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Attitudes towards poor getting worse

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Scottish poverty figures are better than rest of UK, yet stigma is getting worse

Poverty in Scotland appears worse because of the way society is stigmatising those struggling to make ends meet, an influential conference has heard.

Stigma for those on benefits has become as big an issue as poverty itself, delegates at the Poverty Alliance’s annual assembly were told.

The empathy has been relentlessly attacked for decades; we need to look after one another not attack each other – Patrick Harvie

Stigmatising the poorest is increasing despite Scotland experiencing a lower poverty rate that the rest of the UK, politicians and poverty campaigners said.

Delegates at the two day conference in Edinburgh heard how people on benefits and those on low incomes had now become “social pariahs”.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie said the culture of blaming and victimisation had become “nasty, bigoted ways of scapegoating the poor” and bore no relation to reality.

Society, he said, couldn’t move on, despite increased financial support, if those on low incomes were continually stigmatised.

“We need to recognise how bad the problem is,” he said. "The empathy has been relentlessly attacked for decades; we need to look after one another not attack each other."

However Gordon Lindhurst, prospective Conservative candidate for Edinburgh West, disagreed with Harvie. He said the coalition government had made conditions better for people on low incomes through, for example, measures such as raising the national minimum wage.

Nick Bailey, University of Glasgow
Nick Bailey, University of Glasgow

The conference coincided with research published this week by the University of Glasgow showing Scotland's reputation as the poor relation within the UK is no longer true.

Scotland’s proportion of people on low incomes – those who live on less than 60% of the average weekly wage – has fallen to18% compared with 22% for the rest of the UK, the research showed.

The improvement in the Scottish poverty rate occurred around 2003/4 and has been maintained every year since then but, surprisingly, hasn’t had much comment, said Nick Bailey, author of the report.

“The improvement occurs because there has been a steady fall in the poverty rate for working age people in Scotland while the UK poverty rate for this group has been unchanged,” he said.

However he added: “The reduction in Scotland’s poverty rate is modest and comes at a time of great hardship for many families.”

Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, said there is still work to be done and that we need to listen to people in poverty to help find solutions and reduce stigma.

“If we are to find genuine and lasting solutions to problems of low pay, under employment and food poverty then it is vital that we involve those at the sharp end,” he said.

Meanwhile separate research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows the number of Scots in private rented accommodation has doubled in the last two decades and could undermine efforts to tackle poverty.

In 2011, 24% of all households in Scotland were living in social housing, down from 41% in 1991.

At the same time, the proportion of households who are private renters had doubled, from 7% in 1991 to 14% two decades later.

Graeme Brown, director of the housing charity Shelter Scotland, said: “This report shows clearly that Scotland’s chronic shortage of social housing is forcing more and more people on lower incomes into the private rented sector.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are doing everything within our limited powers to tackle poverty and combat the detrimental effect of Westminster’s welfare reform.”

Poverty in Scotland
870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population)
200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children)
Scotland's child poverty fell by 9.9% in the decade to 2012, compared with 5.7% in England
Proportion of Scots on low income is 18% compared to 22% for rest of UK