Counting poverty in Scotland – Numbers that should shape our priorities for anti-poverty activity beyond 2014

John McKendrick, Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University

Let me put my cards on the table. I am a researcher. I work in a university. As a social scientist, I get paid to better understand the world in which we live and I choose to focus on poverty. Therefore, I have a vested interest when I say that research on poverty is important and that academics can be useful allies in the fight against poverty. I understand the arguments that we already know much about poverty and that our priority should be tackling it. I also understand the view that research about poverty should be led by people experiencing poverty, as they are best placed to understand what it is like to live with it. But I would argue that numbers also matter, numbers shed light on aspects of poverty that we tend to ignore, and that part of what we do to tackle poverty in Scotland must be shaped by evidence. Here, I draw from recent evidence on poverty in Scotland to identify three issues that should shape our anti-poverty activity in the years’ ahead.

1. The number one cause of child poverty in Scotland is parents’ dependency on drugs, alcohol or other substances.

At least, that’s what people in Scotland think. One in three Scots think that this is the main reason for child poverty (34% in 2012), with four in every five Scots thinking that this is a contributory factor (82% in 2012). Scots are also much more likely than people living in Wales and every English region to think this way (while 34% of Scots agree, belief that this is the main reason for child poverty in the UK ranged from 15% in South East England to 27% in North East England in 2012). This question has been asked in the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and on each occasion Scots were found to be more likely to think that this the main cause of child poverty.

Few would argue that a parent’s dependency on drugs, alcohol or other substances is not related to child poverty. Readers of the Scottish Anti Poverty Review might question whether this was cause or effect of poverty (effect = people in poverty seeking escape through substance abuse, as opposed to cause = child poverty resulting from substance abuse in the first instance). However, I would be surprised if the higher numbers of Scots who explain child poverty in this way is not indicative of ‘victim-blaming’.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to suggest that addiction and substance abuse is actually much more likely to contribute to child poverty in Scotland, than elsewhere in the UK. Why then do more Scots perceive that to be the case?

It must be a concern for those seeking to tackle poverty in Scotland that Scots are so much more likely to make sense of child poverty in terms of ‘parental dependency on drugs, alcohol and other substances’ (34% main reason), compared to, for example, ‘social benefits for families with children are not high enough (7% main reason), ‘parents work does not pay enough’ (5% main reason) and ‘because of inequalities in society’ (6% main reason).

The evidence suggests that we need to do more to challenge the ‘victim-blaming’ that is likely to be associated with this way of thinking and to better educate Scots as to how poverty develops and is sustained. This is particularly important at a time when welfare services and social security budgets are being threatened. We need solutions for poverty in Scotland that are based on a proper and evidenced – rather than a populist and anecdotal – understanding of the problem. The anti-poverty sector cannot afford to ignore the extent to which these attitudes prevail in Scotland.

2. The majority of both children and working-aged adults who live in poverty are living in households in which at least one adult is in paid employment.

Work is not a route out of poverty for all. For some years’ now, there has been growing concern about the number of people in work who are living with poverty. Intuitively, in-work poverty just doesn’t make sense. Work is understood as a common-sense solution to poverty. On the other hand, there is a deeply held belief that not wanting to work is cause of poverty (interestingly, 15% of Scots think that this is the main reason for child poverty in 2012, the second most common explanation behind parental substance misuse, with 59% of Scots thinking that this is a contributory factor).

The Scottish Government estimates that 110,000 children in Scotland (59% of those living in poverty) and 250,000 working-aged adults in Scotland (52% of those living in poverty) were in poverty while living in a household with at least one adult in employment in 2012/13.

We have a problem in Scotland that work is not providing a route out of poverty at the current time. It may be a bigger problem than that: we may be at the start of a trend when a growing number of people experiencing poverty are living in households with work. In my mind, there is not much wrong with encouraging and facilitating the labour market participation of people who are not working. However, the evidence suggests that this is not going to eradicate poverty in Scotland. If we are serious about tackling poverty in Scotland and we are committed to using welfare-to-work as a strategy to achieve this, then much more attention needs to be given to working conditions and remuneration than at present.

  1. Almost all Scots think that tackling child poverty is important and that there is a lot of child poverty in Scotland.

On a brighter note, survey research with a representative sample of over 1,200 adults in Scotland (McKendrick, 2014) recently found that 98% of Scots think that it is important to tackle child poverty in Scotland, with 82% of Scots considering tackling child poverty to be “very important”, and a further 16% considering it to be “quite important”. Furthermore, 55% of Scots note that there is “quite a lot”, with a further 34% observing that there is “some” child poverty in Scotland.

In short, Scots think that child poverty exists and that tackling child poverty is important. The point here is not to reach for the cigar and find comfort that the vast majority of Scots think this way. Rather, the key point is that Scotland should be receptive to solutions to child poverty. If these public attitudes are robust, then there should be public support for measures to tackle poverty. In contrast to the softly, softly approach that was adopted by New Labour when it began to make decisions and take actions to reduce child and pensioner poverty from the late 1990s, there is much to be gained by shouting from the rooftops and making tackling poverty much more central to our purpose.

There are not the only conclusions to be drawn from recent evidence that should inform our anti-poverty priorities in the years’ ahead. For example, it is far from insignificant that:

  • This year’s government figures report the biggest single year rise in poverty in Scotland in recent history.
  • The typical income of Scotland’s poorest households has fallen much more in the last two years than that of the most affluent households.
  • The majority of Scots have never heard of the Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland.
  • A minority of Scots think that business should have a role to play in tackling poverty in Scotland.

I am not suggesting that we all become researchers. However, we need to continually refresh and challenge our understanding of poverty in Scotland by making best use of that evidence. And we need – and thankfully, we have got – a body of academics in Scotland who are willing and able to apply their knowledge and skills to support those whose work is primarily concerned to tackle poverty in Scotland. To appropriate an abused phrase, “we are in this together”.

Data Sources:

British Social Attitudes Survey –

McKendrick, JH (2014) Attitudes toward child poverty in contemporary Scotland. Glasgow: The Hunter Foundation. E-mail for a free PDF copy of this report.

Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland –


Dr John Mckendrick is a Senior Lecturer in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at GCU. This article first appeared in the Scottish Anti-Poverty Review, (Issue 16, Autumn 2014, pp.4-5). John can be contacted at: