Why attitudes to poverty matter

Short blog on an event held at the Scottish Government on Monday 16th October 2017.

By Alan Mackie, University of Edinburgh (with Hayley Bennett, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Ruth Patrick, Abigail Scott Paul, Poverty Alliance).

It’s the fifth annual Challenge Poverty Week and the biggest yet, with around 150 events going on across Scotland as well as online and through various social media. On Monday (16th October) we hosted and took part in an event in conjunction with the Poverty Alliance, the Social Policy Association and What Works Scotland that aimed to bring together academics, policy makers, practitioners and a range of others interested in understanding and challenging poverty.

The main theme from the day was undoubtedly that more needs to be done to challenge some of the myths and dogma that continue to shape the discourse around poverty in the UK. These include, for example;

  • …*real* poverty does not exist in the UK
  • …poverty is the fault of the individual
  • …those in poverty just need to work a bit harder
  • …nothing can be done about poverty, it will always exist, and;
  • …if only social security was tightened those in poverty would ‘try harder’

For anyone working in the area of poverty you probably don’t need to be told about these, or how frustrated you are that these continue to hold sway over popular understandings of the issue here in the UK.

If there was one take-home message from the event it was that the reach of stigma plays an extremely important part in how poverty is framed, but that it also has a deeply pernicious impact upon those struggling in poverty. Hazel Ratcliffe, an activist with the Poverty Alliance, gave a frank and honest talk on her own experiences of poverty – and talked about how the negative stereotyping of single mums contributed to her feeling judged and as a result her well-being suffered as she became isolated. Hiding her poverty and feeling ashamed this only worsened her situation.

This theme ran through all the presentations, from Carla McCormack of the Poverty Alliance and academic research from Ruth Patrick (Dole Animators), Kayleigh Garthwaite (Foodbank Use) and Alan Mackie (Young People) as all highlighted the importance of wider public attitudes on the issue of poverty stigmatisation on people’s sense of worth. Not only is this affecting people’s health (mental and physical) but is also impacting on their ability to participate in the norms of social life, things that we all take for granted, perhaps. Things such as a lack of affordable and flexible childcare, a lack of decent jobs, travel expenses, a lack of flexibility in work patterns and mental health issues amongst many other things are forgotten in the rush to blame individuals for their own predicament. That is why campaigns such as the Poverty Alliance’s Stick Yer Labels are so invaluable – to tackle the myths around ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ that are so damaging to those already struggling.

So what can be done? Abigail Scott Paul from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) gave a presentation on creating a strategic communication alongside the Frameworks Institute, to try and interrupt popular misconceptions of poverty. But to do this we need to create a different way of framing the issue, one that will take us in new directions as strategies up until now have obviously not been sufficient. As many others noted, it seems that providing facts and figures are not enough on their own. The JRF hope to publish some tools next year – so we look forward to the outcome of this work (as well as their conference in Scotland in January, details TBA here). And Hayley Bennett from the University of Edinburgh and What Works Scotland discussed some of her research looking at how services are delivered to those in poverty. The key message from Hayley’s presentation was that it is crucial more is done to encourage services to talk to one another in order that they can be more responsive to people accessing their service. This was something that Ruth and Kayleigh built upon – that more is required to ‘shame proof’ social security delivery and to change cultures in employment support provision.

Much more can be done to tackle the blight that is poverty. We can do it, if the will is there. And we all have a part to play in this – because poverty affects us all. As the Poverty Alliance states ‘we need the right policies and sufficient resources to properly address the problem of poverty, we also need to challenge the many popular myths and stereotypes about poverty’. There is much to be done – perhaps getting involved with Challenge Poverty Week is a starting place?

Many thanks to the Social Policy Association for funding the event. 

SPAWWSpoverty alliance

Making taxes fairer can help to reduce and prevent poverty

By Adrian Sinfield, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Edinburgh

‘What thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call, with equal justice, the problem of riches’ (Tawney, 1913).  Tackling inequality is an important part of tackling and preventing poverty.  Now even the IMF recognises the importance of tackling inequality, rejecting two basic excuses for not doing so that it has clung to for years.  Progressive taxes can help to reduce inequality and reducing inequalities does not inhibit growth (eg Guardian, 11 Oct 2017).

‘Inequalities of income and wealth are far too wide’ is acknowledged by the Scottish government in its consultation on its proposal to implement the socio-economic duty (see also McCrone, 2017). This is an important and welcome development, building on its Child Poverty Bill as well as Realising Our Potential and the Fairer Scotland Action Plan. The value of prevention is recognised: ‘we must prioritise expenditure on public services which prevent negative outcomes from arising’ (Scottish Government, 2017, pp 2 and 7, emphasis in original).

