Rural poverty: under the radar?

By Jane Atterton, Rural Policy Centre, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)

Issues of poverty and disadvantage have been a policy focus in Scotland for a number of decades.

The Fairer Scotland Action Plan sets the overall strategy for tackling poverty and inequality, with particular emphasis placed in recent years on tackling child poverty and fuel poverty, for example, through early intervention and prevention. The Scottish Government established the Poverty and Inequality Commission to provide advice to Ministers and monitor progress towards tackling poverty and inequality. However, as argued in SRUC’s Rural Scotland in Focus 2014 report (Section 3), national poverty policies tend not to recognise the extent and specific characteristics of rural poverty. Moreover, rural strategies do not consistently highlight poverty or how to address it.

But what does ‘poverty’ actually mean? It tends to refer to an income-related situation in which someone finds themselves excluded from having a minimum acceptable standard of living, often due to being in employment but earning low wages, or being unemployed.

Photo showing a road though a Scottish village with a fee buildings, streetlights, a bus stop sign and hills in a background, lit with autumn sunlight

However, this is a rather static and one-dimensional interpretation of someone’s situation. Hence the rise in importance of the term ‘social exclusion’ in rural studies in the early 2000s (see, for example, Philip and Shucksmith, 2003). This is a much more dynamic, multi-dimensional term which refers to the different processes (one of which might be the labour market) through which individuals can/do, or cannot/do not, access resources at different geographical scales, and thus are included or excluded from society. While poverty encourages a focus on individual ‘victims’, social exclusion encourages consideration of pathways, system failures and relationships. More recently, terms such as financial vulnerability have come to the fore, referring to situations in which individuals have low financial resilience when things go wrong.

So, how widespread is rural poverty? Overall, research has tended to show that rural populations have lower poverty rates than their urban counterparts (Milbourne 2016). However, recent research (not yet published) by Professor Mark Shucksmith and colleagues on poverty dynamics in rural Britain from 1991 to 2008 using data from the British Household Panel Survey revealed that 50.2% of rural households experienced at least one spell of poverty during this period, only slightly lower than the 55.2% of urban households. Financial Conduct Authority analysis in 2018 also revealed that 54% of rural adults are potentially financially vulnerable compared to 48% in urban areas. This suggests that rural poverty is actually rather widespread. So why does rural poverty often fall under the poverty policy radar?

The first reason is a challenge of measurement. Place-based measures of deprivation, such as the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, tend to fail to identify the localised pockets of poverty in rural areas, which are both dispersed (unlike poverty which may be concentrated on urban housing estates for example) and interspersed amongst pockets of wealth. Thus, rural areas tend not to feature in lists of the ‘most deprived’ places. But there are other reasons too.

For many people, the idea of hardship existing as part of an image of beautiful rural villages and scenery is a contradiction in terms – it is simply absent from the dominant ‘rural idyll’ (see for example Shucksmith 2000). As wealthy incomers (including commuters, pre-retirees and those who have reached retirement) migrate into rural areas in search of this idyll, house prices are pushed beyond the reach of locals who are then forced to leave. More deliberate processes may be at work to ‘hide’ rural poverty too, as wealthy incomers oppose local plans for building affordable housing to maintain the rural idyll that they so value – so called spatial apartheid (Sturzker and Shucksmith 2011).

Rural areas are often characterised by fragile, short-term employment (usually with limited training and progression opportunities), meaning that people may find themselves out of work for short periods, especially during the winter months when fewer seasonal jobs are available. They may be reluctant or unable to claim benefits (and therefore do not appear in statistics) for these short periods.

For many rural dwellers, owning a car is a necessity – rather than a sign of relatively high household income – as public transport is poor or non-existent. This may increase household expenditure considerably, especially due to the longer travel distances required and the higher price of fuel, increasing the risk of individuals and households falling into poverty.

It is often the case that those in rural areas who might objectively be categorised as being ‘in poverty’ do not regard themselves as such (see Shucksmith et al. 1994). Rural dwellers will often refer back to much harsher past conditions or to the benefits of current rural living (such as the high quality landscapes, strong sense of community and lower crime rates), or to the inevitable, accepted aspects of rural living such as greater distance to services, leisure and social facilities, to dispute such objective categorisations.

Research has also suggested there is a fear of being stigmatised amongst those who do find themselves in difficult times in rural areas, and therefore a reluctance to reveal the extent of the problem or to claim benefits to which they are entitled. Added to this, the generally poorer condition of – on average larger, older and poorly insulated – rural houses, many of which are off the gas grid, leaves many households with high heating and energy bills and experiencing fuel poverty.

On top of all of these challenges, rural residents often find themselves experiencing a lack of local services, including for young people, who often leave, or for older people, who may find themselves increasingly isolated as they move into older old age. Indeed these are two of the demographic groups usually found to be most likely to experience exclusion in rural areas (Shucksmith et al. 1994), alongside those in self-employment, those from minority groups and those with disabilities (Pacione 2004).

But, what is the situation today?

How are factors such as Brexit, the increase in insecure employment and welfare reform affecting everyday life and wellbeing in rural locations, particularly where there are ongoing cuts in essential services in many rural places?

How might our policy responses need to change to accommodate these different drivers?

These are some of the questions being asked in new research funded by the Standard Life Foundation called Rural Lives. The project, led by Professor Mark Shucksmith at Newcastle University and involving Polly Chapman from Impact Hub Inverness, and Jane Atterton and Jayne Glass from Scotland’s Rural College, will run until the end of 2020.

For more information, see the Rural Lives project website and Twitter account @rurallives.

Published as part of Policy Scotland’s contribution to Challenge Poverty Week 2019