Chapter 7: Public Attitudes and Behaviour
This chapter of the report examines public attitudes and behaviour, drawing on evidence from four key sources:
- recent opinion polling carried out on behalf of the Scottish Government among a representative sample of the general population across Scotland
- accounts of lived experience from the Scottish Government's People's Panel for Wellbeing
- qualitative research with low income families and stakeholders
- evidence from the Poverty and Inequality Commission's September Cost of Living Briefing - (based on visits to community organisations and from the Commission's Experts by Experience Panel)
Findings are summarised in the following sections: the mood of the nation; concerns relating to the cost of living; how rising costs have affected people in Scotland; behaviour change in response to rising costs; and views on what needs to be done to address the cost of living situation.
The mood of the nation
Opinion polling conducted by YouGov for the Scottish Government at the end of September 2022 found a high level of anxiety amongst the general population in Scotland, driven mainly by financial concerns:
- after falling in June to the lowest level seen this year (24%), optimism that things will start to get better soon remained low at 29% (similar to 27% in August)
- just under two fifths of people (39%) reported high levels of anxiety, up from 34% in June to one of the highest levels recorded since March 2020, with people as anxious now as they were during the pandemic other than during the first lockdown
- one third (33%) agreed that they are worried about their mental health.
Looking to the year ahead, financial concerns (whether rising energy/fuel prices (60%), inflation in general (38%), rising cost of groceries (39%) or household finances (36%)) continue to be most mentioned as the top three concerns. However, concern about rising energy prices has declined from 65% in August – potentially reflecting the UK Government Energy Price Guarantee announcement. The war in Ukraine (at 23%), delays/ backlogs in NHS treatment/ operations of non-COVID related issues (at 22%) and new strains emerging, causing outbreaks of coronavirus requiring restrictions (6%) remain less prominent as top three concerns than seen earlier in the year, although concern about the war in Ukraine has increased from 17% in August.
Most of the community organisations spoken to as part of the Poverty and Inequality Commission's research described an increase in demand for their services. They acknowledged, however, that this is not simply in response to the cost of living, but in many cases demand had increased as a result of the pandemic and had not reduced since. This is consistent with data from the third sector included in Chapter 6 above.
Some of these organisations reported a change in the profile of people seeking support from them, with more people who are experiencing in-work poverty and whose income is just marginally above the level where they would be eligible for benefits.
Many members of the Scottish Government's People's Panel talked about the negative impact on physical and mental health caused by the pandemic on individuals (especially disabled people and children), communities, businesses and services. They discussed how they felt that the damage done by the pandemic was not yet being addressed and now may not be addressed because of the cost of living crisis – leaving them with a deep sense of pessimism.
Concerns relating to the cost of living
Opinion polling found that at the end of September around four in five agreed they are worried about the impact of the current cost of living crisis on businesses across Scotland (81%) and the knock-on effect of this on themselves (79%), although strong agreement on the latter has declined from 41% in August to 34%. Over three quarters (77%) agreed that this financial crisis feels more worrying than others in the past, and two thirds (67%) agreed that it will have a long-term negative impact on them and their families – both representing slight decreases on a month ago (from 84% and 75% respectively).
For People's Panel members with children, their concerns had built up from worry about suffering of their children during the pandemic to now having to "go without" as the cost of living crisis hits.
The qualitative low income families research revealed that at this time, given the pressures on household finances, many goals that normally seem achievable (such as health and happiness, avoiding getting into financial difficulty, reducing stress and ensuring their children don't miss out) feel out of reach for many parents. Low income families are facing multiple layers of anxiety and this is compounded by financial pressures, leaving them ultimately feeling unable to get on with life.
Based on its visits to community organisations, the Poverty and Inequality Commission stated in its September briefing that the cost of living crisis is becoming a mental health crisis. A number of the organisations highlighted the cumulative impact of first the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis on mental health. Debt and inability to buy food and pay bills is leaving people stressed and anxious, and increasing numbers of service users are experiencing mental health concerns.
A member of the Poverty and Inequality Commission Experts by Experience Panel commented:
"It's downright upsetting. This uncertainty. This feeling of impending doom that seems to permeate life now. It feels like there is no way out of it. It just feels hopeless at the minute."
The Scottish Government's People's Panel members echoed the findings above. For some members the crisis has escalated from initial worries and anxieties into mental health problems. Some also reported fearing for their physical health this winter. As one member said:
"I'm resigned to being ill over winter. I can't see how I can keep warm and feed myself, something's got to give."
How rising costs have affected people in Scotland
The August polling data found that over a fifth (23%) of the general population are 'not managing very well' with household finances or are 'in financial difficulty' or 'in deep financial trouble', while almost half (47%) are 'getting by okay' and 27% managing 'quite' or 'very' well. This was first measured at the start of November 2021 and the profile changed quite considerably in the intervening time. While the proportion managing less well at the end of August had changed little since June, there was an increase in the proportion saying that they are 'getting by okay' (from 40% to 47%) and a corresponding decrease in the proportion managing well, illustrating the extent to which the impact of rising costs and inflation is continuing to spread throughout the population. In September, there were some fluctuations but the picture is broadly similar to August.