As part of this the Scottish government must ensure that taxing of all kinds does not operate in ways that reinforce existing inequalities. This requires collecting revenue to finance public services in a way that helps to reduce existing inequalities, not maintain them. But Revenue Scotland was not listed as a body to be responsible to the socio-economic duty in the consultation, nor was Audit Scotland, well-placed to monitor fiscal activities. This must change.

The assumption that taxes automatically reduce inequalities is pervasive but misleading. In practice the total UK tax system is not progressive: it has long been basically proportionate,. There is even a slightly higher incidence of total taxes on those with the least money. In 2015-16 the bottom fifth of households paid 35% of their gross income in all taxes, against an average of 33.4% and 34.1% for the top fifth (Tonkin, 2017, table 22 in the accompanying dataset; special Scottish analysis for the previous year, ONS, 2016).  Current changes to Scottish income and local taxes will not have altered the picture significantly.

  • So those with the least contribute proportionately slightly more to measures to reduce socio-economic disadvantage and to all other government spending. One major reason is the upside-down nature of the great majority of tax and national insurance reliefs and subsidies: they convey greater benefit to those better-off than to those with less, often much greater advantage. People paying higher rates of tax benefit more from these reliefs: a £1,000 relief saves someone paying 40% income tax £400 against the £200 received by those on the standard rate. The better-off also have more income to take advantage of any reliefs.
  • To give just one example the total net subsidy in income tax and national insurance reliefs to private pensions in the UK in 2015-2016 was £40.5 billion (HMRC, 2016). These estimates cost more than six times Pension Credit, the means-tested benefit for those over working age on low incomes, and is equivalent to 45% of the total spending on contributory State Pensions (DWP, 2016, table 1a). Despite recent reductions to the ceiling for income tax reliefs, some three-fifths of the tax reliefs on pension contributions continue to go to those paying above the standard rate of tax, or who would be without this relief (latest data, Hansard, 2014). This works to maintain poverty, not reduce, let alone prevent it.
  • At present, the Scottish government itself cannot change income tax reliefs or NI contribution exemptions, but this may not always be so. Meanwhile priority must be given to ensuring that the local taxes, Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and other taxes it controls operate with a properly progressive impact.
  • At UK level the tax systems must be made fairer (Byrne and Ruane, 2017). The National Audit Office and various select committees call attention to the inadequate management of tax reliefs (NAO, 2014 and 2016; PAC 2015 and 2016). It is not just the IMF that now provides support. OECD and the EC are both advocating greater transparency on tax reliefs and related subsidies (EC, 2014). OECD has openly argued for ‘removing or reducing’ those ‘that disproportionately benefit higher income groups’ to promote inclusive growth (OECD, 2016, p 51). We must take advantage of this growing support for a more vigorous attack on inequality and prevent poverty.



Byrne, D. and Ruane, S. (2017) Paying for the Welfare State in the 21st Century: tax and spending in post-industrial societies, Bristol: Policy Press.

DWP (2016) Benefit expenditure and caseload tables 2016, April


EC (2014) Tax expenditures in direct taxation in EU Member States, Brussels: European Commission, Occasional Papers 207.

Hansard (2014) Written Answer to PQ from Steve Doughty, 10 December.

HMRC (2016) Estimated costs of tax reliefs, KAI Data Policy and Co-ordination, HMRC, December 31.


McCrone, D (2017) New Sociology of Scotland, London: Sage.

NAO (2014) The effective management of tax reliefs, HC 785, SESSION 2014-15, 7 November 2014.

NAO (2016) Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, in HMRC, Annual Report and Accounts 2015-2016, London: HMRC, pp R1-90.

OECD (2016) Tax Design for Inclusive Economic Growth, OECD Taxation Working Papers 26, Paris: OECD.

ONS (2016) Taxes as a percentage of gross income, disposable income and expenditure for all households by quintile groups, 2014/15 Scotland, User requested data, 21 July

PAC – Public Accounts Committee (2015), HMRC’s performance in 2014-15, HC 393, Sept.

PAC (2016), HMRC’s performance in 2015-16, HC 712, December.

Scottish Government (2017) The Socio-Economic Duty: a consultation, July.

Tawney, R. H. (1913) ‘Poverty as an industrial problem’, reproduced in Memoranda on the Problem of Poverty, London, William Morris Press.

Tonkin, Richard (2017) The effects of taxes and benefits on household income: Financial year ending 2016, London: Office for National Statistics, April.

