The short-sightedness of ‘poverty punishment’ tools in Active Labour Market Policies

Hayley Bennett, Social Policy Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

For many the loss of a job or a period of prolonged unemployment can lead to a severe experience of poverty. Understanding our policy approach to both unemployment and poverty is increasingly important and demonstrates the extent to which we are out of kilter with the rest of Europe and our previous welfare state approaches; for example the UK government does not properly engage with the Europe 2020 anti-poverty strategy and avoids setting anti-poverty targets. Instead the UK government has reduced minimum income payments and reformed most areas of social security (housing, child benefits, tax credits etc) and re-emphasised the importance that individuals should move into work to reduce their own poverty issues. The reality is that a person out of work and in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance, regardless of what some newspapers may claim, is experiencing poverty and that this is an intentional part of our design of active labour market policies (ALMP). If we add to that the reforms of our current system, which now allows (and actively encourages) those in receipt of the lowest payments to be further inflicted with seriously damaging levels of poverty through benefit withdrawal and sanctioning functions, then it is increasingly evident that poverty punishment is central to our approach to ALMP policies.

Our focus on moving individuals into employment is not new and in theory ALMPs enable people to move out of poverty by using a range of supportive policy tools or a mixture of sticks and carrots. George Osborne might claim that Britain is “The best place in the world to create a job; to get a job; to keep a job; to be helped to look for another job if you lose onebut sadly he is wrong and ignorant to limitations of our current ALMP approach. First, not all employment positions provide enough pay to move individuals out of poverty and in-work poverty is on the rise. Second, and perhaps more visible, is the issue of limited ALMPs and services for job seekers. These are extremely poor as we have a very narrow set of support options and we don’t provide services that attempt to reduce poverty. In fact we use the threat of increased poverty (through sanctions or benefit withdrawal) as a tool to manage and arguably punish those in need of minimum income payments.

Sanctions are not applied in a selective way or directed at the few. Instead they are applied on a large scale affecting many individuals for often the slightest thing; there were 897,690 sanctions on people receiving the main out of work benefits last year in Scotland alone. The impact and high use of sanctioning mechanisms has led to the Citizens Advice Scotland to launch a challenge sanctions campaign and Glasgow’s Poverty Leadership Panel recently launched an appeals pack to assist individuals affected by this aspect of service design. David Webster from the University of Glasgow produced a thorough submission to the Works and Pensions Committee outlining the increasing sanction levels and notes that they account for one quarter of foodbank users in Scotland.  

Our recent research (as part of the COPE project) with individuals experiencing poverty revealed the extent to which the respondents became frustrated with the lack of adequate support in the design of ALMPs, disheartened by their treatment from officials, and disillusioned with the whole system. For those respondents who had previously been in long-term stable work the loss of their job affected their identity, the sanctioning regimes affected their trust levels, and their poverty experience drastically affected their feelings of self-worth. The realities of poverty and living under the control of punitive sanctions had led some respondents to attempt suicide and others to develop severe depression- yet none were able access any health support for this from the activation agencies. Many did not complain, have the energy to appeal, and all were quite clearly becoming ‘deactivated.’

Our research along with other research projects highlights a number of important issues regarding the negative effects of having a heavy sanctioning system as a central component of the ALMP.  First, with reduced income and narrow job centre functions job seekers are unable to afford retraining, counselling or others forms of support to enable them to improve their position in the labour market. There are no proper careers, benefit or jobs advice services available to them (unless they find it from alternative locally funded organisations). Second, it is clear that the activation services work in silos from health, housing and support services. Many people are negatively affected by one service provision whilst waiting to access others. Third and most notably, not only is the benefit rate keeping individuals in poverty but when sanctions and conditionality are applied, individuals are plunged into weeks of absolute hardship; respondents spoke about being unable to heat homes, cook food, and buy groceries. Those who are sanctioned (and who may have already been experiencing poverty for a number of weeks) are plunged further into difficulty. 

