Public attitudes to poverty

Research aimed to provide a better understanding of what type of attitudes towards people living in poverty exist and how widely these are held.

Stigma regarding living in poverty has been underlined by key stakeholders and during public engagement as an important issue for the Scottish Government to address as part of its work in tackling poverty. While there is evidence that some people living in poverty experience stigma, there are gaps in our understanding of the public attitudes that may be influencing this.

This research aimed to provide a better understanding of what type of negative attitudes towards people living in poverty exist and how widely these are held. New data was gathered from two nationally representative surveys of people in Scotland: an online omnibus survey of adults in Scotland and the ‘Young People in Scotland’ (YPiS) survey.

The survey of adults used the Scottish Opinion online omnibus, run by Progressive Partnership in partnership with YouGov. YouGov drew a sub‑sample of its panel that was representative of Scottish adults in terms of age, gender and social class, and invited this sub-sample to complete the survey. Once the survey was complete, the final data were statistically weighted to the national profile of all adults aged 18 and over. The survey took place in March 2017 and the final sample achieved was 1,027.

The YPiS survey is a biennial school-based omnibus survey of young people in Scotland run by Ipsos MORI. Data was collected from a representative sample of young people aged between 11 and 18, across 50 state-sector secondary schools in Scotland. The survey was conducted between September and November 2016 in school in online self-completion sessions, and the final sample achieved was 1,550.

Most adults (90%) accepted an ‘absolute destitution’ definition of poverty; there was majority support (71%) for a ‘minimum standards’ definition; and only minority support (31%) for a ‘relative poverty’ definition that implies social inclusion. Young people’s responses followed a similar pattern compared to adults but with a higher proportion of young people selecting the 'don’t know' option.

Around three quarters of respondents (77%) thought that there is some or a lot of child poverty in Scotland. When asked to select from a list all the reasons they think might best explain why children are in poverty in Scotland, people selected seven reasons on average, which shows they recognise that child poverty is a complex problem with no single, straightforward cause. That “their parents suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse or other addictions” was the most commonly selected reason for child poverty. However, there was also recognition that wider, structural factors play a role, for example: “their parents’ work doesn’t pay enough” was also one of the most commonly selected reasons.

In general, the majority of adults and young people in Scotland held sympathetic views about people living in poverty, or expressed uncertainty in their responses.

Asked, “thinking about people in Scotland’s chances of doing well at school and work, how much do you agree or disagree with the following statements”, around two thirds of adults (66%) and young people (65%) agreed that most people have the chance to “get on well at school and work if they try”. Just under half of adults (47%) and young people (45%) thought that most people from poor backgrounds “face barriers to getting on well at school and work”. However, a sizable minority of adults did not believe that coming from a poor background might create barriers to opportunity (27%). A smaller proportion of young people disagreed with the statement, although almost a quarter were unsure. Over half of adults (54%) and young people (61%) thought, “most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one”.

Our findings suggest that a significant minority of people in Scotland accept some stereotypical views: 28% of adults and of young people agreed that “most poor people could get by fine if they just budgeted sensibly” while 28% of adults and 26% of young people agreed that “many poor people have it easy because they get everything paid for by the Government”. Nineteen per cent of adults and 10% of young people disagreed that “most poor people are in that situation through no fault of their own”.

Similarly, the majority of adults and young people thought experiences commonly related to poverty – not being able to pay bills, needing to use foodbanks, not having a job and receiving benefits – were nothing to feel embarrassed about. However, a minority of adults did hold some potentially stigmatising views: 21% of adults and 13% young people thought that adults who do not have a job should be embarrassed; 15% of adults and 8% of young people thought adults who can’t pay their bills should be embarrassed; and 10% of adults and young people thought adults who receive benefits from the Government should be embarrassed.

Overall, young people’s views were fairly similar to those of adults, although young people were much more likely to be uncertain in their knowledge and views about people in poverty. Larger proportions of young people, and especially younger school pupils, selected the 'don’t know' option for many of the questions.

Findings from previous surveys suggest that individual explanations of poverty are more common than structural explanations and attitudes towards poverty have hardened over recent years. This report has also found some evidence that people tend to focus on individual explanations of poverty and hold some negative attitudes towards people living in poverty. The widespread belief that parental addiction to alcohol and/or drugs is one of the reasons that best explain why children live in poverty in Scotland underlines the need to better communicate that that problem substance use has a relatively limited impact on overall poverty levels. The results provide some evidence to confirm that some of the stereotypes identified as problematic in discussions with people who have experience of poverty – e.g. being lazy, unable to budget – are reflected in public attitudes, albeit held by a minority. Also that a minority of adults did hold some potentially stigmatising views. The findings from this research will be used by the Scottish Government to inform work on tackling stigma towards people living in poverty in Scotland.

Public attitudes to poverty
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