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

Don’t joke about poverty, unless someone is poorer than you: Myths, poverty and asset-based welfare after the referendum

Stephan Köppe, Research Fellow, University of Dundee.

You cannot joke about poverty in Scotland. Shortly after the independence referendum I performed at the Bright Club Dundee which is, believe it or not, a stand-up comedy club of academics. Just in the opening line I made joke that I came from Germany to Scotland to study real poverty. It did not go down well. Only when I continued to make jokes about how poor Ireland and the North of England are, the Scottish audience cheered up. What does this tells us about poverty in Scotland and in particular in Dundee? And what can we learn from international research about how a Scotland with more devolved powers could reduce its poverty?

The first lesson I learned is you cannot make jokes about your own deprived situation, unless you find people who are in a worse situation. And it is difficult to find a country in Europe that has a lower poverty rate than the UK, but is on a similar economic development. The UK as a whole has one of the highest relative poverty rates in Europe, considering how affluent the UK is (EU-SILC 2012, OECD 2011). And my reference to Ireland just referred to a stereotype that is not valid anymore. Modern Ireland has a higher GDP per capita and a lower relative poverty rate even after the severe effects of the global economic crisis. So perceptions about poverty and wealth lag behind reality and my audience still sees Ireland as the poor house of the British Isles. However, for comical purposes this widely held belief still worked pretty well.

I received even more laughs, when I continued to claim it can only be worse in the North of England. But this stereotype is also dated. Scotland has actually a lower poverty rate than England as a whole. When you compare all four nations of the UK, Scotland has the lowest income poverty rate after housing costs according to the latest Household Below Average Income statistics. Only when income before housing costs is considered, do Scotland and England have a similar share of the population living on low incomes. But the higher housing costs and prices for everyday goods in the affluent parts in South England make life hard for people on low incomes. Scots seem only to recognise the wealth down South, while the stark inequalities are obfuscated. Still the Yes Campaign managed to challenge this perception among 45 per cent of the Scottish electorate, while 55 per cent were still worried that Scotland would not be affluent enough on its own. And it is true, Scotland is not as affluent as the South of England, but it is more affluent than the rest of UK as a whole and, more importantly, more equal. However, compared to our closest neighbouring country, Ireland and the rest of wealthy European nations, Scotland – and the UK as a whole –  performs poorly in terms of poverty reduction and distributing wealth equally.

My biggest mistake might have been that I made the joke in Dundee. Dundee City is among the top five Scottish councils with the highest income deprivation (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012). The independence referendum has shown that in particular people in poor areas have tended to vote yes (FT 2014). Though the Bright Club audience tends to have a higher middle class background, they see poverty and deprivation everyday with their own eyes. About 57 per cent of Dundonians voted for independence and not all of these are poor, but among other things they seem to have hoped that an independent Scotland would have the powers to change the economic outlook and inequality of their city.

What can we learn from these observations and what are the options for a Scotland continuing to be part of the United Kingdom, but potentially with more powers? In a recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Beverley Searle and I have reviewed the evidence of how personal savings, housing wealth and assets have a potential to reduce poverty (see also the summary findings and further information). We have highlighted that Britain is trapped in the ‘poverty paradox’. The more policies are targeted at the poor and demand individual responsibility to save and invest, the more poverty we will observe. Comparative evidence shows that universalistic welfare states with generous basic income protection schemes and high quality services linked with mandatory social insurances have the lowest poverty rates in Europe.

Last month, the majority of Scots expressed their wish to share their future with the rest of the UK, but a significant minority would have preferred more powers in Scotland to potentially alter the British ‘poverty paradox’. A devolved Scotland will have only limited powers on tax and welfare to universalise eligibility criteria, alter benefit formulas and raise taxes to change income poverty, but it can mitigate some of the effects on multiple deprivation through better social services. In our review we have shown that assets are not a way out of poverty, though they can serve as a cushion against temporary income shocks. With the new Scotland Act 2012 the Scottish Government will gain more powers to tax land transactions. We know that wealth is distributed more unevenly than income and has strong effects on transferring poverty between generations. These new powers to tax wealth could be used more progressively than currently and revenues raised channelled into more universal programmes and services to the benefit of all Scottish people.