Poverty (and the threat of increased poverty) is used as a way to push people into work and it is now fundamental to the policy tools designed in the activation system. This is a real problem if we think we are currently paying for active labour market services that support people into work and in the process move people out of poverty. Instead we are debilitating people, crushing them with extreme poverty experiences, and reducing their agency or ability to act (see Wright, 2012). Other countries do incorporate some conditionality functions into ALMP but usually as part of a broader package of policy tools; e.g. Germany has extensive retraining programmes, Sweden provides predominantly non-means tested payments, and Poland provides social workers and counsellors at the front line. We offer job seekers unpaid and mandatory work experience, computer systems and technocratic processes, and once they have endured unemployment for a prolonged period, we offer access to the limited service provision of Work Programme providers.

There is, on the whole, a lack of political will to spend money on supporting people into the labour market and job seekers are increasingly demonised for their situation. Despite this the government actually spends a lot of effort on fraud squads, IT systems that aren’t fit for purpose, incorporating new conditionality processes, and large scale employment programmes that provide no training or ‘expensive’ support options (such as counselling). At the same time the sanctioning schemes inflict extreme poverty on those in receipt of out of work benefits and in need of proper support mechanisms. Such reforms of Jobcentre Plus are both short-term punitive measures, but also poor policy-making. They do not get the best out of the individuals working in front-line services, and the narrow policy tools do not support individuals into sustainable employment, reduce poverty, or increase individual well-being.

If we are to recover from the (regular) economic busts in a more effective way we need to not only invest in the skills of the population (and unemployed people specifically), but we must also stop alienating individuals through poverty punishment. We must enable people to remain connected and appreciated so that they continue to contribute to society and build the connections, confidence and feelings of inclusiveness needed to find new work. Reforming ALMPs is not an easy task but there is much research and evidence out there on ways to do it that is currently ignored. Perhaps the first step is an honest conversation (without derogatory discourse about unemployment) to enable practitioners, citizens, policy makers, politicians and service users to design systems that are fit for purpose and supportive of a wider vision of a productive and inclusive society.


Wright, S, (2012) Welfare-to-work, Agency and Personal Responsibility. Journal of Social Policy , Vol 41, 02, pp 309-328

Dr Hayley Bennett is a Research Fellow in Social Policy at University of Edinburgh on the COPE project. The Combating Poverty in Europe programme is co-financed by the European Commission in the 7th Framework Programme, COPE unites experienced researchers and stakeholders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Norway. Hayley tweets @haylesben

Routes out of poverty: education and social mobility

Morag Treanor, Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Edinburgh

Education and social mobility can alleviate child poverty, but not in the way the government supposes, i.e. by improving future educational outcomes of poor children in order that they do not become poor adults. Rather, child poverty in the here and now can be alleviated if we allow low-income parents free access to further and higher education.

The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, released for consultation by the Coalition Government last February, is focused on ‘breaking the cycle of disadvantage’ and on ensuring that ‘where you start in life should not determine where you end up’. Two of its three routes to achieving this are: Supporting families into work and increasing their earnings and Preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment (The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017,p.11).

To address the first route their principal means of supporting families into work and increasing their earnings is through the Work Programme and other employment-related activities such as raising the minimum wage and the personal tax allowance. A secondary means is through ‘improving qualifications’. Further investigation reveals that this translates into improving basic literacy and numeracy.

To address the second route, their principle means of preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment, is to focus on compulsory schooling with the responsibility and accountability for this lying with schools, teachers and parents. As the government notes, they want to ‘ensure that the parents of tomorrow will have better qualifications (ibid, p.25)’ -presumably better than the parents of today.

Now, this raises many areas of concern, from the lack of consideration for the lives of children as lived in childhood (Ridge, 2002) to the ability of employment to lift families out of poverty (Shildrick et al, 2012), given the fact that there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without; however, I would like to focus on an issue that I have come across with my current research with the Child Poverty Action Group, and that is the further and higher education of parents living in poverty as a route into work and, hopefully, out of poverty.

