Contextualising Poverty in Social Housing Practice – Ideas for Change

Published: Posted on

By Hannah Absalom

In this piece, Hannah Absalom considers the connection between behavioural science and psychological perspectives on poverty, in relation to her research on nudging in the social housing sector.

Abstract painting of ‘Little Falls’ New Jersey by Oscar Bluemner Hanover 1867–1938 Braintree, Massachusetts

Behavioural insights tend to be perceived as a distant and elitist approach to policy making. Behavioural policy that targets those on the lowest incomes has a reputation for stigmatisation and creating more financial hardship for those least able to manage. It seems counter intuitive to suggest that there may be a version of behavioural insights that work to change the contexts of poverty, rather than the behaviour of people who find themselves in them. Social housing as a sector provides a unique opportunity to explore this counter-intuitive idea. The sector is deeply contextual, it creates homes and neighbourhoods and continues to play an active role in their maintenance and development. It also provides homes to significant numbers of people living in financially difficult circumstances. This blog will explore if there is a case to be made for poverty alleviating behavioural insights in social housing.

Complicated minds, complicated contexts

Mullainathan and Shafir (2013) argue that contexts of having less produce a scarcity mindset. This mindset interacts in complicated ways with the context that produced it. Ways that produce significant difficulties for the person caught in this web. This understanding produces two insights, the idea that the environments of poverty are targets for intervention and the idea that these contexts cause psychological harm. This produces a new line of thinking into how contexts of poverty can be better understood, their harmful effects reduced, and the person harmed by them, meaningfully helped.

It’s not ‘them’, it’s everyone

A further shift in perspective is produced by Banerjee and Duflo’s (2012) argument for a focus on the institutions that are tasked with alleviating poverty. Cheek and Shafir (2020) support this case in their ‘Thick Skin Bias’ research. There is a bias to seeing people who have fewer financial resources, as being less harmed by poverty than those who are affluent. The contexts of the affluent are also subject to criticism. How affluent contexts are designed to have less friction and be easier navigate. How this invisible ease contributes to failing to understand how damaging the contexts of poverty are. These insights are challenging. They demand that organisations who may see themselves as experts and specialists, change. They challenge our comfortable assumptions and make us uneasy about our own role in producing poverty. It turns the judgemental gaze that we reserve for those who find themselves in poverty, onto ourselves. They demand that we dare to change first and accept that we are part of the problem.

Value the skills gained to survive contexts of poverty

There is a level of sophisticated economic decision-making required to survive the circumstances imposed by poverty. Finwell (Biosca and Baker et al, 2021) research evidence that major financial decisions are made almost every day. Decisions that are hard due to their urgency, future implications, the relative sums involved and their irreversibility. These challenge assumptions of financial fecklessness and reveals the cognitive distress cause by constant choice making. Interventions that identify and build approaches that help alleviate the stress of financial decision-making can play a key part in reducing financial distress and increasing wellbeing.

The importance of stability

Many behavioural interventions targeted at people in circumstances of poverty try to activate behaviours that experts and the affluent have decided are lacking. We see this in interventions that encourage individuals to find insecure employment. This can produce financial shocks that undermine the work that has gone into stabilising environments of poverty. By not thinking of poverty as context, we fail to see the importance of stable contexts that create the mental space for people to make their own decisions about how they live their lives.

What needs to change

As outlined above, we need to take a step back and accept that change begins with us. To acknowledge that we fail to understand how poverty works, and to start by seeing our role and the role played by contexts of affluence in perpetuating it. Incremental approaches that work with people who find themselves in circumstances of less are a key early step. We need to work together, to innovate from within contexts of poverty* if we want to change them.

We need to change what we value. Measurement frameworks in social housing are not psychologically informed, tend to not see context as a target for intervention and are geared towards behavioural change rather than contextual stabilisation. Changing how we value and measure the worth of poverty interventions all need to change if we want to together to change the cruel contexts of poverty.

*This includes looking at the contribution made by our gaze and the work of institutions. Starting from the context of poverty allows us to look out and see what our actions and thinking contribute.


Banerjee, A. V. and E. Duflo (2012). Poor Economics. A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York, Public Affairs.

Biosca, O., R. Baker, C. Donaldson, N. McHugh, A. Morgan, A. Bala, E. Bellazzecca, M. Mojarrieta, G. White and J. Morduch (2021). Managing finances and multiple long-term conditions: eliciting

the perspectives of individuals living on low incomes. Finwell. London, GCU London.

Cheek, N. and E. Shafir (2020). “The thick skin bias in judgements about people in poverty.” Behavioural Public Policy: 1-26.

Mullainathan, S. and E. Shafir (2013). Scarcity. The true cost of not having enough. London, Penguin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.