The government have just published a new plan to promote social mobility and tackle child poverty. It recognises the importance of family, friends, acquaintances and community organisations in finding and providing help and mutual support. But will 'social networks' help people cope with or move out of poverty? Is the power of social networks being overstated?

New research by brap has found that largely the power of social networks is being overstated. 'Social' resources generated through social networks are no substitute for financial resources – and by and large, it is only those with sufficient financial resources that think it is. You can download the research here.

Yes, social networks can help people to find paid work. Yes, they provide mutual support and comfort for those experiencing poverty and isolation. And yes, they can bring people together to engage in anti-poverty campaigning.

Yet social networks only stand a chance of helping people to respond to poverty if they are accompanied by broader poverty prevention strategies to deal with the underlying causes of poverty. For example, finding employment via friends or contacts doesn’t offer long-term routes out of poverty if job security and low pay (issues related largely to the economic climate and labour market) are not also addressed.

In other words, there is little evidence to suggest that poverty can be 'solved' by participation in social networks. In my view, there is no short-cut or substitute for state-funded investments that tackle the causes of poverty. It's important that we’re clear about this as public services and benefits are reduced.

In Hans Christian Andersen's story, the Emperor is sold a new suit of clothes, which are invisible. Yet when the Emperor shows off his new clothes to his subjects, a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!". The same is probably true for using social networks and relying on 'Big Society' to address systemic and pervasive causes of poverty and inequality. Any anti-poverty support from social networks must be backed up with proper investment to tackle the root causes of poverty, and help with everything from fuel poverty to lack of affordable childcare. As much as we'd all like to engage in Big Society, the 'clothes' we are being offered through it will be of little use to us if they don't cover us and keep us warm.

This is a slightly revised version of a blog entry that first appeared on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website here.


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