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The rise of in-work poverty

Date: October 2013
Category: Report
Work programme: Economy and employment
Author: Chris Harkins, James Egan

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This paper represents an introductory overview of the changing nature of poverty and work, the rise of in-work poverty and the evidence-based implications for population health and wellbeing of these changes within Scotland. Key literature and analyses of important trends in these related areas are presented. In so doing, fundamental and well-established evidence and concepts in this field are covered as well as very recent literature, data and commentary.

Key points raised in this report are:

  • A greater policy focus is required on the detrimental impacts to population health and wellbeing of the current welfare reforms and a more thorough consideration of the potential economic costs resulting from increased demand on health services.
  • Increased public health research focus is required to further understanding of the health impacts of globalised risk transference, underemployment, the quality and meaningfulness of work and the rise of precarious work.
  • Additional evidence is required to examine the health impacts of in-work poverty and churning; significant methodological advances are required to more accurately quantify the extent and nature of churning.


The nature of poverty, work and social protection in Scotland is going through a period of rapid and significant change. The impact of these changes on the health and wellbeing of the nation is not fully known. A time for reflection is urgently needed to consider these matters and their consequences for the careers and futures of Scottish residents.

The composition of poverty in Scotland has also fundamentally changed, especially over the last two decades. While total levels of poverty have been reducing over this period, the proportion of families living in poverty where at least one family member works has actually increased. These families are described as experiencing ‘in-work poverty’ and represent an important subgroup of Scottish society for three pressing reasons. First, although in-work poverty is not a new occurrence it has received scarce research and policy focus. Second, the UK welfare system is going through a period of significant retrenchment. Many of the new welfare reforms will see significantly reduced levels of support for working age populations, including those experiencing in-work poverty. Third, very little consideration has been given to improving our understanding of the specific pathways between in-work poverty and health and wellbeing.