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.

This document is part of a collection

2. British Attitudes To Poverty

2.1. This section presents findings relating to views on definitions of poverty and their implications on engaging the public in discussions around poverty; views on items and activities necessary to participate in society; and trends over time in attitudes to poverty.

Definitions of poverty and ways of engaging the public

2.2. Researchers have been interested to explore how poverty is conceptualised and understood and to explore how this changes over time. Recent qualitative research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in 2013/14 found that the word poverty itself was seen as problematic. It was felt to be too emotive a term - something associated with the problems of the developing world, rather than the UK. This led participants to feel disengaged when hearing about poverty, as they could feel that the problem was being overstated. In addition, those who lived in poverty were themselves uncomfortable with the term as they found it stigmatising.

2.3. Participants did not accept the widely used relative income measure as an accurate definition of poverty. They did not feel that poverty and relative income inequality were the same and that while income inequality was inevitable - someone has to be at the bottom of the distribution - being at the bottom did not necessarily mean that someone would have to be poor in the sense of struggling to meet basic needs.

2.4. Participants preferred talking about 'an inability to meet basic needs' or 'a lack of resources' rather than about 'poverty'. There was a feeling that an income-based measure did not fully capture the experience of being in poverty, and that outgoings such as childcare costs and debt should be taken into consideration. Poverty was so felt to be about a lack of social capital as well as material resource and to have psychological impacts, and research participants therefore felt that these should be taken into account when defining poverty.

2.5. In terms of engaging the public, communications about poverty taking a life-course view, e.g. showing the impact of being a child in poverty once that person becomes an adult, were thought to have more impact than snap-shots of poverty.

2.6. Multi-agency solutions, including government and others such as employers were seen as necessary to tackle poverty.

Definitions of necessities of life

2.7. The Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) "Necessities of Life" Survey 2012 investigated what items respondents felt were necessary to be able to participate in society: these are items that a majority thinks adults and, separately, children should not have to go without.

2.8. The survey included a sample boost in 2011 and separate Scottish analysis is available for 2011 and 2012. However, the 2012 sample is very small and reliability of findings is limited. Analysis has shown that Scottish respondents held almost identical views on what should be necessities as respondents in the survey overall and therefore UK findings are presented here. This also has the advantage of providing a longer time series for how views have changed over time.

2.9. There was a high level of agreement over what children need. In 2012, a warm winter coat (97%) fruit and vegetables daily (96%), new properly fitting shoes (93%) and three meals a day (93%) were seen as a necessity for children by nearly all respondents. In terms of activities, celebrations for special occasions (91%); a hobby (88%); and a weekly toddler group or nursery for pre-school children (87%); and were seen as a necessity by around 9 in 10 survey respondents.

2.10. Slightly fewer, but over half thought that a computer and internet for homework (67%), some new clothes (65%), family day trips once a month (60%), school trips once a term (55%) and pocket money (54%) were a necessity.

2.11. Items or activities not considered necessary for full participation in society, defined as being selected by less than half of respondents, included a mobile phone for children over 11 (26%), clothes to fit in with friends (31%), a bicycle (45%), and having friends round once a fortnight (49%).

2.12. Expectations of what children need have remained relatively stable between 2012 and the comparable survey in 1999, and where there was no pattern evident in the direction of changes where they did occur. Some items were more widely described as necessities in 2012, including a computer and internet for homework (a 25 percentage point difference, which can be explained by rapid technological change); a garden or outdoor space for playing in safely (24 percentage point difference); and meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent once a day (13 percentage point difference). Other items were less likely to be seen as essentials in 2012, including going on a school trip once a term (19 percentage points); a holiday away from home once a year (18 percentage points); and at least four pairs of trousers (13 percentage points).

2.13. For adults, there was also broad consensus, although slightly less so than for children. The most commonly mentioned items were essentials for survival, such as being able to keep the home adequately warm (96%); a damp free home (94%) and two meals a day (91%). Only one activity was selected as a necessity by nine in ten, visiting friends/family in hospital (90%).

2.14. Other items seen as necessities by more than half but included fresh fruit or veg every day (83%), a telephone (77%), and clothes for job interviews (69%). In terms of activities, celebrations for special occasions (80%); the ability to go to weddings, funerals and other such occasions (79%); and a hobby or leisure activity (70%) were also selected by a high percentage.

2.15. A much larger proportion of items and activities were defined as non-necessities, including going out socially one a fortnight (34%); being able to replace worn out furniture (39%); a home computer (40%); a car (45%); and presents for friends or family once a year (46%).

2.16. There was more change between 1999 and 2012 than for the child necessities, and in general people became less generous. Percentages identifying basic necessities such as food and adequate housing as necessities remained broadly the same, but there is evidence that in a climate of constrained economic conditions and austerity these are being prioritised over more discretionary items, including expectations of a social life.

