Evidence about poverty is meant to be troubling. The only crumb of comfort for campaigners is that the harsh realities of everyday life portrayed through statistics, imagery and narratives can be the catalyst for action.
Time and again, the public is sufficiently irked by this evidence to reach for the phone, pull out the credit card and make charitable donations in the hope of tackling the burdens of poverty.
In short, we want to tackle the problem. Yet the evidence keeps coming back because the problem never goes away. We are able to reduce poverty but never eradicate it.
Today sees the launch of Poverty in Scotland 2014: the Independence Referendum and Beyond. Scotland’s deliberation on its constitutional future gives this seventh edition of the book a novel twist. Naturally, both sides in the campaign are asserting their poverty-busting credentials.
Constitutional politicking aside, the book is full of troubling evidence of the enduring and de-habilitating impact of poverty on far too many people’s lives. It finds that:
- 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).
- 200,000 children live in poverty (20% of the total), and another 50,000 to 100,000 will be pushed into poverty by 2020.
- Almost every Scottish local authority contains wards where more than one in five children live in poverty.
- Around half of households with incomes of less than £20,000 still have no home internet access and over half have no car.
- Men living in the most deprived areas have a life expectancy 11 years shorter than those in the 20% least deprived areas of Scotland.
But there is one statistic that particularly troubles me. When asked the main reason why children live in poverty in contemporary Scotland, according to three separate years of British Social Attitudes surveys, one third of Scots say it is because “their parents suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse or other addictions”.
This is the most common answer by a considerable margin. The next most common answers are “parents do not want to work” (15%) and “parents have been out of work for a long time” (9%).
It is less common for respondents to look to the structural inequities of society for an explanation. Only a minority of Scots consider the main cause of child poverty to be, for example, that “social benefits are not high enough” (7%), “they live in a poor-quality area” (6%), “the family suffer from discriminations” (1%), “they have lack of access to affordable housing” (1%) or “there are inequalities in society” (6%).
Although the alcoholism/addiction answer is also the commonest in many regions of England, Scots put greatest emphasis on it. Slightly fewer than one in five people in Great Britain lay the blame at this door.
Scotland purports to be an egalitarian nation. It prides itself on its social justice credentials. It perceives itself to be different to most of the UK in this regard. Scots can cite policy divergence from the UK as evidence to support this belief.
This country has a stronger commitment to universal service provision and has recently taken actions to undermine the burdens inflicted by welfare reform upon the most vulnerable in Scotland.
So why are so many people in Scotland ready to account for social problems in terms of individuals’ problem behaviour? A contribution factor might be the presentation of people experiencing poverty as public entertainment – better known as “poverty porn”.
Jeremy Kyle in the dock
This year, it’s Benefits Street and The Street. A few years ago it was The Scheme. Every year it’s the Jeremy Kyle Show (or some other variant). Anyone watching these sensationalist dramatisations could be forgiven for thinking that the people on their screens are typical of all people in poverty when in reality they are only a miniscule minority.
If viewers conclude from watching these programmes that most people in poverty are stupid, selfish, lazy or incapable of managing themselves, it wouldn’t be surprising if they thought that this was the cause of child poverty.
It would be worth researching whether this is the case, and whether it was made worse in Scotland by The Scheme, for example, which was set in Kilmarnock. It might also be aggravated by other Scottish misconceptions, such as being bigger drinkers than anywhere else in the UK.
Until someone gets to the bottom of this, anti-poverty campaigners should be cautious about the power of evidence to effect change. The public presentation of poverty quite possibly works against, as well as for, the cause.
And if the blame turns out to lie elsewhere, it doesn’t change the basic fact that Scots blame individual behaviour for child poverty more than other parts of the UK. It is high time that campaigners took notice of this in planning their strategies.
Because as things stand, the evidence on how we account for child poverty leaves me a little wary of what the future holds, whether Scotland chooses to stay together or go it alone in September.