I would love to look forward to be able to make a joke on poverty in Scotland in 2024 and get laughs for it, because my audience would laugh about their deprived past and not about their present situation. However, considering the limited fiscal powers Scotland has on welfare issues, I doubt that ten years down the line a devolved Scotland will have broken through the British ‘poverty paradox’ alone. A cohesive poverty reduction and prevention programme remains a UK-wide task. Only a nation state can achieve that efficiently and successfully. It is in the hand of the British people to seize the post-referendum opportunity to reduce poverty together and reunite people North and South of the border through shared values and solidarity.


As of Jan 2015 Dr Stephan Köppe will be a lecturer in Social Policy at University College Dublin, Ireland. Until then you can contact him at

Stratified rights in migration policy

Gareth Mulvey, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow in Social Sciences, University of Glasgow

The political discourse and Westminster policy about migration mirrors those around poverty issues in general regarding rights being stratified and state support being denied to increasing parts of the population. For people migrating to the UK there have long been a variety of visa types which have both different rights and different requirements attached to them. However, this has gradually become more explicit with, for example, some visa types having ‘right to reside’ tests applied to them, effectively removing the right to numerous benefits from many migrants regardless of what they pay in tax, and those in the asylum process being denied both sufficient state support and the right to work, which has long-term negative impacts.

The deserving and undeserving

Part of the rationale for this approach has been simple populism. However, there are other political reasons for this type of stratification. British politics and the accompanying public debate have re-introduced Victorian notions of deserving and undeserving poor. This is joined by restrictions on minority communities having the right to make claims of the British state, leading to a deeply regressive political framework into which migrants must both navigate and live. While the broader welfare climate and its focus on ‘hard working families’, ‘doing the right thing’ is best addressed by others, it does link to the politics of migration. Migration policy is increasingly viewed in relation to wanted and unwanted migrants. Wealthy migrants and those working for large multi-national corporations have few problems in entering the UK, whether through the GATT agreed inter-company transfers (23,000 people in 2011) or Tier 1 entrepreneurs visas (more than 2000 in 2012) they have few problems in terms of either access or, it goes without saying, making ends meet once here, already having a well-paid job and/or considerable resources. This leaves the unwanted side, unwanted in terms of both social class and region of origin facing the brunt of restrictive measures both in terms of getting into Britain (immigration policy) and what they can expect on arrival (immigrant policy).

Immigration status effects what support is available

Nevertheless, it is the lives of migrants already in the UK that is the issue of concern in this post. Successive UK Governments have viewed migrants as more or less productive units of labour rather than as people. Employers have been empowered to effectively proscribe many aspects of our immigration system through their influence on the issuance of many visas, while in-work poverty, low pay, zero-hours contracts and underemployment are then left for others to ‘deal with’. Thus we have a perverse system whereby employers have the right to employ migrant labour, with a ‘reserve army of labour’ in its hinterland, UK Governments opt-out of any European protections for those workers and alongside the much vaunted ‘most flexible labour market in Europe’. This leaves many experiencing severe financial difficulties, some of which are then mitigated by the Government then subsidising low wages in the form of benefits (itself now under focussed Government attack), but for an increasing section of the population, particularly migrants, that subsidy has been removed and so existing hardships are intensified. The Coalition Government argue that this approach is based on fairness and hint that such migrants can return to their country of origin if they are unhappy with this state of affairs. Ignoring the morality of subsidising low paying profitable employers from the

public purse, many migrants are not able to leave for a variety of reasons, some have established family lives here, had children and so forth. Many have also paid significant amounts of money into our tax system, and denying them social services on that basis goes against the contributory principle. Others still have fled despotic regimes and so have no option of return, yet ‘we’ appear to be accepting that poverty, and in some cases destitution, are reasonable results of their need to flee. Refugees have experienced discriminatory immigration regimes with; for example, support levels for those in the asylum system set at just 70% of income support with no other benefits allowed and the denial of the right to work, and yet they are then condemned for both relying on benefits and ‘taking our jobs’. On being recognised as refugees there is also deskilling from time denied the right to work, underemployment and racism alongside a scramble to find appropriate accommodation (almost all newly recognised refugees are made homeless and therefore temporarily housed).

