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Coaching to break the poverty cycle – (how) does it work?

by Keetie Roelen

“I crossed the bridge to economic independence” says Haroun about his experience with mobility mentoring. “I’m now managing my own small enterprise. I continue to grow. No mountain is too high.”

Getting a grip

Haroun is in his twenties and lives in Zaandam, a medium-sized town in the Netherlands. He found himself trapped in a cycle of debt at an early age. But his participation in the programme ‘Get a Grip’ marked a turning point. Talking about his experience, he describes how his two mentors helped him to get hold of his financial problems, pay off outstanding debt and get an education. He started his own business. And he is now working as a mentor himself. For Haroun, the coaching he received was a life-changing experience that set him on course to economic independence.

Patrick and Daisy, a couple with two young daughters, also got stuck in life. A few years ago, a combination of indebtedness, addiction and mental health issues led to them losing their home. They moved into Daisy’s parents’ house with the intention of it being a short-term solution. Instead, it turned into a long-term and multifaceted problem. The house was too small for five adults, two children and multiple pets. Tensions ran high. Concerns were raised about the children’s care and safety.

Cue the Uitvoeringsbrigade (which roughly translates to ‘Implementation Brigade). A coach is assigned to Daisy and Patrick to help them get a handle on their various problems, from getting them signed up to social housing to dealing with their debt. Instead of the couple having to navigate a myriad of services and their specific rules on their own – adding to already high stress levels – they develop a plan together to take things one step at a time. Within months they’re able to move into their own home and debts are paid off on a regular basis. They’re not out of the woods just yet but with the help of the GrowCare method, the family has achieved an important level of stability and regained control over their own lives.

‘Get a Grip’, the programme that Haroun took part in, and the coaching received by Daisy and Patrick through the Uitvoeringsbrigade are both based on approaches that makes use of the latest science around how low income, debt and other stressors impede our ability to think straight and take well-considered action. We discussed this approach last month in Episode #23 of our podcast together with Elisabeth Babcock, CEO of EMPath – a non-profit that pioneered Mobility Mentoring® in the US. Mobility mentoring and similar brain- and behaviour science based approaches to coaching are also gaining in popularity outside the US. In the Netherlands, municipalities and social work organizations across the country have set up their own initiatives to help tackle social ills such as indebtedness, poverty and homelessness.

Four lessons for success

The experiences of Haroun, Daisy and Patrick are impressive success stories. But what are the factors for success? How do approaches such as mobility mentoring work? Here are four key lessons based on experiences in the Netherlands:

(1) Placing the client front and centre

Although it may seem obvious for the client to be the main focus in services that aim to improve their life, this certainly isn’t self-evident. All too often services are guided by bureaucratic processes with clients pushed into categories that trigger narrow and standardised responses. Rarely do those in need of support get asked what they think they need, or how they are coping. Solutions are imposed on clients rather than discussed with them. Service delivery is rigid and detached.

Mobility mentoring and similar coaching models provides a much more tailored approach with real attention for those they are working with and placing them at the centre. For example, the coach assigned to Daisy and Patrick was available to them day and night to discuss their problems. Their issues, and the stress surrounding them, didn’t just play out in working hours; the out-of-hours availability of their coach signals that the severity of their situation is taken seriously.

(2) Building trust and respect

A related element of the coaching and mentoring is that they are based on respectful and trustworthy relationships. Coaches work with their clients instead of telling them what to do. They stand with participants in mentoring, offering positive and non-judgemental support. This doesn’t mean that the coach is simply playing nice. They are honest about the issues at hand, and what needs to be done to change things around. But it’s the trust and respect that ensures that honest reflections don’t backfire but are taken on board.

This is in sharp contrast to approaches across social services. Concerns about people receiving ‘something for nothing’ leads to highly punitive practices. Threats of support being discontinued if beneficiaries fail to adhere to often very rigid rules are all too common. Instead of trust and respect, relationships between service users and providers are marred by blame and shame. Positive experiences with the mobility mentoring and similar approaches show what a difference trust and respect can make.

(3) Adopting an integrated approach

Most services only focus on one problem in isolation, and don’t consider what led to this problem or how it co-exists with other issues in people’s lives. Unemployment, indebtedness, housing or mental health – if services are available to provide support, they all come with their own applications, rules and regulations. Often there are many hoops to jump through with one mistake on an application form resulting in being disqualified. All this makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees, and causes a lot of stress. A coaching approach that helps its participants to map the various issues they are grappling with and develop a plan to tackle them is vital for coming unstuck.

(4) Getting everyone on board

A tailored, respectful, and positive approach is a radical shift away from standardised cookie-cutter services that provide support to separated problems in a highly regulated form. Making this shift happen means that everyone involved in the chain of service delivery needs to be on board. As Edwin van Staveren, strategic advisor in the municipality of Deventer explains, if coaches are reined in by their managers for talking with families about concerns that may not seem immediately relevant to their economic problems, the approach will fail. From an institutional perspective, starting small can help to gradually shift the mindset of frontline workers and those making policy and political decisions to build a strong foundation for this new approach.

Coaching – the future for poverty reduction?

The positivity that radiates from those involved with the approach sparks a lot of enthusiasm. Could this be the key?

Undoubtedly a more positive and tailored approach is a welcome alternative to the distant and often dehumanising treatment experienced by so many in need of support. The explicit acknowledgement that stress associated with the struggle to make ends meet avoids piling on more pressure on already over-burdened individuals. Not only is being treated with dignity and respect a basic human right, it also makes efforts to reduce poverty more effective.

Yet for all its promise, mentoring and coaching can only be part of the solution. There is a lot of mileage to be gained from clients being able to get a grip on their problems and mapping a way out. However, achieving economic independence requires more than becoming adept at dealing with stress. The move towards a better life is inevitably facilitated or limited by wider systemic factors. Earning a decent income is only possible if good jobs are available. Moving into a secure home can only happen if there is affordable housing.

Losing sight of the context in which the approach is implement may cause backlash. Over-emphasising individuals’ abilities to step back from their daily stresses to take well-considered action may backfire if such action does not lead to positive results. Clients may be blamed as unwilling or incapable, the approach may be deemed ineffective.

It is vital to keep sight of the bigger picture and consider coaching and mentoring as part of a wider set of policies, including strong welfare and social protection and affordable education, health and housing services. But – as Beth notes in the podcast – systemic obstacles holding people back does not absolve those who implement social interventions from making them more impactful. Ultimately we need to tackle this problem in multiple ways, equipping individuals and families to take positive action and engaging in action to break down societal and systematic barriers to a better life.

Acknowledgements: This post was written with input from Maite Gadellaa and Helga Koper from the network of Mobility Mentoring® in the Netherlands. The post reflects the author’s own opinions.

Photo credit: Johannes Plenio from Pexels

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