Dr Peter Matthews, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences
The week of 7 October was Challenge Poverty Week organised by The Poverty Alliance in Scotland. Events organised across Scotland during the week aimed to highlight the extent of poverty in Scotland and challenge the stigma towards people experiencing poverty.
Due to lower housing costs, rates of income poverty* in Scotland are slightly lower than they are in England, but a fifth of households are experiencing poverty at any one time. Since the Great Recession of 2008, we have also seen a rise in in-work poverty. Employment was an effective means to lift households out of poverty, whereas now the majority of households with children who experience income poverty have one or more adults in work.
Policy debates on tackling poverty tend to focus on the role of central government in delivering welfare benefits and tax changes – the UK Government’s systems of benefits and tax credits (and Universal Credit) and increasingly the Scottish Government’s devolved powers over benefits. Less focus in given on the role of other public services in tackling poverty, particularly the role of local government.
As part of Challenge Poverty Week, researchers from across the University of Stirling engaged with members of the Stirling Community Planning Partnership in a knowledge exchange event to understand what community planning partners could do to tackle poverty. The speakers were Dr Rachel Crockett (Psychology), Dr Niall Hamilton-Smith (Criminology), Dr Peter Matthews (Social Policy) and Dr Marina Shapira (Sociology).
Two key themes came out of the event for local government and their partners to consider in tackling poverty. The first theme was the wider environment. While local government may have very limited power to tackle income poverty directly, through the wide range of services it and its partners deliver, it can do a great deal to improve the wider context in which people experience poverty.
For example, in his research, Dr Hamilton-Smith focused on the impact of crime, particularly organised crime, on deprived neighbourhoods. The stigma towards deprived neighbourhoods can often mean that they are portrayed as not deserving of policing because they are inherently criminal. This research clearly challenges that and highlights the need for effective community Policing to tackle low-level criminality, and the organised crime that can be linked to this, in deprived neighbourhoods.
Dr Peter Matthews highlighted research on the environmental cleanliness of deprived neighbourhoods. Again, the stigma towards deprived neighbourhoods means that they are often blamed for problems of littering and fly-tipping that are not caused by responsible residents. Further, as local councils have cut-back on environmental inspections, they increasingly rely on citizens reporting issues, which we know are more common from people who live in non-deprived neighbourhoods. It is easy to presume that something as simple as the amount of littering and dog fouling would not have that much impact on the experience of poverty. Yet we know that a poor quality environment has strong links to poorer outcomes in wider and health and wellbeing. If a poor local environment means older people cannot leave their homes easily, then it may pass on costs to other services in terms of coping with loneliness, isolation and poor health.
This wider environment matters because of the second theme that came out of the presentations at the event – decision-making. Again, stigmatised narratives around poverty often blame people for making poor choices in their lives that meant they experienced poverty. However, with insights from psychology, Dr Rachel Crockett highlighted how we must see poverty as the most adverse of adverse experiences a person can face, the stress of which has negative impacts on their decision-making. Thus, mitigating the material negative impacts of poverty, and improving an environment to reduce stress, will make it easier for people to make decisions that benefit them the most.
Finally, Dr Marina Shapira’s research highlights the impacts of such decision-making at a Scotland-wide level and how it interacts with public services. Analysing the range of subjects taken by Scottish school students in years four, five and six of secondary school, she demonstrated that the range of subjects pupils study has reduced from eight to six since the introduction of the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence. The reduction in subjects studied was greater in schools in deprived neighbourhoods than in schools in non-deprived neighbourhoods. As we know that university entry is determined by subjects studied in these years, then this could be reducing the chances of these children getting the excellent education they deserve.
In conclusion, we can see therefore that while, rightly, the focus of efforts to tackle poverty is on ensuring households have an income sufficient to survive and flourish, there are myriad ways in which local government and its partners can work effectively to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty and improve lives.
* By income poverty, we are referring to the UK Government’s definition of households with an income of less than two-thirds of the equivalised UK median income.