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The making of resilient families

While most of the stories behind families in poverty are tinged with despair, many are gilded with hope. Because poverty is inherently a negative situation, most stories and discussions focus on deficits and lacks. When we hosted a series of roundtable discussions with practitioners and academics last year, they argued that we need to “flip the poverty debate upside down” and focus on resilience—why some families cope better in low income situations or manage to avoid poverty altogether.

This is why it was so heartening to see SuPERU (formerly the Families Commission) release a report that explored “the strategies and characteristics of families who successfully manage on a low income.” After asking over seventy families living on an income between $22,000 and $55,000 whether they had enough to meet their everyday needs, there was an almost 50/50 split between the “enoughs” and the “not enoughs.” What similarities and differences arose between these groups?

Actual income earned was found to be just one piece of the puzzle, completed by “how that income is managed, what expectations are held, the predictability of income and expenses and the presence of support all influence judgments of income adequacy.” The “not enoughs” tended to be on a benefit, rent their home, have an unreliable income and juggle expenses. The “enoughs” tended to have steady employment, own their home, have good financial planning skills, set aside money for the future, a confidence in their capability to manage their situation and generally compared themselves to those less fortunate. 

Similarities between the groups were interesting. They shared core values like wanting the best for their children, putting family before income and a belief that there were more important things in life than money. Both groups responded that seeing their kids missing out on opportunities was a “heart-breaking” consequence of not being able to make ends meet. Sometimes kids choose to opt out themselves—one child hid a birthday invitation so the family didn’t feel obliged to buy a present. 

Putting the growth and fulfillment of families first looks different for different families: this meant working more hours to ensure financial security for some, while others choose not to work or work fewer hours to spend more time with kids, often resulting in financial difficulty. These core values, along with family, wh?nau and community relationships, helped many cope and remain positive amidst a material lack. A large proportion also found faith, spirituality and “humbleness” helped kept them afloat.

The implications of the research are worth quoting in full: “Building family resilience on the ability to cope will enable low income families to better manage times where their income does not cover their needs. Building financial planning skills, strong relationships, an optimistic outlook and family and community support will enable them to bounce back from unexpected events.” Understanding resilience will help us build it within our own families and communities. Research like this that looks at what works rather than just what’s wrong is a great start. 

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