This contradicts what we know about ‘good’ policy

A lot is now known about both what causes poverty (and how to fix it) and about many aspects of what constitutes ‘good’ policy-making. However, in relation to preventing poverty and to immigration and immigrant policy ‘we’ are failing to heed the lessons, be it the denial of the right to work for refugees, which leads to long-term difficulties in accessing the labour market; or EU citizens being underemployed so contributing less to society than they could. Many aspects of immigration policy are leading people into poverty, some as a consequence of that policy but also some such as the way refused asylum seekers are treated (many of whom overturn such refusals on appeal) where poverty is a deliberate tool of policy. The imperative of control within the Home Office who control all migration matters leads to other government departments and other levels of government picking up the substantial costs of those policies. At present reserved immigration policy is condemning large numbers of our population to penury. Add to this the much broader assault on the whole notion of the welfare state and poverty is an entirely predictable result, with impacts for the individuals involved, the communities they live in and for society more generally.

Dr Gareth Mulvey is based in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Glasgow


PREVENT POVERTY FIRST: the Neglected Part of the Strategy against Poverty

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

Beveridge believed poverty should be prevented, not just alleviated. In his 1942 report he wrote: ‘Abolition of want [his term for poverty] just before this war was easily within the economic resources of the community; want was a needless scandal due to not taking the trouble to prevent it’ (Beveridge report, 1942, para. 445). Much is quoted from the Beveridge report to justify one policy proposal or another, but this has seldom been.

He put it so clearly: how do we justify having to learn this all over again more than 70 years later? Once stated, it is obvious: it cannot be sufficient just to have mechanisms that help to lift people out of poverty once they have fallen into it. And given all the knowledge and experience that we have acquired in years of high poverty, we are well aware that being in poverty has costs, personal, social and financial, for the individual, the family, the community, the whole society and the economy. So neglecting prevention is all the more careless, wasteful and generally irresponsible.

Prevention is not only cheaper than cure: it is generally easier and more democratic. Policies do not have to depend on targeting those who have already been singled out by lack of resources, although good preventive policies may use other criteria to target. Unless we prevent poverty very much more effectively, it will only spread and deepen (Sinfield, 2014). This short piece sets out three of the key points that in my view are essential to more and better prevention.

1) We cannot expect to prevent poverty without more decent jobs and at fair wages. ‘The evidence is clear that the root causes of families being in poverty are worklessness or low earnings (either not working enough hours or not being paid enough)’ (DE & DWP, 2014, p 7). We have neglected what Beveridge said: full employment means jobs ‘at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed can reasonably be expected to take them’ (Beveridge, 1944, p 18). Higher rates of poverty and poor pay tend to go together, and low pay is ‘much more common in nations where the labour sector is weak, government does little to manage the economy in the service of all, and public participation is less than the case in other countries’ (Raphael, 2014). There is urgent need for more action by all involved – employers, unions and government – to prevent poverty by ending the low-pay no-pay poverty cycle that leaves workers and their families in poverty and under pressure (Shildrick et al, 2012 b). A ‘living wage’ should be encouraged but only as a start: but it is not enough to live long on.

2) We have to strengthen the preventive powers of the welfare state. The lack of generous provision in the welfare state is ‘the dominant cause’ of the high poverty that persists in some ‘affluent Western democracies’ argued Brady in his analysis of the experience of 18 countries over more than 30 years (Brady, 2009, p 166). For people of working age and their families the UK has already undermined much preventive effectiveness and is now moving back from Beveridge towards the poor law. Increasingly, income support is only being provided for people once they are already in poverty instead of providing enough to keep them out of it. Inadequate benefits can serve to keep the recipient in poverty.

Total income support should be set above the poverty line and in accordance with established Minimum Income Standards to ensure that ‘every citizen willing to serve according to [their] powers has at all times an income sufficient to meet [their] responsibilities’ (Beveridge, 1942, para 444). In the European Union ‘rich, high employment countries where social spending is low end up with high poverty. This leads to the conclusion that, if it is possible to attain a low risk of poverty without substantial spending, it has not yet been demonstrated’ (Cantillon, 2009, p 240).

The preventive value of a decent social security system in helping to maintain consumer spending and so maintain demand and employment is considerable. It acts as an effective automatic stabiliser, economic and social. The importance of this role has been neglected: cutting and freezing benefits only undermines other strategies to boost the economy as well as adding to poverty (Sinfield, 2012).