Aye We Can Tackle Poverty … With Business on Board

Prof John H. McKendrick, Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University

Scotland’s poverty is changing.  At the turn of the century, not so long ago, two thirds of people experiencing poverty in Scotland lived in a household with no adults in paid employment. Today, 610,000 people living in poverty in Scotland are in a household in which at least one adult is in waged employment – around two-thirds of all children and adults of working age are from a household that is experiencing in-work poverty. In a world of zero-hours contracts, under-employment, pay freezes and where is it legal to remunerate workers below the level of a living wage, it is no longer credible to claim that work is the solution to tackling poverty.

But is it a responsibility of business?

For the last four years, I have been surveying business degree students at the start of their undergraduate studies at Glasgow Caledonian University. The survey canvasses their opinion on matters relevant to The Business of Social Science, a core module that aims to lay the foundation for a broadly-based business education that is consistent with GCU’s wider mission as the “university for the common good”. Almost 2000 students have shared their thoughts on poverty in Scotland – specifically to grasp their understanding of the reasons for child poverty, responsibility for tackling it, and the importance of tackling it.

What then do the future business leaders in Scotland think about poverty?

An overwhelming majority of business degree students think that it is “very important” to tackle child poverty (90.5%), with all but a very small minority of the remainder considering that it is “quite important” to tackle it (8.8%).   These are views that are shared by the wider Scottish population: when last asked in 2014, 93.3% of people in Scotland thought that tackling child poverty was “very important” and 6% thought that it was “quite important”. So far, so good.

What is perhaps more interesting is business students understanding of the role of work as a cause of poverty.  As Figure 1 shows, although a lack of work is widely held to be a reason for child poverty – for example, one in ten thought that “parents not wanting to work” was the main reason for child poverty (9.4%), with almost two thirds considering it to be one of the contributory factors (64.2%) – there is also some understanding of what might reasonably be viewed as failings in the labour market (with two thirds acknowledging that “work not paying enough” might be one of the reasons for child poverty).  On the other hand, that only a minority of business students think that “parents not working enough hours” is a contributory cause of child poverty might suggest that there is a need for the students to rethink the realities of the contemporary labour market for its most vulnerable participants.

 JM graph

Although government (UK, Scottish and local) and to a lesser extent “voluntary organisations and community groups” are most likely to be considered by business students as having a responsibility for tackling child poverty (84.1%, 89.3%, 78.2% and 58.9, respectively), a substantial minority also recognise a role in tackling poverty for “local businesses and employers” (averaging 45.9% for the last four years, having started out at 40.1% of students in 2014/15).   There are dangers in placing too much store on a single year of data, but perhaps it is significant that this academic year in 2017/18, an ever-so-slight majority of business students recognise a role for “local business and employers” in tackling child poverty in Scotland (51.8%). Grounds for optimism, perhaps?

Tackling poverty – in all its guises – is a collective effort.  Work is not working for too many people in Scotland.  Without doubt, government and the Third Sector have a key role to play in ameliorating, preventing and eradicating poverty in Scotland.  As does business, whatever the scale and focus of the enterprise.  It is incumbent upon those developing the next generation of business leaders in Scotland to raise awareness of the wider responsibilities of business if we are to create a Scotland without poverty in the not-too-distant future.

Basic Income for All – Right Out of Poverty

By Dr Benjamin Simmons, Trustee of Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland and Professor Mike Danson, Heriot Watt University

Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland (CBINS) is a new organisation set up to raise awareness of the benefits that a Basic Income would bring to Scotland. CBINS’ mission is “to advance research and public education about the economic and social effects of Citizen’s Basic Income systems – schemes which guarantee an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to every citizen as a right of citizenship.”

With plans for pilots in Fife, Glasgow, North Ayrshire and Edinburgh being developed, and with Scottish Government support announced recently, this is an excellent time to be better informed and critically aware of what is being proposed, the benefits, the potential impacts and how it can be made affordable.

A Basic Income (or Citizen’s Income) would represent a major step forward for equality, fairness, and a human right to be free from poverty. It would replace a lot of the current benefits and personal tax allowances system with an unconditional, non-withdrawable payment to each Scottish ‘citizen’ (however that is defined, but including children and adults of all ages). In other words, you and everyone you know who lives in Scotland would receive the same minimum payment from the government each month regardless of your circumstances. This would replace much of the current benefits system, which is expensive to administer, overcomplicated, and unfair.

There are already elements of a basic income system in place in the form of personal tax allowances, child benefit, and pensions. We can build on this platform to extend the financial security they try to provide to every citizen.

We have created a short Briefing Paper which you can read and download from here: https://cbin.scot/what-is-a-basic-income/briefing-paper/.

A basic income is a fixed amount of money paid to citizens which never decreases or disappears no matter the circumstances of that citizen. For example, unemployed, low wage, and rich people of the same age-bracket (i.e. not a child or a pensioner) would all receive the same basic level of state support. Children, adults, and pensioners would be provided with different levels of basic income. The objective of a basic income is to alleviate poverty caused by low wages and the benefits trap.

