Reflections on poverty

19 October 2015

It's Challenge Poverty Week and in this blog James Egan reflects on areas of poverty work and research involving the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), looking at what lessons can be learned from listening more to those living in poverty.

Highlighting people’s lives, challenging stereotypes and demonstrating what’s being done to address poverty in Scotland – just some of the key messages during this year’s Challenge Poverty Week.

“It is a struggle, it’s not easy, but I get by. But there’s never any spare money to do anything, if you wanted to take the kids out anywhere.”

 Lone parent, age 33, two children aged 16 and five. 

This woman’s comment in a recent Glasgow study on welfare reforms is a reminder that women with children are not only more vulnerable to poverty but are likely to be juggling caring alongside part-time, low-paid work. Often the main managers of poverty and debt in the family home, women are likely to go without to provide for their children – not an ideal recipe for keeping good mental health or wellbeing.  

Against this backdrop, and with one-in-three children in Glasgow living in poverty, it’s heartening to see that Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC), the NHS partnership project, continues to tackle family poverty. Over the last five years, midwives and health visitors across Greater Glasgow and Clyde helped the project achieve nearly 10,000 welfare advice referrals to help pregnant women and families with money worries. This led to more than £9.5 million in gains for those entitled. Case studies from the project show the value of this support but more importantly give voice to family’s daily realities, like the young couple with three children, two with disabilities; the family just getting by on one wage; or the lone parent not coping with their job and a new baby with serious health problems.  

Children from lone parent families that benefit from HWC are among the four-in-ten children that now live in lone parent families in Glasgow. The city has the highest proportion of lone parents of any Scottish local authority. Therefore, it’s encouraging that their voices and needs are increasingly being recognised with the setting up of a project that includes Glasgow City Council and One Parent Families Scotland. This new support will be crucial for those parents facing welfare-to-work changes, particularly those with young children, as they navigate a difficult and complex job market that can involve moving back and forth between no pay, low pay, benefit delays and debt. 

Over the last two years, our various reports, papers and blogs may have encouraged partners to support this new lone parents’ project in Glasgow. Yet, looking back, what stands out in my mind was listening to the moving accounts of lone parents during a GCPH seminar, as part of Challenge Poverty Week 2013, and a subsequent short film involving one of the parents. (I would urge you to take some time to watch this powerful film.)

Equally, it’s also been moving to hear the clear voices of school pupils through the innovative Cost of the School Day project led by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Looking at the barriers that prevent all children receiving the same opportunities, pupils involved in the project were clear in what they think could be done within their schools. Over the next year, we will continue to work closely with the project to encourage the sharing of these important lessons more widely.     

Looking to the future 

Looking ahead, we know that the burden of the welfare reforms will fall very heavily on our most vulnerable neighbourhoods, like Calton in Glasgow, as well as vulnerable families. Sadly, lone parents face one of the biggest welfare losses of around £1,800 a year as a result of these reforms. This figure does not include more immediate losses described by the CPAG early warning system, such as benefits sanctions leading to payments being stopped for 13 weeks, or having to rely on family, friends, food banks and charities to get by. This knock-on effect is being felt by charities. A recent workforce survey of the Third Sector in Glasgow found that increasing demands on their services has led to some staff passing a ‘tipping point’ of demoralisation and depletion.

It would be easy in this climate to end with a counsel of despair. Yet, listening to some of these voices over the last five years suggests that we can do more, and do it better. So, here are three modest ideas to end on a hopeful note. First, why not extend the HWC model beyond one health board area in Scotland, and extend this type of help to others, such as adults with mental health conditions worried about benefit changes? Second, let’s revisit successful past employability programmes that achieved good results, such as the Working for Families Fund targeting lone parents or the New Futures Fund for ex-offenders and substance users. Finally, it would do no harm if the valuable suggestions in the Cost of the School Day report were fully acted upon, so that family income and other barriers don’t stop so many children from realising their full potential.


About the author

James Egan Public Health Programme Manager


James Egan is a Public Health Programme Manager and jointly leads the work programme ‘Tackling inequality across the life course’ with Fiona Crawford. Some of the key areas being developed under this new programme of work include:

  • Improving understanding of continuing welfare changes with a focus on the roll out of Universal Credit and associated developments around in-work conditionality
  • Understanding and promoting equity of access to services by vulnerable population groups
  • An early years focus that includes improving understanding of the causal pathways between Adverse Childhood Experiences and health outcomes and evaluation of childcare, early learning and interventions.
  • Work to explore the potential of new forms of social protection in a 21st century context

In his current role, James is leading and supporting the development of work on welfare changes and equity of access to services by vulnerable population groups. He is also working with partner agencies to explore the potential of new forms of social protection in a 21st century context.

Read all articles by James Egan

Comments (1)

  • Jackie Erdman replied on Wed 21 Oct 2015 at 11:45AM:

    NHSGGC is seeing a range of negative effects from the recession and welfare reform. A recent NHSGGC staff survey found staff observed major effects on patients and on NHS services. Around 80% of 256 staff reported seeing patients with reduced income, housing problems; increased in food poverty; increased debt; increased use of welfare advice services and difficulty in understanding the welfare changes and their effects. 68% reported clients in their caseload had been sanctioned with over 60% also reporting increased childcare issues and fuel poverty and homelessness.

    In terms of effects on NHS services, 73% of staff reported that their patients were using an increased range of NHS and social care services related to the recession and welfare reform. This is related to the reports of a 58% increase in physical problems; a 78% increase in mental health problems and a 77% increase in family / relationship problems. In particular staff reported a 71% increase in money / debt worries in lone parents they see; a 79% increase in people with mental health problems with similar patterns for vulnerable groups. NHSGGC is addressing requests from staff for more information on NHSGGC referrals routes to money advice services; training and more information for patients.

    NHSGGC has been a leading Health Board on its work on financial inclusion which is closely associated to its Board-wide approach to employability. A recent Board paper highlighted the innovative work on public information campaigns on each welfare reform change as it rolls out and nearly 40,000 referral to money advice over the last 3 years and a £42 million financial gain, including the successful Healthier Wealthier Children initiative. NHSGGC is working with NHS Health Scotland on the national roll out of Healthier Wealthier Children principles. There is work to improve routine enquiry on money worries and referral in mental health services and associated services, with some good practice on this in certain NHSGGC areas currently. There is more we can do as we transition to health and social care integration to ensure the most affected by welfare reform and the recession receive support available and to support staff in working in complex environments.

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