3) We cannot expect to prevent poverty better without significant reductions in economic inequality. ‘Where poverty is widespread… there has been a failure to institutionalize equality’ (Brady, 2009, p 6). Measures to promote greater equality across all groups can help to prevent and tackle the greater risk of poverty, and long-term poverty. Despite some improvements, women’s concentration in low-paid part-time jobs through occupational segregation and lack of affordable childcare continues ‘to make them more vulnerable to poverty and also make it more difficult for them to establish themselves in secure, well-paid employment that protects them from falling back into poverty even when in work’ (Breitenbach and Wasoff, 2007, in a review for the Scottish government). More, therefore, needs to be done to construct a broad equality agenda within which specific goals of preventing and reducing poverty can be achieved. Only in this way can a successful attack be made on ‘the major drivers of poverty, such as high levels of wage and wealth inequality’ that undermine preventive policies (Harker, 2006, p 9, writing for the DWP).

Much more, of course, needs to be done to prevent poverty much more effectively. To fund a stronger welfare state, we need a tax system that is both fairer and more fairly implemented without massive concessions in reliefs and subsidies to the better off and corporate bodies. Scotland has already made some progress in challenging discriminatory and demonising language that excludes vulnerable groups and weakens support for preventive and other policies to protect them, but much more is needed (Mooney and Wright, 2011; Shildrick et al, 2011 a; Walker, 2014).

References and further reading

Beveridge, William H. (1942) Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, London: HMSO.

Beveridge, W. H. (1944) Full Employment in a Free Society, London: Allen and Unwin.

Brady, D. (2009) Rich Democracies Poor Societies: How Politics Explain Poverty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Breitenbach, Esther and Wasoff, Fran (2007) A Gender Audit of Statistics: comparing the position of women and men in Scotland, Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Cantillon, B. (2009) ‘The poverty effects of social protection in Europe: EU enlargement and its lessons for developing countries’, in P. Townsend (ed), Building Decent Societies: Rethinking the role of social security in development, Basingstoke: ILO and Palgrave Macmillan, pp 220-241.

DE & DWP (2014), An evidence review of the drivers of child poverty for families in poverty now and for poor children growing up to be poor adults. Cm 8781, London. HM Government.

Harker, Lisa (2006) Delivering on Child Poverty: what would it take? London: DWP.

Mooney, G. and Wright, S. (2011) ‘Presenting and representing poverty’, in J. H. McKendrick et al, Poverty in Scotland 2011, London: CPAG, pp 133-145, and

Raphael, Dennis (2014) ‘The issue is not poor children but family poverty’

Shildrick, T., Furlong, A., MacDonald, R., Roden, J. and Crow, R. (2012a) Are‘Cultures of Worklessness’ passed down the Generations?, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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

Sinfield, Adrian (2012) ‘Strengthening the prevention of social insecurity’, International Social Security Review, 65:1, pp 89-106.

Sinfield, Adrian (2014) ‘How can we reduce child poverty without improving its prevention?’, Poverty, 147, pp 14-17.

Walker, Robert with many others (2014) The Shame of Poverty: Global perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Poverty and Inequality: Same Difference?

Stephen Sinclair, Reader in Social Policy, Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University

Poverty initially seems like a straightforward matter and academics can’t expect to be thanked for complicating it. However there are occasions when it is important to challenge what might appear attractively simple accounts of an issue and argue that it is necessary to think again. One recent example of this is an article by John Lanchester arguing that ‘if I could, I would ban the word poverty from use in a UK context’ and replace it with ‘inequality’. John Lanchester is a writer whose novels I have enjoyed, and he wrote one of the most accessible and engaging accounts of the credit crunch and economic crisis, but in this case he is seriously mistaken. There is a real and significant difference between poverty and inequality, and his objections to so called ‘relative’ definitions of poverty are based on a misunderstanding.

Lanchester argues that referring to the deprivation which undeniably exists in the UK as ‘poverty’ confuses the issue. He argues that ‘People look around the UK and just don’t believe in the existence of genuinely poor people… They don’t think that what is called poverty constitutes actual poverty’, and that ‘when we talk about poverty in the UK, we aren’t talking about the same kind of poverty as in the developing world’, because ‘Nobody [In the UK] … is lacking the means of subsistence: nobody is “poor”.’

