentors programme, recognised that many of the community members taking part in the programme were well placed to develop the skills to become trainers themselves. Through the fund, the team delivered the Teach It, train the trainer course with 44 people, many of whom then went on to deliver their own CMM courses. Many of these trainees had been out of work for some time but given the opportunity, developed into confident course leaders. One of the Teach It graduates mentioned that “Delivering the training, it made, I feel like I was thrown in at the deep end and I learned to swim along the way [...] it taught me a lot about myself, it taught me that I can handle challenging situations, that I’m more confident than I think I am”.
Life events, especially those related to health, employment or relationships, create opportunities to reach people when they are more receptive to new knowledge, attitudes or skills. This is the main finding from the Money & Pensions Service What Works Fund, which focused on filling major gaps in the UK evidence base for financial capability.
Savers Support Fund grantees built this into their ways of workings. Both Your Own Place and Onside Youth Zones delivered youth mentoring programmes and found them to be much more beneficial when the young people involved were older and closer to living independently themselves. A young person on the YOP mentoring programme mentioned that “She (the mentor) helped with everything. Particularly with managing money and budgeting. Helped me talk quietly so I don't offend people too”. The ability to relate the financial management skills they were learning on the programmes directly to real life events enabled the young people to see a direct benefit and the consequences of their decisions, good or bad.
Many participants of the CAP Life Skills programme were in a moment of transition, often after a crisis. One of the Life Skills centre managers mentioned that "We deal with a lot of people that are struggling with depression, anxiety, for some coming to Life Skills it’s the first time they've really left the house in a while other than for the essentials”. People in the programme were therefore able to identify critical aspects of their situation they could address to make positive changes in their lives"
In her book Radical Help, Hilary Cottam states: “one of the most important things in life is our relationships: they can enhance and change our lives. We know this to be true yet almost all existing support systems override human connection”.
Currently much of public service delivery is focused on a transactional approach that separates citizens into categories and works with individuals to solve siloed challenges that come up in their lives, such as problems with housing or income. What is often less considered, is the wider network surrounding people, the relationships, the connections and support they already have or need to develop to live a more fulfilling life.
Whilst much of the focus across all of the projects was on increasing peoples’ financial wellbeing, it was clear that in addition to the development of knowledge and skills, the wider benefit of building relationships emerged as an equally important factor.
Many of the people who took part in the CAP Life Skills programme reflected on how the time they spent together as a community, was really useful for building relationships, communication, confidence and self-worth. It helped those involved to break cycles of isolation and to value themselves and others. One member notes that “It wasn't just about the money or the budgeting. It was about the support that they could show you and give you." Purple Shoots’ SRG model, which brought together groups of people to save money together and develop skills, was as much about the relationships developed in the group as it was about money in people's pockets. Toynbee Hall’s Community Money Mentors programme developed networks around people, by encouraging the Mentors to share their new financial knowledge with those around them through events and day to day conversations, in order to bring their skills to their wider community and reach the people that more formal programmes couldn’t.
In the continued effort to improve the circumstances of people facing financial difficulties, it is important and necessary to address more immediate and seemingly tangible concerns, such as an unpaid bill or the need to pay for food or shelter whilst also providing opportunities to explore some of the surrounding factors that contribute to moments of crisis. This requires exploring where preventative services can be integrated to support people more holistically.
Alongside the move for more person centred approaches to service delivery, there has also been a shift from the concept of ‘capabilities’ towards a broader ‘wellbeing’ concept within the money advice and support sector. The most significant of these is that The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) have recently moved from a focus on the development of ‘Financial Capabilities’ to ‘Financial Wellbeing’ as the overall framing in their new 10 year strategy. They outline Financial Wellbeing as: “...about feeling secure and in control. It is knowing that you can pay the bills today, can deal with the unexpected, and are on track for a healthy financial future. In short: confident and empowered.”
Within the fund, the most effective grantees combined the development of financial skills with more intrinsic capabilities such as stress management. CAP presents a good example of how they were able to open up wider conversations with participants, by incorporating physical and mental health into their Life Skills course. These conversations were then followed up in the coaching and community element of the programme with people being guided towards additional support or development where suitable.
There is more to be done to develop the wider impacts of these people powered approaches to ensure that people have strong relationships with each other and know where to go for help. The past few months have seen a shift in the public conscience about the importance of people, networks and community and looking forward it will be important that we maximise the benefits of this shift to move towards a society that provides opportunities for everyone to flourish.
The future forecast for life after the pandemic is that there will be no ‘back to normal’ and as we head into a period of economic recovery from the immediate shocks of the pandemic, we hope to see community focused approaches to improving financial wellbeing as a key part of the solution, alongside a focus on ensuring access to well paid and meaningful work, reducing inequality in society and creating a sustainable future.