Today’s social security system is a product of incremental changes to a system designed for an age in which an unskilled male breadwinner could earn enough to support a wife and one child and unskilled work was widely available. It is designed to weed out the ‘undeserving’ and make sure that no-one receives more than they need, even if this comes at the cost of some people not getting enough. The means-testing process results in those with the lowest earnings having a higher effective tax rate than the wealthiest in our society. It is extremely expensive to administer, and consumes funds that should instead be distributed to the people the system is intended to help. If we were to design a system from scratch today it would look vastly different to the system currently in place; it is time for radical reform of the way our society supports its citizens.

A basic income (also called a Citizen’s Income, or Universal Basic Income) represents just such a reform. It is an unconditional, non-withdrawable, non-selective payment to every individual citizen. In other words, we all would receive the same amount of state support into our personal bank accounts regardless of whether we were in paid work. The only difference in entitlement between citizens might be based on age, such as pensioners receiving greater support due to our acceptance that they should not have to augment their income with paid work. There are many reasons why this would be a positive development for society, which we invite you to explore https://cbin.scot/. We believe this is a realistic and feasible approach to addressing poverty in Scotland.

There are many different proposals for how much a Basic Income should be, and many different proposals about how such a system could be phased in. We recognise these questions will be the first thing that people ask when they learn about basic income, and we welcome the discussion. There are links to various proposals on the website, however we think that at this early stage it is more productive to seek a broad consensus that a basic income is desirable and feasible, and build support for the principle of basic income with the same common purpose: to see a basic income introduced here in Scotland.

Ending Poverty? Aye We Can

By Professor Stephen Sinclair, Scottish Poverty & Inequality Research Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University

Scotland has committed to two, remarkable and ambitious objectives in relation to poverty. The first is the commitment (abandoned by the UK government) to eradicate child poverty in Scotland by 2030. The second is signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, which pledge 194 signatory countries to, among other things ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’. The truly striking and inspirational aspect of these commitments is that, for the first time in human history, both are realistically achievable.


Although some moral philosophers argue that you cannot infer what ought to happen from what is the case, most people would agree that if we have the capacity and opportunity to save lives then we have the duty to do so. That opportunity now exists in relation to poverty. We live in a ‘post-Malthusian’ world where there are sufficient, if not abundant, resources to wipe extreme poverty from the face of the earth. The levels of global economic development and productivity are such that the poverty which persists is optional rather than ineluctable. The Biblical injunction that ‘The poor you always have with you,’ is no longer binding. Because we can eradicate poverty we must.


Both a growing body of evidence and recent experience testify to the achievability of these goals. At a global level, the rate of poverty has halved since 2000. Despite the recent deep and prolonged economic crisis, the 21st century has seen the fastest reduction in extreme poverty in human history. This is part of a much longer trend in a considerable reduction in the proportion of people across the world experiencing poverty. Important though this success is, it is important not to get carried away – the definition of ‘extreme poverty’ in such estimates is meagre: measured as living on less than $1.25 a day. Nevertheless, for the first time ever it is possible to foresee the eradication of extreme poverty.


There have also been striking reductions in poverty among older people and households with children in the UK and Scotland over the past 15 or so years. Sadly, this progress has been halted or even reversed in more recent years. But the determinant factors during both the periods of improvement and decline were political choices not irresistible economic forces.


A lesson which can be drawn from both the Scottish experience and evidence from the rest of the world is that poverty persists because it is allowed to. Where there is sufficient political will, poverty can be significantly reduced or ended entirely. However to achieve this requires both vision and practical measures. It is important not to underestimate the importance of what a former US President once disparaged as ‘the vision thing’. Both hope and despair can be infectious. To overcome the inertia of resignation or scepticism, people must be convinced that policy aims are not only desirable but also achievable. Therefore the case must be made that eradicating poverty at home and abroad is not utopian but a realistic prospect. That is why affirming that ‘aye, we can end poverty really does matter. This requires publicising successes, such as the positive impacts achieved by Sure Start and Educational Maintenance Allowances. Highlighting such accomplishments can build a consensus and foundation for further action. Failing to do so can lead to a political backlash and cynicism that efforts were wasted by heedlessly ‘throwing money’ at social problems.


An important part of making the case to end poverty involves challenging what has until recently been the dominant story about how economic and social progress have been achieved. Successful and sustained economic development has not been based on laissez faire economics and free trade. Government intervention to regulate markets and social investment were indispensable factors in the waves of economic growth that originated in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which transformed living standards in Asia in the post-WWII era. More recent examples of significant economic development and reductions in poverty and inequality (e.g. in Brazil, Bolivia, Malaysia and Mauritius) were achieved by investment in infrastructure (including housing), increasing educational opportunities improving health care, and extending social protection.