Leaving aside the question of the scale of subsistence deprivation in the UK, the principal problem with Lanchester’s view – and here is where social science must complicate the issue – is that he misunderstands the meaning of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty. These concepts were complicated – but also clarified – by Amartya Sen over 30 years ago. While the terms ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty may be convenient ways to distinguish different technical approaches to measurement, at a more fundamental level this apparent contrast is misleading: poverty has both absolute and relative aspects. Understanding this requires appreciating Sen’s explanation that ‘There is a difference between achieving relatively less than others, and achieving absolutely less because of falling behind others.’ The former situation is inequality, the latter condition is poverty.

To grasp Sen’s distinction it helps to consider the implications of a much-quoted passage from Adam Smith’s Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):

 By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life,but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life … But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt … Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them

No one (least of all Smith or Sen) denies that some needs, such as minimum calorie requirements, sufficient clothing and accommodation to keep warm, etc. are universal. However, even these ‘absolute’ essentials are relative in how they can be acquired in different societies or what they cost at different times. More importantly, Smith’s point is that we are all social beings and our basic needs are socially conditioned. Mollie Orshansky, who developed the first national measures and indicators of poverty for the US government, once said that ‘Poverty, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder’. This does not mean that poverty is a purely subjective idea which can mean whatever anyone wants. The significance of Orshansky’s point is that poverty includes an aspect of social judgement: those ashamed to appear in public because of inadequate income are in a condition of poverty even if they are not starving nor destitute.

Poverty, properly understood, is a condition of having too few resources to maintain a basic standard of living, including whatever is required to maintain decency, integrity of identity or to appear and participate in society without shame and stigma. This is not the same as merely having less than others; i.e. inequality. The minimum standard of living will vary over time and across societies, but the existence of a standard itself is a consistent social principle. This does not imply egalitarianism: it is not the case that everyone needs access to everything that everyone else possesses, only that there is a threshold of minimum decency which all must have to avoid poverty.

Of course, the destitute and starving lack sufficient resources to survive, but just as not suffering from a terminal illness does not mean that someone is ‘healthy’ so too having enough calories or clothing to survive does not mean that someone has avoided poverty. Variations in international standards of living are widely accepted: few argue that simply because people in Britain are not dying of diarrhoea or Cholera that there is no illness here. This shows that, for some welfare issues at least, the British public are able to grasp that minimum standards can be context-dependence and relative.

The difficulty with existing ‘relative’ definitions of poverty is not that that they are counter-intuitive nor conceptually complex. Rather the issue is that, provided there is little visible outright destitution, poverty in the UK is largely denied. While they might support access to a minimum standard of health care, the British public generally do not accept the right of everyone to what T.H. Marshall described as the conditions of social citizenship, that is ‘the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevailing in the society’. It might be unpleasant to accept this feature of public opinion, but facing it at least clarifies the nature of the obstacle, rather than arguing that poverty does not exist, or redefining it as something different – inequality – in order to reflect popular attitudes.


Poverty and Inequality as measured by the Scottish National Performance Framework

Elke Heins, Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Edinburgh.

There can be little doubt about the Scottish Government taking the problems of poverty and inequality seriously. As recently as 9 October 2014, Finance Secretary John Swinney emphasised in his budget speech the aim to ‘deliver on the aspirations of the people of Scotland for a more prosperous and fairer Scotland’.

The commitment to a ‘flourishing’ Scotland through sustainable economic growth has been at the centre of the public policy agenda in Scotland since 2007 and is reflected in the National Performance Framework, also known as ‘Scotland Performs’. The framework provides a dashboard approach to assess progress towards the delivery of the Scottish Government’s overarching aim of ‘creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all to flourish through increasing sustainable economic growth’.

Heins 1

This overall government purpose is supported by seven ‘High Level Targets’ of which two targets for solidarity and cohesion directly relate to concerns with poverty and inequality. It is furthermore underpinned by five ‘Strategic Objectives’ of which the objective for Scotland to become ‘Wealthier and Fairer’ is most closely related to anti-poverty policies. Progress towards these targets and objectives is, in turn, assessed by 16 ‘National Outcomes’ and 50 ‘National Indicators’. For example, the achievement of the solidarity target is measured by an increase in the proportion of income earned by the three lowest income deciles by 2017. A reduction in the proportion of individuals living in poverty (defined as individuals living in households with an equivalised income of less than 60% of the UK median before housing costs) is the most direct indicator to track the progress towards poverty reduction.