A further indicator of the deterioration of the situation between June and August, and in the longer term, is the increase seen in the proportions who said they are extremely or very concerned about paying bills (24%) and providing for their household (22%) a month from now (up from 19% and 18% respectively in June).
In September, however, concern on these measures decreased to 18% saying they are extremely or very concerned about paying bills a month from now and 18% extremely or very concerned about providing for their household a month from now – thought to potentially reflect the UK Government Energy Price Guarantee announcement. The results for 'providing for my household' are shown in Figure 17 below.
In September polling, over two fifths (43%) reported struggling somewhat or a lot to pay for non-essentials (such as going out and on holiday), while just over a fifth said they are struggling to pay for each of grocery shopping and essential travel, and household bills - both at 22% and fairly similar to the figure of 25% seen for each in August. Overall, nearly half (48%) are struggling to pay for any of these, unchanged since August but increased from 37% in June.
In terms of wider impact, September polling found that mental health (48%) and physical health (33%) were felt to have been negatively impacted (to a large extent or to some extent) by the rising cost of living. Two fifths (39%) reported this to be the case for spending time / connecting with others. Just over one third (35%) of parents said that the cost of living situation has negatively impacted their child(ren)'s development, while three in ten (30%) of those not retired said that the cost of living situation has negatively impacted their job prospects.
Among those who felt that their mental / physical health has been affected by the cost of living situation, trouble sleeping (50%), unable to afford to go out / do leisure activities (49%) and a cold house (45%) are the most common factors felt to have caused this. Two fifths (39%) also referenced reduced contact with friends and family and a third (33%) changes to diet.
Those who are managing less well financially (survey respondents who reported 'not managing very well' or 'having some financial difficulties' or 'in deep financial trouble') are not just facing financial issues. September polling indicated that they are:
- more likely to be highly anxious (57% vs 40% among those getting by okay and 26% among those managing well)
- more likely to be worried about their mental health (56% vs 31% vs 22% respectively)
- less likely to feel optimistic (22% vs 28% vs 35% respectively agree things will start to get better soon)
Over half (56%) are extremely or very concerned that they won't be able to pay their bills in a month's time (although down from 65% last month) and 49% that they won't be able to provide for their household in a month's time (down from 60% last month).
Just under two thirds are struggling (a lot / somewhat) to pay for grocery shopping and essential travel (64%) and to pay household bills (67%). The vast majority (85%) are struggling to pay for non-essential items.
Agreement that this financial crisis feels more worrying than others in the past stands at 88% among those managing less well, while agreement that it will have a long-term negative impact on them and their families stands at 92%. Mental health (76%) and physical health (63%) are felt to have been negatively impacted by the rising cost of living at particularly high levels among this group, while 61% reported that their social contact (spending time / connecting with others) has been negatively impacted.
The qualitative research with low income families made clear the scope and scale of the financial pressures being experienced – from those who are extremely worried about the future to those who are already not managing to avoid debt. Participants explained that financial pressures span all areas of their life, going beyond food, heat and housing. Many participants recognised that their children are missing out through a lack of experiences (holidays, days trips, entertainment), extra-curricular activities and support with learning. At the extreme, this group can be left feeling helpless. Rural families face significant challenges primarily due to their reliance on cars, a lack of local value grocery shopping options and energy costs.
People's Panel members reported overwhelming concerns for their children's long-term mental health. Members with children talked about crippling guilt at the sacrifices they've had to make:
"We've given up our car, we never eat out or have a takeaway so my child's life will be very different and the guilt eats me."
More generally some People's Panel members reported feeling stigma at having to use food banks and community larders and at not being able to travel to see sick relatives or buy presents for their grandchildren.
The above findings are consistent with findings in the Poverty and Inequality Commission briefing. Household costs for energy, food, transport and debt are a big concern reported by the organisations visited, with households struggling to pay energy bills and buy food. One organisation reported that people who use their service are skipping meals and changing their cooking habits. One of the Experts by Experience panel members talked about missing meals:
"I can't remember the last time I had three proper meals. I take a lot of pain meds and I need to take them with food. At the minute I might get one proper meal in the evening. For breakfast and lunch it's just a slice of toast, maybe a biscuit to take with the meds."
One of the community organisations stated:
"People are not using cooking facilities due to fear of the cost of them - food preferences have changed as a result, e.g. pot noodles that they only need to boil the kettle for."
Energy costs are causing problems for families and some organisations described people's plans to stop direct debits in October (prior to the announcement of the UK Government's energy price guarantee), risking being cut off. Those already using gas camping stoves and heaters because they cannot afford gas or electricity from the grid - causing condensation and risk of fire. Debt was another significant issue highlighted by some organisations, particularly council tax debt, which one organisation flagged as having mainly been built up during the pandemic.
