The power of lived experience: helping JRF to tell the story of the cost-of-living crisis.


Emma Wincup, a Qualitative Insight Manager based at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), highlights the value of collaborating with people with lived experience of poverty on JRF’s cost-of-living tracker project. She argues that blending different forms of expertise helped JRF to find the most effective ways to communicate the financial struggles people are facing and the social, emotional, and physical impact of this. The collaboration also demonstrates that this can be done at pace when relationships and trust are already established.

The cost-of-living tracker project

Since Autumn 2021, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published four reports sharing findings from its cost-of-living tracker. The tracker takes the form of a nationally representative survey of over 4,000 UK low-income households. It collects quantitative data on a variety of topics including whether people are going without essentials, getting behind on bills or accruing debts and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Whilst there are a number of other surveys looking at the cost-of-living this one makes a distinctive contribution by focusing solely on households whose income is in the bottom 40%. Each report published paints a very bleak picture of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis with the latest one (June 2023) revealing persistent high levels of hardship hitting low-income households hardest.

Since the second iteration, JRF staff have worked with a group of people with lived experience of poverty: its Grassroots Poverty Action Group (GPAG). Initially they worked with JRF staff to analyse some of the findings. Now, they have taken on a more significant role in supporting JRF staff at all stages of the research process.      

Collaborating with people with lived experience

GPAG is made up of 14 people with direct experience of poverty from across the UK. Members of the group include people who are most impacted by the cost-of-living crisis including people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, lone parents, Universal Credit claimants, disabled people and unpaid carers.

JRF staff established  the group in summer 2020, initially to support the production of JRF’s UK Poverty report, but the group now works on a variety of projects. The projects are led by JRF staff but matched to the current interests of the group.

Group members bring their experience of living on a low-income but also the skills, knowledge, and experience they may have from employment, voluntary work, caring responsibilities, and community activism. The group was largely recruited through existing JRF networks as it was established at the height of the covid pandemic, although we have experimented with existing group members introducing people from their own networks to the group. All group members have worked with us for at least 2 years.

The group meets monthly online via Zoom, allowing people to come together who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to due to the distance involved, disability, poor health, or caring responsibilities. The sessions last approximately 2 hours but we make sure we allow space to catch up at the beginning, take a break mid-way and say our goodbyes at the end. We try to replicate what it would be like to meet in person. To thank people for their contributions, we offer a voucher for a shop or website of their choice in a form most suited to them. The vouchers are always appreciated but group members have told us they value most the opportunity to connect with others facing similar challenges and to develop new skills through working with JRF staff.

We offer support in a multitude of ways. We endeavour to overcome potential barriers to participation due to disability or digital access. We also check in with people after meetings if they have disclosed that they are struggling or we are concerned that they might be. We signpost people to organisations we feel could support them if appropriate. All this is possible because of the trusted relationships we have built up over the years, so people feel they can approach us if they need help, or we can reach out if we think they might need additional support.

How did we work together?

Initially, GPAG served as a ‘sounding board’ for the cost-of-living tracker project. JRF staff shared emerging survey findings and asked the group whether it resonated with their own experience and those of people they knew. We deliberately chose aspects of the survey data where we felt GPAG members could most usefully bring in their expertise. Together we tried to make sense of the data, sharing and questioning our assumptions; for example about what people prioritise when they are struggling financially or strategies they might use to get by.

As we have continued to work together on the cost-of-living tracker we’ve created spaces for GPAG members to be more actively involved in different aspects of the research process. For example, for the most recent wave of the cost-of-living tracker, GPAG members were involved in the following additional activities:

  •  Contributing to the review of the questionnaire, in particular helping to develop new questions about health and well-being that GPAG members had previously flagged up as an important consideration.
  • Joining the launch webinar panel, providing particular insight about the realities of struggling on a low-income but also advocating for long-term solutions. 

Each time we’ve explored with the group their feelings about the cost-of-living crisis, and this has shaped how we communicate the findings and the need for action. For example, it has encouraged us to convey the inadequacy of short-term government solutions to the cost of living crisis.

What were the challenges?

There are numerous challenges with this type of work and the key ones are identified below.

  •  Time: We need to work at pace together to publish the report as quickly as possible after the data have been collected by the appointed research organisation. What we have achieved is only possible because of the work we’ve already done to build up trusted relationships with GPAG members over several years. Over time we’ve got better at building in time to work with GPAG when planning the work.
  • Including the voice of people with direct experience of poverty: We’ve deliberately chosen not to include illustrative quotes that might feel tokenistic within each of the reports. We do include summaries of our discussions with GPAG at key points within the reports, but the main contribution of GPAG is reflected in ways that might be less obvious to the reader; for example, influencing the tone of the report to convey that people are at breaking point and emphasising the need for urgent action to prevent further harm. We’ve also found other ways to share the group members’      voices; for example, through a co-authored blog after the second report and the social media visuals that accompanied the third report.
  • Handling the discussions sensitively: GPAG members are experiencing first-hand the harmful effects of the cost-of-living crisis. Each session takes careful planning and facilitation to make sure their experience of contributing is a positive one. How we end each meeting is particularly important and we finish the session by looking to the future; for example, identify key audiences for any reports we have been working on.
  • Accessibility: the membership of GPAG is diverse and a session based on sharing quantitative research findings presents some additional challenges. We keep things simple so that no-one is excluded, for example, because they cannot understand charts or cannot read slides because they are accessing the meeting on a mobile phone.

What was the impact of working together?

From JRF’s perspective, collaborating with people with lived experience of poverty is invaluable. Through GPAG members generously sharing their experiences and expertise at different stages of the research process, we’ve been able to capture more effectively not just what people are doing to try to make ends meet but also the devastating impact on people’s everyday lives, relationships with others, and health and well-being. Working with GPAG has encouraged us to reflect carefully on how we tell the story of the cost-of-living crisis, so the reader in no doubt that urgent action is needed so that the levels of hardship we are currently seeing are not baked in as the UK’s new normal.

Our collaborations demonstrate the power of blending together different forms of expertise and how it is possible to do so at pace when relationships and trust are already established.

AUTHOR BIO:  Emma is passionate about working with people with direct experience of poverty to enhance JRF’s mission to end destitution and deep poverty and promote greater levels of economic security for all. She is a Qualitative Insight Manager, based in the Insights and Policy directorate. Prior to 2010, Emma was a university academic specialising in social policy and criminological research.

Follow up reading

Blending expertise to get a better understanding of UK poverty

What matters in participatory research on poverty

Contact Emma at [email protected] for more information.