This multi-dimensional and outcomes-oriented Scottish framework signifies a departure from the traditional way of measuring development and social progress through the increase in ‘national wealth’ as measured by the much criticised GDP. This single-minded focus on GDP as the key figure for government performance has for long been substantively criticised as, among other things, it ignores the negative effects of economic growth on people’s lives and does not say anything about the distribution of any created wealth. Scotland is one of a number of countries where this criticism has led to the pioneering of alternative measures. These new approaches are closely related to the fashionable concept of ‘wellbeing’ that gained traction in recent years all over the world among policy makers, academics and practitioners. The concept recognises that national wellbeing has to be understood in a holistic way, not only including economic, but also social and environmental dimensions and the interrelationships between these.

While the attempt of the Scottish Government, supported by a number of NGOs such as Oxfam Scotland and the Carnegie Trust, to arrive at a more holistic understanding of what makes life worth living and what public policy should strive for is laudable, some concerns with ‘Scotland Performs’ remain. For example, with a particular focus on the strategic objective to achieve a Scotland that is ‘wealthier and fairer’ the following criticisms can be made:

  • Some indicators are too vague; e.g. the national indicator to ‘improve children services’ does not clarify whether this improvement refers to the availability of services, their quality or their affordability and accessibility. As comparative research has shown, all three of these dimensions do matter.
  • A distinction needs to be made between income and wealth as both matter for inequality and poverty, but the focus of the framework is only on the former.
  • There still is an emphasis on traditional economic growth measures throughout the framework. An increase in the number of businesses, for example, does not say anything about the quality of work in these businesses or the environmental impact of their activities. Indicators of decent work (such as the proportion of employers paying a living wage) or of sustainability (such as the proportion of public sector organisations and private enterprises engaging in greener practices) would need to replace indicators that count economic activity without any recognition of its potential harm on the environment, health or poverty.
  • There are no indicators about unemployment, yet we know it is critical to wellbeing and closely related to poverty.

It has to be noted that the Scottish Government is aware of some of the shortcomings with its framework and a revision is currently ongoing which is explicitly seeking suggestions for new indicators to improve the framework. Moreover, measuring national performance is only a first step to improve the quality of life in Scotland and the most perfect measuring tool becomes pointless if it is not followed by a readjustment of policy priorities and, in fact, a reform of the very way in which policy is made in order to deliver on the desired outcomes and ambitions.

Despite the above criticisms, by and large the Scottish Government is taking steps in the right direction because ‘what is measured is what matters’ (for policy makers). Highlighting the relevance of poverty and inequality through the inclusion in the National Performance Framework and its impact on wellbeing for the whole society is thus more than welcome. Ultimately, the turn towards more encompassing measures of wellbeing rather than a narrow focus on economic growth will hopefully contribute to overcoming the perception that ‘doing good’ is difficult to combine with ‘doing well’.

Dr Elke Heins is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. This contribution is based on a Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series called GLADS – Good Lives and Decent Societies, funded by the Scottish Universities Institute in 2014.

Poverty and disability benefits: a view from the past

Jackie Gulland, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Social Policy, University of Edinburgh

Poverty and disability are closely linked.  Researchers have shown that disabled people are more likely to be out of work, in poorly paid jobs and living in poverty than other groups in society.  As a result many disabled people find themselves claiming welfare benefits, including Employment and Support Allowance if they find it difficult to work.  My research concerns the history of incapacity benefits, that is, social security benefits for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability.  As I set out to write this post, I wondered what the relevance of this work was for ‘Challenge poverty’ week.  After all, ‘challenge poverty’ is about today and anti-poverty campaigners sometimes have an uphill struggle to show that poverty is a problem today, with critics often pointing to the past to show how much worse things used to be.  Others in this blog and on the challenge poverty website can explain why poverty is such a problem today.

My task is to show how many of the debates about poverty today are rooted in questions which have been around since the beginning of the welfare state and beyond.  To show this, let’s have a look at some quotations about people claiming disability benefits.  Can you guess the date?