With the demise of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and evident limitations of market fundamentalism, it is increasingly clear that the measures required to end extreme poverty and extend prosperity are the same in both more and less developed countries. These include full employment, increased productivity, higher quality jobs, and social security provision that protects households against structural economic inefficiencies, disadvantage and discrimination.


The Scottish Government has committed to end child poverty at home and contribute to eradicating it across the world. The duty of campaigners is to ensure that they keep their promise, and of analysts to advise them how to make this inspiring vision a reality.


Tackling poverty by extending professional collaborations

By Dr Hayley Bennett, University of Edinburgh, and What Works Scotland

The UK has a history of creating public policies that seek to challenge poverty or inequality, through various mechanisms such as welfare state services including early years support, social security and support during old age. Furthermore, a complex mix of public and third sector organisations (including Scottish government and all local governments) develop local strategies or initiatives to address economic disadvantage and reduce inequality. Yet, poverty persists and some programmes and services have had limited effect. Alongside larger ideas about the nature of public policy ideas (see Mike Danson’s blog post, “Aye we can” on this site from earlier today), new policy ideas may still end up facing organisational and institutional barriers during design and implementation, but can we change this? I argue, ‘aye we can’- providing we improve the way we operationalise and understand public service reform.


Over the past 12 years I’ve been researching the design and delivery of employment, poverty, and regeneration programmes in various organisations. It’s clear that there is a noticeable difference between policy aims and the processes and practices involved in implementation. Too often these functions are distant from each other, with little critical thinking about how policies and programmes alter and reform as they make their way through professional and organisational frameworks. Dominant trends in public management (for example contracting out, performance indicators, and annual funding cycles) can reshape or create new boundaries that impact front-line working and subsequently affect overarching policy aims. Different professions draw on their own favoured practices and ways of working, and management ideas shape and reframe the ways that many are able to do their work. In short, organisations are complex beasts with a number of competing logics.


Ideas of joined up working and partnerships are key to public service reform in Scotland (see Christie Commission), with an increasing emphasis on collaboration across organisational boundaries. Yet, different organisations have their own cultures, priorities, and dominant professional principles and you’ll hear workers engaged in reducing poverty talk about how they continue to see the same faces and work with similar people in other organisations. In the same conversations it is evident that there are many influential professions that impact on anti-poverty work. There are ‘support’ professions or organisational roles (such as HR, IT, procurement, accounts etc.) that frame and shape the work of front-line workers and anti-poverty policies. For example:

  • Under further inspection, it was apparent that estate management and accountancy workers led the decision-making regarding Jobcentre Plus closures as part of an estates rationalisation and contract management strategy for leased premises. Social security policy makers or experts, did not make these decisions as part of a long term vision to create and shape the future of employment support.
  • Project managers and performance colleagues champion key performance indicator models but may benefit from a richer understanding of the complexity of social issues and various types of social research data.
  • Accountants who establish short term funding processes can limit preventative interventions or activities that seek to work with harder to reach groups as evaluations may not demonstrate the achievement of key indicators within a short time period.
  • Procurement and contract management specialists often design contracted service provision in various policy areas, drawing on favoured professional models despite concerns of the risks involved by social policy specialists (e.g. employment support programmes).
  • There is also an increasing emphasis on digital and technological solutions in public service reform, and as such, an increasing number of IT specialists and ‘systems designers’ involved in policy making and implementation. Bad service design can exacerbate the experience of poverty, for example on-going issues with the delivery of universal credit drastically undermines expectations that social security policies can support people on low incomes.

In sum, policy design and delivery matters, but the professions who design and control the dominant thinking on delivery norms are often too distant from poverty or experience experts, research and evidence, front-line workers, or citizens. We need to start to widen the scope of professions and individuals engaged in anti-poverty dialogues, share research and knowledge, and extend conversations into their working spaces.  Leaders and managers need to challenge and critically reflect on the impact of organisational tools and dominant ideas from performance management. Can we improve anti-poverty activities with the levers we currently have in Scotland? By improving collaborative working across professions and organisations, I think “aye we can.”

Aye we can!

By Professor Mike Danson, Heriot Watt University.

We can’t afford to keep all these scroungers, layabouts, pensioners, … disabled and the rest in the manner to which they’ve been accustomed. Or can we?

