A few myths about poverty

Paul Spicker, Professor of Public Policy, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

We all know, of course,  who poor people are and where they live.  Everyone knows that poverty is concentrated in poor areas.  Everyone knows that there are ‘troubled families’, and it’s hell to live near them.  And everyone knows that these problems are passed from one generation to the next.  There are families where three generations have never worked.  What everyone doesn’t know, unfortunately, is that this is all codswallop.

First, we don’t really know who poor people are.  That’s because poverty is a constantly moving target. It’s been said, by the Scottish Council Foundation, that we have Three Scotlands.  One of them is Settled Scotland, people who are well established and have secure incomes.  There is Excluded Scotland, where people are socially isolated, have low incomes and live in excluded places.  But there is also Insecure Scotland: people in temporary, casual and short term work, whose incomes go up and down like a roller coaster. (1)   We know that people move in and out of poverty all the time: some rapidly, some slowly, some back and forth.(2)    For all kinds of reasons – setting out, starting a family, separation or divorce, being ill, being between jobs and so on – most people in the population will probably have spent at least one year in the last ten on a low income.(3)

Because poverty is widespread, it isn’t concentrated in poor areas.  It’s true that some areas are poor, and that poor people are brought together in certain places because they can’t afford alternatives.  However, most poor people don’t live in the poorest areas.  Most of the people in poor areas aren’t themselves poor; the areas are poor, or multiply deprived, because more poor people live there, and that’s not the same thing.(4)  It’s easy enough to check what this looks like in your own area.  Go to Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics (5), go past the stuff on areas of multiple deprivation, and look instead at where people on benefits live (Economic Activity, Benefits and Tax Credits/ Benefits by Client Group).  In the richest areas, in the poorest, and in the rural areas, there will be people on Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Pension Credit or Tax Credits.

It’s true enough that there are some  families who have multiple disadvantages.  They’ve been called “troubled families” by the government.  David Cameron explains:

Today,  I  want  to  talk  about  troubled  families.  Let  me  be  clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. …” (6)

Now, I’m not going to suggest that there aren’t some poor families who are also awful to live near; poverty doesn’t make people more virtuous or more likeable than anyone else.    But “families with multiple disadvantages” and “neighbours from hell” are not at all the same thing.  Families are being class as are  ‘troubled’  if  they  show  five  of  the  following  seven  criteria  for disadvantage:

  1. having a low income,
  2. no one in the family who is working
  3. poor housing,
  4. parents who have no qualifications,
  5. where the mother has a mental health problem
  6. one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
  7. where the  family  is unable  to  afford  basics,  including  food  and clothes. (7)

That, Jonathan Portes has pointed out, doesn’t have much to do with being a neighbour from hell.  There’s nothing there about crime, anti-social behaviour, drugs, letting dogs run loose or inconsiderate parking.   “How”, Portes asks, ” would  you  describe  an  unemployed  single  mother,  with moderate  depression,  who  can’t  afford  new  shoes  for  her children, and whose roof is leaking?… the  “troubled families”  in  the  Prime  Minister’s  speech  are  not  necessarily “neighbours from hell” at all. They are poor. “(8)

It’s not the case, either, that these problems are passed from generation to generation.  The idea that they were was spread in the nineteenth century by believers in eugenics, who argued that “degenerates” were the main reason for crime, poverty, disability, mental illness and  welfare dependency , and the best thing that could be done was to sterilise them.(9)   That policy became a little less popular after the Nazi Germany put it into practice, and the Eugenics Society switched to talking about ‘problem families’ instead.(10)    Most of the alternative expressions, like “multi-problem families”, the “hard to reach” or “the underclass”, are about the same thing; “troubled families” are just the latest in a long line of genteel insults.

In the 1970s, Sir Keith Joseph came up with the idea of the ‘cycle of deprivation’, arguing that young, poor unmarried mothers were breeding the next generation of poor people.(11)  Joseph set up a large-scale research project  to investigate the problem, and it’s thanks to that project that we have lots of information available about poverty across the generations.  The key findings were these:

  1. Most poor children do not grow up to be poor adults.
  2. The key reasons why children don’t grow up to be poor adults are
    • the state of the economy,
    • different experiences in education
    • the effect of forming relationships and households – poor people don’t necessarily marry other poor people.
  3. People don’t in general have the same experience throughout their lives. There are good times and bad times.
  4. People who have been poor in early life are more likely to be poor, but most of them won’t be.
  5. Because poverty is constantly changing, poor people are leaving the cohort all the time, the people being studied don’t stay in one condition. it’s unusual for any family to be consistently poor for two  generations, and rare for three generations.  By the time we get to four generations, it’s almost undetectable. (12)

That’s why, when the researchers decided to carry out a detailed study of problem families who had been poor over four generations, they couldn’t find anyone who fit the bill.(13)  It’s why recent research in Glasgow and Teesside into families who have been poor for three generations had to settle for people in rather different circumstances. (14)  (You can find three generations who are all poor at the same time – that’s a product of a common economic situation.  It doesn’t mean that younger people are following the same pattern of life as their parents. )  The researchers described the search for the infamous three-generation family as being like the hunt for the Yeti.

Social scientists have been looking at these issues for decades.  At every point, they’ve come back with the message that what people believe is not what’s actually happening.  And because everyone knows the answers, or think they do, they declare that the researchers must have got it wrong, or that even if it wasn’t true before it must be true now.  They haven’t, and it isn’t.


  1. Scottish Council Foundation, 1988, Three nations: Social exclusion in Scotland
  2. P Buhr, S Leibfried, 1995, What a difference a day makes in G Room (ed) Beyond the threshold, Bristol: Policy Press; R Walker, 1994, Poverty dynamics, Aldershot: Avebury; C Heady, 1997, Labour market transitions and social exclusion, Journal of European Social Policy 7(2) pp 119-128.
  3. Department for Work and Pensions, 2005, Low income dynamics 1991-2003, London: DWP http://www.dwp.gov.uk/asd/hbai/low_income/paper_M.pdf
  4. P Spicker, 2001, Poor areas and the ‘ecological fallacy’, Radical Statistics 76, 2001, pp 38-79
  5. http://www.sns.gov.uk/
  6. British Prime  Minister’s  Office,  2011,  Troubled  Families  speech, http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/troubled-families-speech/
  7. Cabinet Office, 2007, Families at Risk
  8. J Portes,  2012,  The  Government  continues  to  abuse  the  data  on  “troubled  families”,  Not  the Treasury View, 10th June http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/government-continues-to-abuse-data-on.html

9  E Carlson, 2001, The Unfit, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press..

10 Blacker CP (ed) 1952, Problem families, London: Eugenics Society

11 K Joseph, 1975, The cycle of deprivation, in Butterworth, E, Holman, R, eds, Social welfare in modern Britain, Glasgow: Fontana.

12 M Brown, N Madge, 1982, Despite the welfare state, London: Heinemann.Brown and Madge; A Atkinson, C Maynard, C Trinder, J Corlyon, 1983, Parents and children, London: Heinemann; I Kolvin, F J W Miller, D M Scott, S R M Gatzanis, M Fleeting, 1990, Continuities of deprivation?: the Newcastle 1000 family study, Aldershot: Avebury.

13 F Coffield J Sarsby, 1980, A cycle of deprivation?, London: Heinemann

14.  R Macdonald, T Shildrick, A Furlong, 2013, In search of “intergenerational cultures of worklessness:  hunting yetis and shooting zombies, Critical Social Policy doi:  10.1177/0261018313501825

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