Guess the date of these quotations

1.  “Against the continued advance of a tide of unjustified claims to benefit there are two main lines of defence. The first is the adoption of measures to secure that a proper standard is applied in the issue of medical certificates for incapacity while the second consists in strengthening the safeguards to be adopted by [decision makers] in connection with the supervision of claims”.

2.  “A life of idleness is bad for [her], and in our judgment she would have no difficulty in the present state of the domestic labour market, in obtaining suitable remunerative employment which is well within her physical capacity. In her own best interests we strongly recommend the appellant to get work”.

3.  “A … person may be regarded as incapable of work because he is unable to travel to work, but it does not follow that because he is unable to travel to his former employment he is entitled to sickness benefit. It is the duty of a .. person to do what is reasonably necessary to regain his position as a wage earner and so overcome the effects of any physical disability which he may be under”.

[answers at the bottom of the page]

Implications for benefits today

 These quotations show that policy makers have been worrying about how to define incapacity for work since the very first sickness benefits in 1911.  This concern has led to tough and intrusive mechanisms for checking up on people across the 20th century.  The continuing theme which we can see in the development of incapacity benefits is one of distrust:  that people cannot be trusted to claim benefits honestly and that there must always be mechanisms for checking up on them and keeping them in line.  There has also been a continuing argument that ‘work is good for you’ and that people have a duty to get back to work as soon as possible after illness or disability.

Critics of disability benefits policies today argue that access to benefits has become more difficult, first of all by the redefinition of ‘incapacity for work’ brought about by Employment and Support Allowance and, secondly, by the introduction of work requirements for claimants.  Both of these changes to benefits policy have made life more difficult for people claiming benefits but the ideas behind them are not new.

The relationship to poverty

So what does this have to do with poverty?  It is well established that people with health problems and disabilities find it more difficult to get work, to stay in work and to earn adequate wages and that these difficulties are intensified for people with low educational qualifications.  So ‘incapacity for work’ has a direct link with poverty.  If the benefits paid to people because they are unable to work (or to find work) are kept deliberately low, poverty becomes even further entrenched.  It is even worse for those who are refused benefits when the definition of incapacity for work is tightly drawn. Policy makers claim that they make it difficult to claim benefits and that they keep payments low in order to ‘make work pay’ and to encourage people get back to work.  That is all very well when decently paid work is available and the barriers to work are removed.  But so long as these barriers exist, people will need adequate benefit payments to keep them out of poverty.

Dates of quotations

  1. 1931 Ministry of Health circular ‘National Health Insurance control of Expenditure on Sickness and Disablement Benefits’
  2. 1920 Appeal hearing against a refusal of sickness benefit
  3. 1917 Annual report of National Health Insurance Committee

 Further reading

Bambra, C. (2011) Work, worklessness and the political economy of health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roulstone, A. and Prideaux, S. (2012) Understanding Disability Policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

More about this research

Dr Jackie Gulland is carrying out research on the history of incapacity benefits across the twentieth century, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. To find out more about this research, go to

The Challenge of Poverty and Inequality in Post-Independent Referendum Scotland!

Gerry MooneyFaculty of Social Sciences, The Open University in Scotland, Edinburgh

The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum reminded us – as if we needed reminding – that poverty, disadvantage and inequality are significant factors shaping contemporary Scotland and much of Scottish society. In the early hours of Friday, September 19, as the results from across the country began to flood in, it was already evident that poverty and affluence were key factors that influenced the vote. It is now widely recognised that the poorer and more disadvantaged the locality – the more likely it was to vote YES – and of course the converse is the same for those areas that are more affluent.

In important ways, the Independence debate was not just about conflicting constitutional futures but was more about the kind of society Scotland could become. Here issues of disadvantage, poverty, inequality and equality were central and the overall campaign by supporters of Scottish Independence was fought on a terrain that was not nationalist in any real sense – but revolved around what might be termed, very broadly, questions of ‘social justice’.

That the entire independence debate was repeatedly drawn to issues of social justice and injustice, and to the impacts of Tory austerity and neoliberalism, allowed those who are interested in challenging these policies and addressing poverty to debate the way forward. New organisations and movements were formed, new ideas developed and a new commitment to rebuilding Scottish society energised and politicised large sections of the population as never before.

