HARDSHIP and poverty are often associated more with urban than with rural areas. Rural hardship in the north Cotswolds, for example, is often hidden, because of inequalities and the relative affluence experienced by the majority, and the high levels of tourism in the area.
This is a problem, because the significant minority who experience hardship are more hidden. This means that rural hardship is often not adequately addressed by local and national policy-makers and community leaders.
This is the focus of the exhibition “Hidden Hardship”, which Coventry Cathedral is hosting until 26 February, and which is part of my new participatory research project at Coventry University. This has sought to understand hardship in the north Cotswolds better.
The exhibition consists of illustrations by the artist Beth Waters, based on the research participants’ interviews and diaries of their experiences of hardship and/or responding to hardship. It focuses on people’s experiences of rural hardship, their coping strategies, and the barriers to their improved well-being.
WHAT is it like to experience hardship in the north Cotswolds? “Struggle” and “tough times” were the words used most often by research participants. These reflected daily struggles rather than one-off emergencies.
This was complicated by experiencing hardship in an area of relative affluence. One participant, Julie, said: “It’s embarrassing . . . in the area that we live in, I think, to put your hands up and say, ‘I’m really struggling here.’ You feel judged. Whether you are or not, I don’t know.”
The causes of rural hardship in the north Cotswolds can be summarised as “lacks of”. They include a lack of government support and investment, employment, and transport. Participants spoke of the “rural premium”: the higher cost of rural living in comparison with urban areas, where more facilities are sited. “Life is just harder,” a foodbank volunteer reflected in an interview.
In people’s coping strategies, they gave huge importance to informal support networks of friends and families. Additional support offered by local groups was also valued, although access to these could be restricted by limited transport options and a fear of stigma. Holly, a young mother and widow, spoke of saving “the same tin of emergency bacon grill . . . for that really bad time”; but, that day, she had realised that “it is really bad times,” and she had sought help from a foodbank.
Christian faith, and support from priests, as well as from friends made through church congregations, arose in several participants’ accounts. In rural Cotswolds communities, churches are often physically and figuratively central. Besides being places of worship, they also often function as community meeting places, organisers, and signposts to other community gatherings, people, and connections. For example, in this research, a foodbank client said that his Christian faith gave him daily strength to face being homeless.
BARRIERS to improved well-being were, to some extent, perceived as beyond people’s control, which made it difficult for them to envisage an improvement in their circumstances. These included the “lacks of”.
To address the causes of rural hardship, local and national policy-makers need to provide more tailored responses to daily struggles. People in rural areas need to be shown that the causes of hardship can be changed. If they see them as beyond their control, they will find it harder to envisage a more positive future.
What can church congregations and church leaders do to tackle hardship? Local organisations, churches, and their leaders should raise awareness in the general population in rural areas that people are experiencing hardship, and sensitively give a voice to people experiencing hardship to speak about their experiences.
How can they do this? The first step is to understand others’ experiences through conversation, and then to break down the idea of “us” and “them”. For example, think about the language used in worship, prayer, and sermons: is it welcoming to someone present in the congregation and experiencing hardship, especially if they are in the minority? What does the term “the poor” imply to them: that they are part of this church community, or that they are someone elsewhere or outside it?
Overall, the Hidden Hardship research has emphasised that poverty and hardship arise not only in urban areas, but around the UK and in places of perceived affluence and tourism, too, where inequalities are heightened.
Churches have a vital part to play in challenging the structural causes of hardship, raising awareness of people’s experiences of hardship, and supporting people in the short term, while working towards a future when hardship does not exist and inequalities are lessened.
Dr Stephanie Denning is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.
The Hidden Hardship research project was funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust. hiddenhardship.coventry.ac.uk