Looking to the future

Looking to the future

Flickr: sagesolar

By Stephen Robertson

‘Staying in the moment’ or ‘stuck in the moment’? Short-termism and self-denial are not the qualities of a ‘mindful’ approach to modern living. Will we regret tomorrow what we did or did not do today and, today, does tomorrow seem just a little too far away?

Social and economic exclusion most frequently wander hand-in-hand along the path of social ill-justice. To bring about an end to exclusion we are really talking about achieving sustainable decreases and the eradication of the chronic outputs that are symbols of inequality within our society; be that homelessness, gender or ethnicity-based discrimination or inequality of access to labour markets for example.

Of course, these are not sudden overnight manifestations of short-term problems writ large. History can teach us lessons if we are curious to look and open to being taught. What are the positive social behaviours we can understand from history? How have these evolved, mutated or ceased to exist and why?

Society is made of people and social and economic exclusion can act like a disease, infecting, adapting and spreading as it multiplies and expands. Individual and collective responsibility should be accepted, and positive action taken; action that is informed by insight and history.

Some societal challenges are the unintended consequences of action elsewhere; when a library is closed it is often true that more people end up in the local A&E department as a result. We should be attempting to predict if what we intend to do now will lead us to a more positive future, a future that we seek to design.

Many of the young people we encounter in our work are in hardship and on the streets in-part because of problems that can be traced back generations. Poverty inherited and maintained by their parents, and their parents before them, breeds family conflict and breakdown. The trauma of losing the family home (however meagre), and the support system that it provides, spins young people into a downward spiral that’s often impossible to climb out of.

Feelings of hopelessness can quickly amplify across everyday behaviours. At a time when they crave family members to nurture self-reliance, negative experiences can start to reinforce the isolation and inadequacy that many young people experience. The lack of confidence that can result ensures that the easiest way to deal with life’s challenges is to run away. To run away from responsibility, run away from the opportunity for education and run away from the chance of getting a job. Missed basic needs, at a young age, can be handed down and passed on from generation to generation.

People need ongoing support to help them cope with the trauma of poverty and homelessness. At the Big Issue we give people experiencing financial and social exclusion the opportunity to earn money by becoming vendors. Their primary motivation may be cash, but in the process, they gain retail skills, resilience and self-worth. They figure out how to be part of society again, to own and tackle their exclusion.

Our way isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only way. For others, bursaries may be more appropriate so that they can benefit from an education that leads to a career and a long life of contributing to society rather than a short life at the mercy of society.

To enable this, we need a shift in public perception, we should encourage the public to recognise that people are homeless because of wider social problems, not just housing. Social ills that only a genuinely benevolent society can address and we, the well-intended, should never play a role in promoting the stereotypes that re-enforce the idea that homelessness is an inevitability. That in the main, people are the architects of their own decline.

When people become homeless we need to act quickly to reverse their fortunes. The many organisations in this space must work more collaboratively (and there is much to say about the real value of collaboration going forward), creatively developing solutions with permanence at their heart, rather than applying individual sticking plasters. And, if an idea works, let’s give it the space, time and money to succeed – Housing First works so implement it properly.

We need our Government, of whatever political persuasion, to implement a welfare regime that is sufficiently robust and generous to ensure that our citizens are not held down or held back by things that we can control or correct. Monetary poverty leads to poverty of opportunity, so we must help families to obtain a better future, rather than just fund the status quo.

Earlier this year the Environment Agency warned that England’s flood planners must prepare for the worst of climate change. Its chairwoman, Emma Howard Boyd said, on current trends, global temperature could rise between 2C and 4C by 2100 and £1bn a year would need to be spent on flood management. She went on to say that some communities may even need to move because of the risk of floods.

Climate change and the emergence and public mobilisation of movements by, for example, Extinction Rebellion do demonstrate that there is power in collective endeavour. Citizenship and democratic action here look beyond the normal timeframes to re-write a future history that has yet to happen and a future that many may not even be alive to witness. Thinking, planning and acting for tomorrow is a critical component to ensuring that we live in the present and thrive not just in the short-term moment.

So, what has history taught us with The Big Issue magazine? How has something so simple had such a profound effect on so many and for so long?

At the very core is the concept of self-help and responsibility. Many who we first meet live a life that extends 60 to 90 minutes ahead, the immediacy of their situation preventing any thought about tomorrow, with little or no capital to support the next day. For those who return the next day with some cash from the sale of the free magazines we provide each new vendor, then another 23 hours have been added on to a persons’ experience. They have engaged with themselves and saved something from that for another day. They are thinking about tomorrow and that is where the window of opportunity is opened. Self-determination, personal effort and an eye for the opportunities that tomorrow can bring. That’s where this all starts.

Since entering the House of Lords, Big Issue Founder and Editor-in-Chief Lord John Bird has been thinking about the future and the steps needed to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of history.

Further inspired by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, Lord Bird intends to introduce his Future Generations Bill in the new Parliament and campaign for its enactment. Public bodies, including the UK Government, should be legally required to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future, and to work preventatively, with a long-term focus that spans longer than the implicit self-interest of an electoral term.

We should embrace a new framework to encourage decision-makers to think differently about the importance of preventing problems, long-term thinking and accounting for the well-being of future generations as a matter of law. Embedding long-termism, prevention and the interests of future generations at the heart of UK policymaking should aim to tackle the climate crisis, poverty and health inequalities head on.

We need to ensure that the paths we wander lead towards positive choices and destinations. We should accept that a short stroll might lead to a hard climb, but a future generations principle will ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This is a path worth walking down.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Stephen Robertson. Stephen has been the Chief Executive of The Big Issue Foundation since 2007.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards and seeks a range of diverse views to really inform this process and develop its services for all.

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