The degree of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland today shows the extent to which our society is scarred by the impact of the policy approaches of successive governments and rising levels of inequality. Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, shows in very clear terms the ‘headline’ poverty statistics that:

  • 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).
  • 200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children).
  • Poverty in Scotland is significantly higher than in many other European countries
  • Poverty exists across Scotland. Nearly all local authorities in Scotland have council wards where over 20% of their children live in poverty.

The picture for the period ahead points to an increase in poverty with austerity measures already in place beginning to bite. By 2020 it is estimated that an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be living in poverty.

There are several reasons for this bleak picture. The Prime Minister’s claim that a ‘new age of austerity’ was required, meaning large scale cuts in public expenditure, was accompanied by a new phase of what is euphemistically termed  ‘welfare reform’.  Austerity was never going to be ‘fair’ in its impact – nor was it intended to be. It was a political project, a class project to redistribute wealth and income to those who are privileged. It was a clear strategy to reduce fiscal deficit by slashing public spending and services, and to cut pensions and other welfare benefits. These cuts impact most adversely on those who are already among the most disadvantaged in society. But it also an assault on the very social contract that was held by successive generations of people to be a core part of UK citizenship. Such cuts are also about restoring conditions for profit and wealth accumulation, which is nothing other than the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.

UK Government welfare reforms have been criticised by the Scottish Government as out of step not only with the wishes of voters in Scotland but also as seriously at odds with ‘Scottish values’. Much of this is related to other claims that Scottish voters and the wider public in Scotland is in some way less hostile to people in receipt of benefit, that negative attitudes to welfare are more diluted in Scotland. Throughout the past 2 years, leading Scottish Ministers have repeatedly made forays into the welfare debate.  The SNP have seized on UK Government welfare reforms to advance the case that only an Independent Scotland with a distinctive Scottish welfare state is true to the foundations of the post-war UK welfare state. This has also opened-up the terrain for a more progressive debate around poverty and how it should be tackled.

As was highlighted at the outset, the debate that emerged around Scottish Independence was a debate around the kind of society Scotland could be. That as part of this there was discussion over the future of Scotland’s welfare system brings into sharp focus the question of poverty and of inequality – but also wider issues of the kind of economy and society that would be necessary for the eradication of poverty. That this is leading to new thinking around new forms of welfare system is positive. However, the challenge is also to advance the issue of poverty in a way that is free of stigma and disrespect now. We cannot afford to wait for future constitutional arrangements – devolution more, devolution max or some form of federalism – to be rolled out before addressing poverty and inequality.

In the Independence debate the notion of ‘Common Weal’ as the basis of a distinctively Scottish welfare system rose to some prominence. In a series of papers published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, proponents of the Common Weal have advocated a far reaching vision of Scotland as a fairer, progressive and more sustainable society. Looking to some of the fairest economic and social policies in the Nordic countries, it places an attack on entrenched inequality and wealth by a completely revamped taxation system that would enable better quality, well-funded public services. Social goals would drive economic development, not the pursuit of private profit. A new set of principles would underpin a Scottish welfare state, in the form of contract between people in Scotland delivered through the state. The Radical Independence Campaign further drew our attention to the sharp realities of a class divided Scotland, highlighting the huge inequalities in income and wealth that are also a feature of Scottish society and which are often overlooked. A major redistribution of income and wealth and an assault on vested interests and entrenched privilege it is argued is central to an effective anti-poverty policy.

Scotland is, despite myths of collectiveness and a Scottish ‘national interest’, a society marked by class divisions and inequalities. Not only does this manifest itself in the huge and wider levels of poverty but in the huge advantages that Scotland’s rich enjoy today and, in the SNP vision of an Independent but low tax and competitive Scotland, would continue to enjoy. The Independence Referendum debates have thrown-up the possibility of building a new Scotland, a socialist Scotland in which the vested interests, privilege and advantages of the affluent will be seriously challenged. A massive programme of redistribution and investment in social welfare, care and sustainable employment are crucial. Only through this will poverty and disadvantage be addressed once and for all.


Dr Gerry Mooney is co-editor of Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, is published by the Child Poverty Action Group, 2014) and is available (together with a sample chapter) from:

You can also follow Gerry’s work on Openlearn and on The Conversation