Well it’s interesting that the levels of social security payments to those who are unemployed in the UK are appreciably lower than anywhere else in the north and west of Europe, compared with the average wage and what people were earning before losing their jobs. State pensions are similarly higher elsewhere in the Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands and our other near neighbours. We spend less on our welfare state that any of these competitors. Most of these countries are in the European Union, all are in the Single Market(s) with all its extra costs, apparently, and issues over migrant workers, restrictions on being competitive in a globalised economy.

These profligate neighbours also demand high taxes from their populations and businesses, and yet consistently are ranked by the CEOs of multinational enterprises as the best economies to locate their plants in the world. And, they haven’t been building up record deficits and debts, public and private; Britain has. Indeed, these small and large economies recovered quickly from the financial crisis, without attacking the living standards of the vulnerable and without undermining the sustainability of their businesses or societies.

How? Deregulation of markets, relaxing labour protection ad employment laws, privatisation of key sectors, selling off the family silver – nope, none of these. Nor destroying the power of trades unions, making workers take zero hours contracts, promoting flexible labour markets. So how? How come a low wage-low productivity-low investment economy of the UK is less competitive than the high wage-high productivity-high investment models of the Arc of Prosperity?

By building upon the social solidarity established over the decades – achieved after class struggle in times past, by accepting that workers on the shop floor – store, factory, office or construction yard – have talents, experience, skills and will apply these innovatively if they have a stake in their and their community’s futures, by having the highest rates of trade union membership in the world, the Nordic countries and Germany outperform the UK on all counts. Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany: the four innovation leaders of the European Union; the Nordic countries topping just about all global league tables for health, wealth and happiness; in the vanguard for gender equality, press freedom, equality.

These measures of a liberal and social democratic society are not possible because these countries are rich and powerful, rather they are fundamental to their individual successes. Each Nordic social model – of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – is based on degrees of inclusion and equity that are alien to the body politic presented by Westminster and the establishment bubble of the capital. Speaking to colleagues in those countries or addressing workshops in Iceland and the Faroe Islands recently, I was struck at how deep these norms and values go into their respective consciousnesses. Levels of poverty tolerated by the UK government, commentariat and media are incomprehensible there, and so the consensus and settled paradigm is that poverty is exceptional, the common weal is critical in determining the private and the social good.

Overwhelmingly land and other commons are held in community ownership, minimum wages are eschewed because collective bargaining is accepted as key to setting fair wages for all. The tax system is progressive overall but, more importantly, predistribution is stressed: wages are set well above poverty levels so that tax revenues are naturally high as incomes allow all to contribute. The social wage – incomes from all sources plus the benefits from public service provision – is affordable because the advantages of living in, contributing to and being a member of your society are recognised and the population are willing to pay the taxes required to deliver the benefits. Contrast this with the approach of the UK: first we bake the cake bigger then, after some have had their fill, most have been fed pie in the sky, a few crumbs may fall to those who are vulnerable, left behind, unable to compete.

There is a better way. Can we move along a different road, one that delivers equity, prosperity and freedom from want, homelessness and destitution? Can we adopt an inclusive society that privileges sustainability, solidarity and security over greed, exploitation, isolation and instability? Can we be more Nordic? Aye, we can.

The time is now: Recognising and responding to racial discrimination in the world of work

crer logo

By Rebecca Marek, Parliamentary and Policy Officer, Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights



Challenge Poverty Week 2017 asserts that poverty exists in Scotland and is solvable; acknowledging this is the first step to tackling poverty.

For BME groups in Scotland, it is certainly true that poverty exists. On the whole, BME groups are twice as likely as their white counterparts to live in poverty. [1] This is due to a range of factors, many of which vary from those experienced by white groups. The recognition of this variance is key to addressing poverty in BME communities.

One of the major causes of poverty in BME groups is a lack of employment. The employment rate in Scotland is considerably higher for white groups (72.0%) than for BME groups (55.2%) aged 25-49, despite school leavers from BME groups having significantly higher attainment than their white counterparts and going onto positive post-school destinations at higher rates.[2] Even when BME individuals find work, it is often low-paid and beneath their qualification levels.[3]

For BME young people struggling to transition to the labour market, there is a range of hurdles that must be overcome to achieve parity with their white peers. Children from a BME background are significantly more likely to grow up in disadvantaged circumstances than white children, with 36% of BME children living in a household with an annual income in the lowest quintiles compared to 22% of white children. [4]   BME children aged 0-15 are more likely to live in a flat or mobile/temporary accommodation than their white counterparts (45.2% vs 22.5%).[5] In school, BME children face racism and racial bullying from their peers, often in contexts where teachers are unable to adequately address and prevent racist behaviour.