Behaviour change in response to rising costs
Regardless of their current financial situation, many people have changed their behaviour in response to the rising cost of living. Just under four fifths of the general population (79%) said they have taken action to help manage their household finances in the last six months, including: reducing home energy use (60%), spending less on non-essentials (54%) and cutting back on luxury items (54%). One fifth (20%) have cut back on essential items such as food. This is illustrated in Figure 18.
Among those managing less well financially, the vast majority (90%) acknowledged action in the past six months. 66% have taken steps to reduce home energy use and 66% have spent less on non-essential items or activities.52% have cut back on essential items such as food (vs 17% for those getting by okay financially and 3% for those managing well), 39% have used savings (vs 39% and 16% respectively) and 26% have taken a loan / borrowed money / used credit (vs 8% and 1% respectively).
The majority of Scottish Government's People's Panel members reported changing their behaviour due to rising costs of food, clothing, domestic fuel and transport – amongst other things. Many observed similar adjustments among their families, friends, and their communities. For food shopping this ranges from some members being "mindful" of what they buy to others "tightening their belts", for example, buying margarine instead of butter, and tinned or frozen food instead of fresh. Others have stopped visits to the shops and relied more and more on foodbanks and food parcels and using leftovers rather than cooking fresh each day. Members using foodbanks and parcels have also noticed a decrease in both the quality and the quantity of the food.
People's Panel members reported buying clothes less frequently and therefore wearing older clothes, and buying second hand. Some members said that they find trying to keep warm a constant problem. Being disabled and unable to leave the house is a particular issue with the need for heating. Members spoke of layering on jumpers, using hot-water bottles, not lighting the fire, staying totally in one room in the house. Saving electricity in other ways has become the norm for some, with people cutting down on the number of hot drinks they have, only using the microwave not the hob or oven and sitting in the dark. For some members travel of any type is seen as an unaffordable luxury, including local journeys. One member talked about being unable to go to college unless she walked some distance, as she couldn't afford the bus fare of £4.
Views on what needs to be done to address the cost of living
The research summarised here suggests that people in Scotland have a range of views about the changes and initiatives that need to be made to address the cost of living crisis.
Polling at the end of September found that almost a quarter (24%) of the general population think that the amount of support provided by the Scottish Government is about right, while 16% say the same for the UK Government. Although slightly improved from August (prior to the announcement of the UK Government Energy Price Guarantee) when Scottish Government stood at 20% and UK Government at 11%, both levels remain low, with around two thirds (68%) saying there is not enough support provided by the UK Government compared with 50% for Scottish Government. 14% and 23% respectively are unsure what they feel about it.
The qualitative research with low income families suggested that any support provided will ideally need to address a number of challenges. This includes structural changes that can reduce household costs, help to access benefits and financial support and help to get (back) into work or into an improved working situation, as well as the importance of maintaining public and third sector services that these families rely on. It will also need to be communicated to those in need to ensure they are aware but also in a way that encourages engagement and minimises stigma.
Polling at the end of September identified a number of barriers to seeking financial support: four in ten (40%) agreed they would feel embarrassed seeking support for their finances, only two in ten (20%) agreed they feel confident that financial help and support is available and only three in ten (30%) agreed they know where to go to find financial help and support.
The organisations consulted by the Poverty and Inequality Commission talked about 'the perfect storm ahead'. They are struggling due to the increased community need for their services and the unstable higher costs of providing them. Many talked about the challenges of expanding their support and serving more people, with the same amount or less funding.
Nearly all the organisations raised the issue of funding in the light of rising energy and other costs. The additional funding provided by Scottish Government during the pandemic due to the increased demand was spoken about very positively by those who had received it to support frontline work. However, that funding has now ended but demand has not reduced and in most cases, is increasing. Some organisations said they are finding it ever more difficult and stressful to cover their core costs.
For some organisations, the combination of rising costs and static funding is having an impact on staff recruitment and retention, as staff are forced to look for better paid and more secure work.
People's Panel members echoed the findings above reporting that they would support the UK Government and the Scottish Government giving more financial help to third-sector organisations.
A further expectation from some panel members is for more help to be given to small businesses, especially in rural communities where there are often no alternative shops or services. These businesses, they reported, are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic and their rising costs could add to pressure on their sustainability.
This chapter examines public attitudes and behaviour in response to the cost of living crisis. There is a high level of public anxiety related to rising prices and inflation, similar to that seen during much of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people are concerned about how they will meet their basic needs and concerned about the effects that rising prices will have on them and their families. The situation appears to have worsened over recent months, albeit slightly alleviated following the September 2022 UK Government Energy Price Guarantee announcement. There is evidence that people are changing behaviour in response, with many making difficult choices. This is particularly the case among low income families who are cutting back on food and/or heating, and are very concerned about the impact on their children.
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