2.17. Two items to do with technological change, a computer and assess to the internet, were more likely to be seen as necessities (by 29 and 35 percentage points respectively), but most other items were less likely to be described as necessities. This includes having a small amount of money to spend on oneself weekly (19 percentage points), being able to save £20 a month for a rainy day (14 percentage points) and keeping the home in a decent state of decoration (12 percentage points).

2.18. All PSE responses were very similar across gender, ethnicity, occupation, income level, education, housing tenure, family type, region and political affiliation.

Trends in attitudes to poverty

2.19. The British Social Attitudes Survey has regularly asked questions on attitudes to poverty and welfare over time between 1983 and 2011. The BSA asks about poverty more frequently and in more detail than the SSA, so in many cases no comparable Scottish data is available. However, as noted above, where both British and Scottish data exists, attitudes tend to be quite similar, so it is reasonable to use British data as a proxy for public attitudes in Scotland.

2.20. This section considers attitudes to levels of poverty, the causes of poverty and on how to engage the public and build support for action.

2.21. The majority of people thought that there was 'quite a lot' of real poverty in Britain.In 2013, 62% thought there was quite a lot of poverty in Britain (as opposed to 'very little' poverty). This compares to 58% saying there was 'quite a lot of poverty' in 2009. Perceptions of poverty levels were found to be linked to economic circumstances, with the view that there is 'quite a lot of poverty' increasing during and after the early 1990s recession and the late 2000s recession, as shown in Figure 1, where the recessionary periods are marked in grey.

2.22. It should be noted that no definition of what 'quite a lot' or 'very little' means was offered alongside the questions, and the response therefore reflects individual interpretations, which may differ widely between respondents. However, variations in definitions should fluctuate randomly and even each other out over the sample as a whole.

Figure 1 - Public perceptions of levels of poverty in Britain, by UK recessions, 1986-2009

Public perceptions of levels of poverty in Britain

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey; after Clery et al (2013), p.9

2.23. In 2013, 64% of BSA respondents thought that poverty had risen in the past ten years, an increase from 47% in 2009. This is contrary to actual changes in poverty rates, which show a fall over the last decade. However, perceptions of recent changes in poverty levels were also found to be linked to economic circumstances, in line with perceptions of what levels are.

2.24. In terms of expectations of the future, in 2009 over half (56%) thought poverty would increase over the next decade, 29% thought it would stay the same and 11% thought it would decline. These percentages have remained relatively stable since the question was first asked in 1986.

2.25. Qualitative JRF research undertaken in 2013/14 found that, in general, attitudes towards poverty had remained relatively stable, with similar findings to research carried out in 2007 and 2009. There was a continued distinction being drawn between the 'deserving' poor, who were seen to be in poverty through no fault of their own, e.g. due to disability, and the 'undeserving' poor who were seen to have 'chosen' a life in poverty by not working or getting into debt to fund non-essential spending. However, difficult economic circumstances in recent years had led to a slight softening of people's views. Work was not seen as a guaranteed route out of poverty, and there was a feeling that poverty could affect anyone, due to current economic uncertainties. Findings on causes of poverty are discussed further in paragraph 2.28 below

2.26. The view that people live in need because of individual rather than societal factors has become more prevalent.In 2010, BSA respondents were asked why they thought that people lived in need. They were presented with four options and asked which was closest to their own view. 35% thought that living in need was an inevitable part of modern life; 23% saying that it was due to laziness or lack of will power; 21% that it was due to injustice in society; and 13% because people in poverty have been unlucky, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2 - Reasons why people live in need in Britain, 2010

Reasons why people live in need in Britain

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey

2.27. Over time, the view that people live in need because of individual factors (laziness or lack of willpower) has become more prevalent, whilst an explanation focused on social justice (injustice in our society) has become less common. In 1994, 15% thought people lived in need because of laziness or a lack of willpower, compared to 23% in 2010. During the same period, the percentage giving 'injustice in society' as a reason for people living in need declined from 29% to 21%, as shown in Figure 3.

2.28. The view that people live in need because they have been unlucky has never been widely held, but became slightly more common during the early 1990s and late 2000s recession.

2.29. In the qualitative JRF research in 2013/14, participants identified numerous causes of poverty. These fell into three broad categories:

  • First, current economic and structural causes were seen to be the greatest cause of poverty, e.g. cost of living, lack of available jobs, low paid or unstable employment, in-work poverty and welfare cuts.
  • Second, long-term structural causes were identified, relating to aspirational and opportunity aspects of poverty and inter-generational poverty.
  • Third, causes relating to individuals were also identified, including those that people can't control, such as ill-health and disability, and caring responsibilities, and those relating to life choices, such as substance abuse. A distinction was made between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. However, poor personal choices tended not to be seen as the cause of poverty but were often described as an outcome of poverty. This differs from survey findings, which were more likely to place responsibility for poverty onto individuals living in poverty.

Figure 3 - Views on causes of people living in need in Britain, 1986-2010

Views on causes of people living in need in Britain

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey; after Clery et al (2013), p13


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