Despite this, BME children and young people achieve considerably in school. Overall, 74.8% of BME pupils (including 76.8% of Asian pupils and 79.0% of African pupils) achieved one or more qualification at SCQF level 6 or better compared to 61.1% of white pupils. [6]  80% of BME school leavers go onto further and higher education, compared to 65% of leavers from other backgrounds.[7] In Scotland, degrees are held by 32% of BME people compared to 20% of white people,[8] and 47.6% of BME people hold a Level 4 qualification or higher compared to 25.3% of white people.[9]

And yet, this does not translate into advantages when entering the labour market. BME groups are less likely to be an employee (44.0% vs. 51.0%), especially a full-time employee (28.8% vs 36.7%). In contrast, BME individuals are more likely to be employed part-time (15.1% vs 14.3%), be self-employed (8.3% vs 6.9%), and be unemployed (8.0% vs 5.0%).[10]Overall, people form BME groups are clustered into lower-grade jobs and denied access to training opportunities that may help them progress into promoted posts.[11]

The key factor in these disparities is discrimination. A 2009 DWP study found that people with a ‘BME name’ had to submit 16 job applications to receive a positive response in contrast to 9 for those with a ‘white name’, even though they were submitting the same application.[12] A CRER study evidenced that for local authority jobs, even after the interview stage, white candidates were almost twice as likely to be appointed as BME candidates.[13]

The Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee asserted in its report “Removing Barriers: race, ethnicity, and employment” that, “We can only make progress if we refuse to accept defective aspects of current employment and recruitment practices and challenge segregation within employment. Without confronting existing practices, we cannot address any underlying racism and discrimination that the evidence confirms exists.”

For BME groups in Scotland, poverty has a clear cause – discrimination in entering the labour market and in employment. Initiatives aimed at increasing attainment and encouraging young people to enter further and higher education will miss BME young people, and the discrepancy between these groups will continue to grow.

To boost incomes for BME groups, measured and considered work must go into addressing discrimination – unwitting or otherwise – in public, private, and third sector bodies. Scotland must accept that measures for the majority do not serve as a proxy for measures for everyone. Poverty amongst BME groups is solvable, but the solution is different from the solutions for white communities.

Recent publications including the Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment; Race in the Workplace: The MacGregor-Smith Review; and the Race Equality Framework for Scotland provide recommendations to address this issue.

After decades of research, reports, legislation, and equality policies, we know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are. Now we must act to bring about real change.


[1] The Scottish Government (2016). Equality characteristics of people in poverty in Scotland, 2014/2015.

[2] Scottish Parliament Information Centre. SPICe Briefing: Ethnicity and Employment.

[3] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2016). Poverty and Ethnicity: Key messages for Scotland.

[4] Scottish Government (2013). Growing Up in Scotland: Birth Cohort 2 – Results from the first year.

[5] 2011 Scottish Census

[6] Data requested from the Scottish Government

[7] The Equal Opportunities Committee (2016). Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment.

[8] The Scottish Government. Ethnicity and Employability, Skills and Lifelong Learning.

[9] 2011 Scottish Census

[10] 2011 Scottish Census

[11] The Equal Opportunities Committee (2016). Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment.

[12] Department for Work and Pensions (2009). A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practices in British cities.

[13] CRER (2014). State of the Nation: Employment.

Young People and Social Justice

By Alan Mackie, Doctoral Researcher, University of Edinburgh

Over the past couple of years I have been conducting research into the lives of a group of young people (aged 16-24) as they navigate their way to adulthood in a community in Scotland. What I am particularly interested in is issues of social justice – and in order to analyse the young people’s lives I am using a framework of social justice conceived by Nancy Fraser, a feminist and socialist who argues that for any society to be called ‘just’ every person must have equal opportunity to participate in social life on a par with their fellow citizens – what she terms ‘participatory parity’.

But what makes up participatory parity? There are three elements to this:

  1. Redistributive issues: That we all have the resources to take part in the normal activities of life – this includes adequate income, access to decent work, education and healthcare for example.
  2. Recognitional issues: This element refers to our identities and the respect we receive from those around us as well as the institutions that circumvent our lives. That we do not suffer discrimination (along the lines of class, race, gender and disability amongst others)
  3. Representational Issues: That we are able to take part in society, have a voice in decision-making – particularly in the political issues that affect our lives.

What is interesting, I think, is when we think about and read of issues such as poverty and inequality we often focus on the redistributive element of social justice. But what is clearly apparent when we broaden our focus is that the three elements described above interact with one another and work to cement exclusion and injustice.

I’ll offer up two examples. The first is that the young people feel utterly forgotten about by our politicians. Unable to secure even the opportunity to access decent and stable employment, they feel that participation in politics is pointless. Other research has found similar – issues of poverty and exclusion from the labour market weakens ties to community, society and participation in decision-making as well as the ‘normal’ routines of life. A young mum in my study, for example, was so ashamed of her financial predicament that she would hide away from family and friends. Unable to purchase the most basic (and most essential) of goods, her embarrassment and shame meant she became increasingly isolated and as a result her mental health suffered.

