Public Attitudes to Poverty, Inequality and Welfare in Scotland and Britain

This report sets out public attitudes to poverty, inequality and welfare in Scotland and Britain, from a range of previously published sources. The report focuses on Scottish findings wherever possible, presenting British data as a proxy where Scottish data is not available.

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Key Findings

This report sets out public attitudes to poverty, inequality and welfare in Scotland and in Britain. When the same question is asked in both Scotland and Britain as a whole, findings are broadly similar (though any significant divergences are noted). British figures are therefore presented as a proxy where Scottish data is not available.

There is a high level of concern about poverty and inequality and support for government action

  • In 2013, nearly all people in Scotland (98%) felt it was important to tackle child poverty.
  • Three-quarters felt that tackling child poverty is the job of the Scottish Government, although a wide range of agents were seen to have a role to play.
  • 83% of people said that the gap between those on high incomes and those on low incomes was too large.

right arrow Policy implication: The findings provide a clear mandate for Scottish government action to tackle poverty.

Views on the nature of government intervention are mixed

  • In 2014, 48% of respondents in Scotland agreed that the government should redistribute income from the better off to the less well off, while 25% disagreed.
  • Almost half of people (48%) thought that taxes and public spending should be kept at the same level, while a large minority (44%) thought they should be increased. Only 4% thought that taxes and spending should be decreased.
  • In Britain as a whole, support for extra spending on benefits declined between the 1980s and 2011, but increased in 2012 and 2013.

right arrow Policy implication: The mixed views underline the importance on engagement on these issues and gaining a clearer understanding of the range of views and the motivations that underpin them, as well as the experiences of those that live in poverty.

Knowledge of poverty levels and policies is limited

  • Only 20% of survey respondents in 2013 in Britain accurately estimated child poverty rates.
  • Perceptions of changes in poverty levels over recent decades were linked to economic circumstances: the view that 'poverty has increased in the last ten years' increased sharply after the early 1990s recession and during the late 2000s recession. However, there was no similar recognition of the fall in the poverty rate over the last decade.

right arrow Policy implication: Evidence shows that people may disengage from poverty issues if they feel the problem is overstated. This highlights the importance of wider dissemination of poverty figures to promote a more realistic picture.

Official definitions of poverty do not resonate with the public

  • In British qualitative research carried out in 2013/2014, participants believed official income-based poverty measures to be too narrow, as poverty was considered to be about more than just income. The term poverty was seen as more appropriate to conditions in the developing world and was seen to overstate the problem.
  • Research participants preferred terminology around 'ability to meet basic needs' and conceptions of poverty considering access to a wide range of material and social resources.
  • There was a high level of public agreement in 2012 about the 'necessities of life' everyone should have access to. The most basic essentials for living such as a heated and damp free home and two meals a day were agreed as necessities by nearly everyone. However, some activities and basic participation in social life, such as being able to visit friends of family in hospital, were also widely seen as necessities.
  • While survey respondents became slightly less generous since 1999 about necessities for adults, responding to the climate of austerity, definitions have stayed remarkably stable since the 1980s. The agreed set of necessities for children showed almost no change over the period.

right arrow Policy implication: Given the strongly-shared understanding of necessities, communications drawing on needs-based definitions may help build public engagement in, and support of, policies to tackle poverty.

Individual explanations of poverty are more common than structural explanations and attitudes have hardened over recent years

  • In 2010 in Britain, 23% of people thought that people live in need because of laziness or a lack of willpower, while 21% thought it was due to injustice in society. Attitudes have hardened over time, with the individual explanation increasing from 15% in 1994, and the structural explanation decreasing from 29% in the same year.
  • Looking at child poverty specifically, 72% of people in Scotland in 2013 felt that this was caused by individual factors such as parents not wanting to work, with only 28% attributing it to structural factors such as inadequate social security payments. Parental alcoholism, drug abuse or other addiction was perceived as the most common main cause of child poverty in Scotland.
  • Qualitative research carried out in Britain 2013/2014, which explored the issues via in-depth discussion, found arguably a more nuanced attitude towards those in poverty. Current economic and structural factors were seen as the greatest cause of poverty, although long-term structural causes and causes relating to individuals were also identified. There was a recognition that poor personal choices may be an outcome, rather than a cause, of poverty.

right arrow Policy implication: There may be a role for government in promoting a more realistic and balanced understanding of the causes of poverty and the barriers faced by poor people. The qualitative evidence shows that the public appreciate the complexities of causes when given an opportunity to consider them fully.

right arrow Policy implication: The findings suggest that poverty reduction policies focused on supporting individuals overcome personal barriers, such as targeted employability services, are particularly likely to gain public support.

Negative attitudes to welfare recipients are widespread

  • In 2013, negative perceptions of welfare recipients were held by a considerable proportion of the British population. A substantial minority of between 29 and 35% of people, depending on the benefit, thought that benefit recipients should feel at least somewhat ashamed to be claiming.
  • Attitudes towards additional spending on welfare differed substantially depending on the type of benefit, with the majority supporting increased spending for carers, working parents on low incomes and disabled people unable to work, but only 15% supporting additional spending on unemployment benefits.
  • In Britain in 2013, 54% thought that most unemployed people in their area could find a job if they wanted one. Views on this question stayed at about the same level since 2009, but other attitudes to unemployed people hardened.
  • Scottish people's attitudes towards unemployed people softened slightly between 2013 and 2014. In 2014, 47% felt that unemployment benefits were too high and discouraged people who were out of work from finding jobs, compared to 52% in 2013. This represented a reversal of the hardening of attitudes between 2010 and 2013.

right arrow Policy implication: There is strong evidence that stigmatisation of welfare recipients has negative impacts on their well-being and may reduce benefit take up. This suggests that addressing stigma may make existing anti-poverty policies more effective and help maximise incomes.

There is a lack of understanding of welfare issues

  • In 2013 in Britain, 44% felt that benefits for a single unemployed person were not enough to live on. This rose to 56% when respondents were told the true amount of benefit payments.
  • People in Britain in 2012 very substantially overestimated the extent of benefit fraud. On average, respondents thought 25% of benefit claims were fraudulent, compared to official estimates of 2%.

right arrow Policy implication: Government communications could usefully focus on how much money people in poverty (and on benefits) actually have.


Email: Communities Analystical Services

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