In my longitudinal, qualitative study of twenty families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland, four of my Scottish ten were able to access further or higher education during the course of the research. None in England were. Two of this four completed further education and obtained their first job since becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged 6, 10 and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged 10 and 12. The remaining two went on to study degree programmes: these two mothers have one son each. The antecedent to accessing education for these women was gaining confidence and skills through volunteering.

These women gained in wellbeing, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends and widened their social networks. The lives of their children demonstrably improved. Of her new job, Jennifer says: ‘I totally love it. I’m really, really happy. So, last year was a great year for me. I passed my driving test, got my wee car, which I saved up and paid for myself, and I took my kids on holiday. I love it, totally love it’.

Jennifer says that the knowledge that she has completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loves has had a positive impact on her children, particularly her eldest son (aged 13), who has told her that he is proud of her. She says: ‘my oldest one, he’s often saying to me: “It’s good the way you are now, you’re really happy now. Remember when it was like this?” So he feels a positive change. So that’s really good’.

This is only a brief glimpse into this research but I want to highlight that in Scotland, education is a viable route into employment and out of poverty for parents who are unemployed, due to the system of no fees in Scotland (this is not entirely straightforward as becoming a student when you’re a parent can raise issues with the benefits system, and I will write about those another time). In England, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, 9/10 of whom are mature. For full-time students, there has been a 14% reduction from 2010 to 2013, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants. Among this potential mature student community will be parents and lone parents. By increasing the fees in other parts of the UK to £9,000 per year, the government has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents and prevented a route out of poverty for them and their children.

References and further reading

The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017

Ridge, Tess (2002) Childhood poverty and social exclusion: from a child’s perspective, Bristol: Policy Press.

Shildrick, Tracy, MacDonald, Robert, Webster, Colin and Garthwaite, Kayleigh (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.

Dr Morag Treanor is Lecturer in Quantitative Social Policy and Programme Director MSc Childhood Studies. She tweets @MoragTreanor

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:

Conspicuously poor

Katherine Trebeck, is Global Research Policy Adviser in Oxfam’s research team and  Honorary Professor at The University of the West of Scotland.

In a society in which we often judge each other by superficial appearances, it seems individuals are denied empathy or support as ‘poor’ if they are still able to take care of their appearance.

A friend of mine who has lived in poverty for some time – and is an angry, energetic activist – tells of an interview she did with a journalist about her experience of fuel poverty and the choices she has to make living on the breadline.

At the close of the interview, the journalist said to her ‘but you’re not really poor are you?’, with a knowing, conspiratorial nod.

My friend asked ‘what do you mean?’, to which he explained ‘well, you’ve got great hair, posh looking glasses and lipstick.’

So apparently people can’t be poor and have pride in their appearance at the same time.

But the reality is that my friend is one of the world’s best budgeters and is able to find the best bargains (take note Messrs Osbourne, Johnson and Cameron). She chose well when she received her glasses from the NHS. She has her hair done for free at a local training college and her good taste means she selects quality, stylish items from her local charity shop.

But is seems that’s not good enough – she needs to be conspicuously poor.

This story speaks to a much wider issue of hidden poverty, but also assumptions, misunderstandings and stereotypes.

For example, earlier this year I was part of a radio phone-in about people claiming disability related benefits. The allegation was being made – not for the first time – that most people do so fraudulently, when they are actually fit and well and just too lazy to work. The protagonist’s claim was that because he sees people walking around near his local cafe, dragging their walking sticks, rather than leaning on them, and clearly not at work, then they must be faking a disability and thus fraudulently claiming benefits.

But one only needs to remember that we live in a society in which over half of people receiving disability related benefits are doing so on the basis of poor mental health to recognise that people leaning on their walking sticks isn’t a good proxy for the number of people who don’t ‘really need’ benefits. And more than this, the assumptions contained in the journalist’s allegations and assertions are that style and taste is only the prerogative of those with money.

