Publication - Research and analysis

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

Published: 24 Mar 2015

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.

Public Attitudes to Poverty, Inequality and Welfare in Scotland and Britain
7. Discussion

7. Discussion

7.1. This paper has set out a wide range of mainly quantitative data on attitudes to poverty and welfare. These findings show a complex picture of views that do not necessarily point to a single avenue for policy action. This section attempts to review the key themes across the evidence base and to identify policy implications where possible.

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

7.2. Evidence shows that poverty is recognised as a serious issue by the Scottish public. Almost everyone surveyed said that it is important to tackle child poverty, and a large majority felt that the gap between those on high incomes and those on low incomes was too large. A majority also agreed that welfare reform is damaging to children.

7.3. Three quarters felt that it was the job of the Scottish Government to tackle child poverty, with nearly as many saying that the UK government had a role to play. This provides a clear mandate for Scottish Government action to tackle child poverty.

Views on the nature of government intervention are mixed

7.4. While there is a high level of agreement that government should take action on poverty and inequality, when people are asked about specific actions government might take, views are more mixed.

7.5. In general, more people in Scotland are in favour of progressive policies than are opposed, and Scottish views are slightly more generous than those in the rest of Britain. For example, almost half agreed that government should be redistributing from the rich to the poor, while a quarter disagreed, and a large minority of 44% in Scotland were in favour of increasing taxation and public spending while almost no one was in favour of decreasing taxation and spending. In terms of attitudes towards welfare reforms, 40% opposed any cuts as part of welfare reform, while 27% were in favour of reducing welfare budgets. However, it is worth noting that on taxation and spending, almost half are in favour of keeping levels as they are.

7.6. This lack of agreement about the form government action should take serves to underline the importance of engagement on these issues across Scotland and of gaining a clearer understanding of the range of views and the motivations that underpin them. The absence of consensus may also emphasise the importance of engaging with and listening to the people who are living in poverty in Scotland, using their lived experience to help develop approaches that are fit for purpose.

Knowledge of poverty levels and policies is limited

7.7. Only one in five respondents was able to accurately estimate child poverty levels, with equal percentages over- and under-estimating the current rate. It is likely that knowledge of the wider poverty rate is similarly low.

7.8. Most respondents tended to think that there was a lot child poverty and poverty in general, and expected it to become more prevalent in the future. While perceptions of current levels did respond to wider trends in the economy, with higher perceived rates during and following periods of recession, there was no recognition of the poverty rate having fallen over the last decade.

7.9. Qualitative research indicated that people can disengage from the issue of poverty if they feel that the scale of the problem is being over-stated. Therefore the Scottish Government might want to promote a realistic picture of child poverty through wider dissemination of its figures, alongside promoting what it is doing to tackle poverty, to try and gain stronger buy in from the public.

7.10. Most people are not aware of the Scottish Government's child poverty strategy or the UK government's commitment to eradicate child poverty, and there may therefore be a case for increasing awareness raising activity. However, there are clearly limits to the amount of public knowledge that can be expected about any policy area and the fact that a substantial minority are aware may be acceptable.

Official definitions of poverty do not resonate with the public

7.11. Qualitative research has shown that the term 'poverty' can be seen as more appropriate to conditions in the developing world and to overstate the problem in the UK, which as noted above, can cause people to disengage from the issue.

7.12. Research participants preferred terminologies around 'ability to meet basic needs' and conceptions of poverty covering access to a wide range of material and social resources to official income-based poverty measures. The latter were seen as too narrow and to not accurately describe the issues facing individuals struggling to get by.

7.13. Survey evidence has shown very high levels of consensus about the 'necessities of life' everyone should have access to, with very little variation across different groups in society. While the public have become somewhat less generous about definitions of adult necessities over the last decade, definitions have stayed remarkably stable since the early 1980s. Definitions of child necessities displayed almost no change.

7.14. Given this very widely shared understanding of what basic participation in modern society entails, drawing on needs-based definitions of poverty in communications around poverty policy, alongside the official income-based definitions, may help build public engagement in and support for policies aimed at tackling poverty. It may also help to be more explicit about what living in poverty actually means, in terms of money households have to live on.

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

7.15. The majority of people thought that both child poverty, and poverty more widely, were due to individual factors such as alcoholism or individuals not wanting to work, rather than structural factors such as affordable housing. The view that people live in need due to individual factors has become more prevalent over the last 15 years. These understandings may result in individuals blaming people in poverty for their own situation.

7.16. There may be a role for government in increasing understanding of the practical issues and barriers faced by people in poverty, to promote a more realistic and balanced understanding of the causes of poverty. This may be important in gaining support for policies to reduce poverty: if people blame individuals for living in poverty, they may be less likely to support government action to tackle poverty.

7.17. Additionally, given the continued importance of individualistic interpretations of why people live in poverty, it might be that poverty reduction policies, focused on people in poverty overcoming barriers themselves with support, are particularly likely to gain public support. These might include targeted employability services, improved childcare provision, or disability support services.

7.18. More recent qualitative research shows a richer understanding of the causes for poverty, with research participants identifying current economic and structural causes, long-term structural causes and individual causes as working together to keep people in poverty. The former were seen as more important and there was a recognition that poor individual choices can be a consequence rather than a cause of poverty.

7.19. These findings suggest that the public appreciate the complexities of these issues when given an opportunity to consider them more fully. This may provide a lesson for developing communications to promote a more balanced understanding of poverty.

Negative attitudes to welfare recipients are widespread

7.20. There is also evidence of a high proportion of the public holding negative attitudes towards welfare recipients in particular. Around a third of survey respondents felt that people on various benefits should feel at least somewhat ashamed, and the same proportion stated that 'many people who get social security don't really deserve any help'.

7.21. Other survey evidence as well as the qualitative research on poverty suggests that many people draw a distinction between different types of welfare recipients in terms of how 'deserving' they are. Levels of support for additional welfare spending varied substantially depending on the population the welfare benefits were aimed for. The majority supported increasing spending for carers, working parents on low incomes and disabled people unable to work, but only few supported extra spending on unemployment benefits.

7.22. Attitudes towards unemployed people were generally unfavourable. Just over half of respondents in Scotland and Britain felt that benefits for unemployed people were too high and discourage them from finding jobs, while over half of respondents in Britain believed that most unemployed people in their area could find a job if they wanted one.

7.23. There is thus evidence that welfare recipients in general, and those on unemployment benefits in particular, are stigmatised. Research has found that stigma can reduce people's self-worth and wellbeing, therefore making it harder for them to take action to help themselves. Evidence also suggests that stigma plays a role in non-take up of benefits and tax credits.

7.24. Addressing negative attitudes to those in poverty and reducing the stigma associated with being in poverty might therefore make existing anti-poverty policies more effective, as well as maximising individual incomes by ensuring those in poverty are claiming all benefits they are entitled to.

7.25. Research on stigma has found negative media coverage of welfare recipients and people in poverty to be a key driver of people's perceptions of these groups. Focusing on challenging these media portrayals may therefore provide a useful avenue for tackling benefits and poverty stigma.

There is a lack of understanding of welfare issues

7.26. One of the reasons underlying negative attitudes towards people receiving welfare benefits is a lack of understanding of their situation. Evidence shows that survey respondents overestimate levels of benefit fraud. On average, respondents thought that one in four claims for out of work benefits were fraudulent, when the official estimate is one in fifty.

7.27. Research also shows that respondents become more understanding in their attitudes towards benefit claimants after they found out the true amount of benefit they receive - and how little they have to live on. As noted above, communications could usefully focus on communicating how much money people in poverty (and on benefits) actually have.


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