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“We have to accept that mistakes can happen” – An interview about placing trust in citizens

How can our society learn to place more trust in its citizens? And what can we learn from civil society? Tjerk Mulder is the business director of Quiet Nederland, a social movement based on trust. Bas Pieck is a program leader at Kansfonds and contributes to a more positive view of people with the program ‘Just give money’. They had a good conversation with our Social Initiatives program manager, Job Rijneveld.

To what extent would you say that our government trusts its citizens?
Tjerk: “The system is not built on trust, and it is easy to respond from a position of control and numbers. The initiators of Quiet have said: yes, fraud happens and in about 5% of the cases the system is not used as it should be. But we shouldn’t let the other 95% suffer because of it. We don’t ask for a ‘proof of poverty’ when people register with us for our free products and services. It is important to accept that mistakes can happen and if that is the case we have a conversation about it with that person. I feel that the government often falls short in truly engaging with its target group.”
Job: “If I understand you correctly, policy-makers should put more effort into looking for solutions by approaching people with lived experience, for example people who actually live in poverty?” Tjerk: “That’s right. I always find it easy to give an example of a situation in which I was involved. A big producer offered us LED lights. The first thing that came to my mind was: do our members really need this, a 10-cent cut in energy costs by using energy-efficient lamps? Then I discussed it – very naively – with a Quiet member. She said: ‘Tjerk, we are not only concerned about our energy bills, we simply cannot buy a new lamp if one breaks.’ It probably works the same way for policy-makers who think: well, ten cents won’t make a difference, so let’s not do that.”
Bas: “That’s a great example and definitely recognizable. The gap between policy-makers and the rest of society must be closed. I recently read a quote that summarizes it well: in the Hague, it is a seven-minute bike ride from Binnenhof* to Schilderswijk.** Why do policy-makers not make that trip more often? The fact that people in poverty are suspicious of the system is something we take very much into account in our project. In Zaanstad, 150 families receive an extra 150 Euros per month for two years. We’re building trust by providing non-earmarked money. They can save the money or they can spend it based on their current needs. A similar experiment in Stockton, California, has yielded positive findings. Not only are the results promising in economic terms, they also have a positive result for the physical and mental health of the participants.”

Quiet volunteers sort out scarves to give to members for free.

What about the huge amount of paperwork that these people have to deal with?
Tjerk: “People have to fill out a form 24 times a year, so every other week at least one, to receive financial aid. It is completely unclear to me why the various authorities request this information from this vulnerable target group so often and in such different ways. When did we make things so complicated? There are good intentions, but it has all become so unworkable. As a result, only a few are able to get all the help they are eligible for. We have made it all very complicated, especially for those living in poverty, as stress can have an impact on the brain. The presence of stress can cause individuals to focus on making decisions based on the short term, which may result in adverse outcomes in the long run.”
Job: “What about the trust of the target group in civil society organizations and foundations? Do they trust you?” Bas: “Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is looking for participants for our research in various ways. We work with local community organizers and organizations that have earned the trust of this target group. We connect with these key players, such as people from local churches and self-help groups. Additionally, we organize freely of charge walk-in meetings to keep the threshold of obtaining information as low as possible.”
Tjerk: “We find it particularly important to help people cross that initial threshold. Trust will follow later. So even though we want to be approachable, sometimes during a walk-in morning, volunteers see people walk past the front door two or three times. We have to step outside and physically invite someone in. Sometimes the hesitation is a result of feeling ashamed or embarrassment about their lack of money.”
Job: “Quiet Nederland meets a need that is often overlooked: being seen locally and being able to participate locally. But what about the trust of your sponsors?”
Tjerk: “The local sponsors offer our members happy moments, from a visit to the hairdresser to a night out. I often hear that both parties, meaning our members and sponsors, are pleasantly surprised. For example, a catering entrepreneur wanted to participate but had doubts. One of the questions asked was ‘if I donate a table, won’t they drink the entire keg?’ Long story short: the people who came to the restaurant were exemplary guests and had a lovely evening. The entrepreneur was so enthusiastic that he called us right away and said he wanted to repeat it every week. The Quiet member who had gone to the restaurant said: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was treated like a regular guest and they were interested in me as a person, not because I needed something’.”

Martin told his story to Kansfonds. He was in spiraling debt: “Eventually I lived in one room of my house with a gas burner, because everything had been cut off. I showered at work."

What can the government learn from your insights?
Bas: “Our research gives local authorities answers to questions about trust-based support. What happens with people if you do? We’re also doing a social cost-benefit analysis, where the focus is on numbers and data: what happens with labor force participation. Does it increase? What about healthcare costs? Do they increase or decrease? How does it affect children’s results at school? This analysis provides important data for municipalities. It took a long time to get this research set up because of bureaucratic reasons, but the advantage is that two additional municipalities have joined the research in the meantime.”
Job: “Already in the preliminary phase of setting of the pilot, Kansfonds gained insight into how the system functions. Other foundations and civil society organizations can learn from this: what do you encounter when you want to change the system? Which local and national regulations make it impossible for people to receive ‘free’ money? That is also one of the reasons for us to support ‘Just give money’ – because developing these pilots exposes the root causes we want to tackle.”

Edwig lives in poverty due to difficult circumstances. "I stay at home as much as possible. If you don go anywhere, you don't spend any money."

Do you notice more attention towards poverty as a result of the rising energy prices and inflation?
Tjerk: “Poverty is strangely ‘hot’ now. Publicist Tim ’S Jongers writing for De Correspondent, a Dutch journalism platform, recently wrote wrote that people pay more attention to poverty now because it has started to affect the middle class as well. That is really disheartening. Although we have been fortunate with a relatively mild winter, I believe we are currently delaying the inevitable, namely not addressing the root causes. Certainly not in the group most affected by the rise in prices. Something really needs to be done and for that we need to innovate.”
Bas: “I completely agree. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic but I do see that a counter-movement has developed in society that is saying: Maybe people just need money so let’s arrange that. The fact that local authorities want to participate in our research as implementors of our plans is a good sign. I also hear more politicians using the word ‘trust’. Minister Schouten, who is responsible for poverty policy, said it the other day, but I also heard a councilor in Almere sharing that the municipality wants to operate more from a position of trust. The plan to implement that trust has yet to be worked out but the fact that the word is openly being used in political circles is progress in my view.”

* Binnenhof: the location of the parliament buildings in The Hague. ** Schilderswijk: a neighborhood in The Hague with socio-economic challenges.

About these partners

Quiet Nederland alleviates poverty in the Netherlands. Together with entrepreneurs, both at local and national level, the movement gives away free products and services. A ‘simple’ gesture can have a big impact for someone in poverty in terms of confidence, self-fulfillment and getting out of isolation. Quiet not only alleviates poverty but also empowers people.
In the ‘Just give money’ program, Kansfonds gives families who live in poverty what they lack: money. The families decide what to spend the money on because they know their own needs the best. It is an innovative solution based on assuming the best in people. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences researches what this approach may yield.

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