Writ-large this is a dangerous imposition of superiority and social hierarchy, in which people buy taste, and through this demonstrate some sort of higher value – apparently showing the world they have money, are more successful and somehow inherently better than others.

This post was originally posted on the Oxfam blog on 28th Jan 2012. Katherine submitted it to this discussion “unfortunately it is still relevant”. She tweets at @ktrebeck

Scotland’s new poverty challenges

Tom MacInnes, Research Director, New Policy Institute.

At the start of the year, NPI produced three short briefing papers for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with the aim of providing some of the facts and trends relating to poverty in Scotland ahead of the referendum. The purpose was to look at Scotland’s attempts to tackle poverty compared to the rest of the UK across housing, income and work.

What they showed was that, in the years since devolution, Scotland had actually fared quite well compared to England, and much better than Wales. The risk of in work poverty is lower in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, and Scotland’s labour market has bounced back from the recession better than most other parts of the UK. Child poverty had fallen faster in Scotland than in England, and Scotland now has a lower child poverty rate than any other UK country. The graph below shows how in the early 2000s, Scotland and England had similar levels of child poverty. In more recent years, Scotland’s level was significantly below that of England, even if the most recent year shows a small rise.

Child poverty in Scotland and England since 1997/98

Tom 1

One of the reports focussed on housing and homelessness, an area where the Scottish government had substantial powers to shape a policy specific to Scotland’s needs.  These powers have been used to build an approach to homelessness that is more generous than that found in England and has resulted in falling numbers of people presenting as homeless or being housed under homelessness legislation.

For all the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, there are of course similarities. While in work poverty may be lower, it is still rising, and set to be a feature of the Scottish social landscape like it is the English one. Scotland has more social housing, but the private rented sector is growing quickly, as it is elsewhere in the UK. With that growth come higher housing costs for tenants – the gap between social and private rental costs is greater only in London – and frequently less secure tenancies. This is a problem that the Scottish government, the UK government and anti-poverty campaigners both sides of the border have to tackle.

Over the coming weeks and months, attention will be focussed on the Smith Commission and the forthcoming white paper on new powers for Holyrood. It is too early to tell what those powers will be. In particular there appears to be a big difference between the parties on what parts of the welfare budget should be fully devolved. There is an odd paradox here – having the powers held in Scotland may result in Scottish MPs being unable to influence policies in Westminster. But having the powers is only part of the equation – they have to be used properly, and there has to be the public and political will to do so.

This was one of the bigger take-away messages from the referendum and the campaigns and conversations surrounding it. Scotland seems to have that will. Poverty and disadvantage were placed at the centre of the campaign in a way that Britain had not seen for a long time. Just as importantly, the language used was non-judgemental and did not stigmatise poor people for their poverty. So far, the Scottish government has done a good job of mitigating some of the worst effects of reforms emanating from Westminster. The challenge for Scotland is to develop this mitigation policy into one of sustained prevention. Keeping poverty at the heart of its public conversation is a good start.

For further information on research by Tom MacInnes and the NPI please use the following links:

International and historical anti-poverty strategies: evidence and policy review

Referendum briefing: housing and low income in Scotland

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Scotland 2013

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
  4. P Spicker, 2001, Poor areas and the ‘ecological fallacy’, Radical Statistics 76, 2001, pp 38-79
  6. British Prime  Minister’s  Office,  2011,  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

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

An inclusive and assertive Common Weal Scotland

Mike DansonProfessor of Enterprise Policy and Director of Doctoral Programmes,  Heriot-Watt University

Poverty cannot and should not be considered as separate from the rest of the economy and society. It is created and recreated by the system we live in and tolerate. Countries with similar levels of development, inequality and poverty to the UK and Scotland in the early 1970s now have far lower levels of inequity, deprivation, exclusion and unhappiness, and enjoy much higher standards of living and well-being. Having 1 in 4 children in poverty, huge numbers having to use foodbanks, sanctions against the sick and disabled, fear and intolerance of the poor and vulnerable are not inevitable natural developments generated by late capitalism; they are the product and choices of a particular state. And, as such, they can be reversed, there is a different path we can follow to the benefit of all.

