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.