Second – many of the young people are self-excluding from accessing social security. Some of the young people doing this are already in impoverished households and so doing this is only deepening their poverty. And they are often supported in this decision by parents, partners and others. But why are they doing this? Many have told me that they do not want to suffer the social stigma that goes with accessing ‘benefits’ and going to the job centre. To do so would be ‘scummy’ and make them a ‘scrounger’. It has been clear in my research that the denigrating discourse that has become commonplace in media and political rhetoric around social security is impacting on the young people – whether affecting their own identity or their views on others accessing social security. We can see the recognitional and redistributive spheres intersecting here as institutional rhetoric affects the young people’s sense of self and impacts on their access to even the most paltry of incomes.

But what can be done? Firstly, we need to have a serious think about the employment opportunities currently around for young people who leave school with poor qualifications. All the young people in my cohort are desperate to find opportunities that offer stability – and if not stability, then at least the opportunity to access meaningful qualifications or meaningful skills that could allow them to visualise a more positive future. At the moment, I argue this is not happening.

The second and most important thing is to realise that the youth ‘phase’ has changed so markedly, and become so disrupted and extended, that it is no longer appropriate to treat it in the same way as we have in the past. We like to think that young people don’t need the same resources as the rest of us. That they can get by on very little, but the truth is that young people need the same as everyone else. They need food, clothes, access to decent housing, access to meaningful work and the dignity and respect that any of us need. And they need this now, not at some imagined point in the future. Social justice is not just for ‘adults’ – it is for us all.

‘How do we translate lived experience into policy?

Dr Ruth Patrick, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Liverpool

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, Birmingham Fellow, University of Birmingham

One thing we are not short of in efforts to challenge poverty in Scotland (or indeed across the UK) is evidence. There is a rich and detailed evidence base on the lived experiences of poverty and the entrenched stigma that is so often tied to efforts to get by below the poverty line. Academics, third sector organisations, and front-line workers have all shown the extent of the mismatch between policy narratives and political presentations of poverty and everyday realities on the ground. Time and again, research has illustrated the myth of ‘inactive’ welfare dependants who choose ‘welfare’ over ‘work’, and yet these dominant stereotypical (and stigmatisting) views retain their currency and undoubtable power. Research has also shown the extent to which a pervasive stigma of welfare can have very real and damaging consequences for those who it effects.

But although the lived experiences of poverty have been well-documented, there is more work to be done in better communicating lived experiences, and thinking through how this can then shape policy and debate going forward. This is very clearly shown when we think about foodbank use and multi-millionaire MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent comments, who described foodbanks as “rather uplifting” and insisted they show “what a good compassionate country we are”. This shows a complete lack of appreciation for the many complex and distressing reasons why people are using foodbanks, such as the lengthy 6-week delay when transferring to Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, low-paid, insecure employment. There is also the stigma, shame and embarrassment that many people feel at having to walk through the foodbank doors. There is nothing “uplifting” in not being able to feed your children.

In our own research, we have emphasised how individuals often internalise the stigma attached to welfare receipt, sometimes even appropriating negative labels to self-describe as ‘scroungers’ or as a ‘bum’. Stigma can make efforts to find paid work harder still, and add to the burden that struggling to get by on benefits and in poverty involves. The stigma of claiming benefits or of using a foodbank can deter people from seeking the help they need. This can then have a knock-on effect on their health, particularly when thinking about mental health.

As researchers, we have a responsibility to think about how we can try and challenge the stigma of benefits receipt, and do more to ensure that policy debates more accurately reflect lived experiences on the ground. However, recently, we have started to wonder – whether – in focusing on only one group of ‘welfare’ claimants (those on out-of-work benefits), research such as ours has acted to reinforce ideas that ‘welfare’ is primarily received by only one segment of society. Of course, in fact – as the founder of social policy Richard Titmuss reminds us – we are all ‘welfare dependants’ – particularly if we take welfare to include occupational and fiscal forms of support as well as social welfare. Further, as well as challenging ideas of ‘undeserving’ welfare claimants, there is perhaps more that needs to be done to engage with the behaviours and practices of policymakers and elites, looking up rather than downstream as suggested recently by Stephen Crossley (https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/chips-and-cheese-and-a-massive-fucking-tv-stephen-crossley-on-representations-of-britains-impoverished/.

If we are to really challenge poverty, we need to make sure our research properly engages with the structures and processes that create and reproduce poverty. Understanding the lived experiences of people affected by poverty is critical but – on its own – it is not enough.