The two year referendum campaign allowed levels of debate and engagement not seen in Scotland since at least the end of World War II when the nation decided ‘never again’. Specifically, the cry for ‘freedom’, which has echoed down the centuries, was heard, amplified and applied to Beveridge’s plans to attack and free the people from the five “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. The progressive dismantling of that welfare state which promised social security, has been pursued by successive UK governments since the late 1970s. By 2010, the UK had the highest rate of poverty amongst the long term sick and disabled of any country in the European Union. Today their standards of living have fallen, tomorrow austerity cuts will bite deeper into the health, well-being, life satisfaction and hopes for so many in Scotland. Meanwhile the Nordic countries continue to be the most innovative, prosperous and resilient economies and societies in the history of the world; and they have protected the basics of their generous welfare states.

And therein lies the uncomfortable truth for the establishment, more equitable and inclusive societies are more successful in terms of the creation of enterprises, income growth and resilience to recessions. There is an alternative, and it is good! For those of who have been promoting the idea of a Common Weal there is a need to counter the negativity of TINA, of ‘No’, of austerity and “we’re all in this together”. We have published fifty detailed papers on ‘Creative Change and Governance’, ‘Industry and Work’,  ‘International and Citizenship’, ‘Resources and Ecology’, ‘Society and Wellbeing’, ‘Tax and Money’ with specific proposals on ‘universalism’[i], addressing poverty[ii], and social security[iii].

Underpinning a compassionate and inclusive society must be an economy that satisfies all our needs and not those determined and revealed by a corrupted market system. Our economy is currently heavily dependent on an over-bloated financial sector, with bankers and speculators privileged and rewarded – and given far greater levels of social security than masses of the poor could ever dream about, while consumerism and unsustainable development are key to the cycle of despair and exploitation. As we demonstrated by looking at how Norway, Sweden, Denmark and others organise their lives, policies and relationships[iv], higher levels of social protection create healthier economies and businesses rather than destroying some constructed ‘work ethic’.

Poverty can be unmade by concerted, dedicated and committed strategies as described in the Common Weal. At a local scale, we have witnessed in the communities which have won back their land under land reform that ordinary people, supported by the rest of us, can liberate and restore their land, natural and people resources to the benefit of the environment, families and enterprises[v].

Walking to the station each morning, passing those waiting for the pharmacy to open for their dose of methadone, is one picture that characterises my Scotland, struggling without hope. Another vision was offered us, by us and for us over the recent months in a thousand meetings and more – of common Scots, wherever they had come from eager to build an energised Scotland, inclusive and welcoming, realising it could slay the great evils that Beveridge had identified. That those who have presided over, benefited from, and promoted Britain’s decline[vi] for the benefit and ends of their own class led the ‘Better Together’ (ironically) and ‘Project Fear’ (no irony intended) opposition to this vision should encourage all who believe in the people to continue to campaign, canvass and inform for a better society. We’re better than this and have the research underpinnings, benchmarks of other small nations, and an active citizenry to ensure that it can happen.

References and further reading




[iv] Whose Economy?, edited by M Danson and K Trebeck, Oxford: Oxfam, 2011; Regional Development in Northern Europe: Peripherality, Marginality and Border Issues, edited by M Danson and P de Souza, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

[v] ‘Sustainable development?: building social capital in Gaelic communities’, M Danson and D Chalmers, in Revitalising Gaelic in Scotland: Policy, Planning and Public Discourse, editor W Macleod, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006; ‘Community ownership and sustainable economic development’, M Danson, G Callaghan and G Whittam, Scottish Affairs, 74, 50-71, 2011.

[vi]  Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Palgrave, 2012.

Professor Mike Danson can be contacted on