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Deep poverty and destitution

Dramatic increase in very deep poverty sees nearly half a million Scots facing profound hardship

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The number of people in Scotland living in very deep poverty [1] has increased dramatically in the last 20 years despite more people, particularly children and pensioners, being pulled out of poverty overall.

New JRF research, which examines poverty statistics in Scotland from 1994 up to the start of the Covid pandemic, finds that:

  • 460,000 people in Scotland in 2017-20 lived in very deep poverty, up from 310,000 in 1994-97
    • This is the equivalent of the population of Dundee falling into very deep poverty over the past 20 years
  • Of those living in poverty, 46% lived in very deep poverty in 2017-20, up from 27% in 1994-97
  • At the same time, the proportion of people just below the poverty line [2] halved from 10% to 5% of all people in Scotland

These figures, which predate the current cost of living surge, highlight crucial underlying factors which have made the current surge in inflation the crisis that it is. In short, government policy in respect of those on the lowest incomes has, for decades, exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland to the heart-breaking hardship that many face today.

Policy decisions made in Scotland, and across the UK, to lower poverty, while successfully lifting those just below the poverty line out of relative poverty, are not being targeted at those who have the least. JRF’s research shows that over the past 20 years those most in need of support have been allowed to slip even further away from a decent standard of living.

The groups most likely to live in very deep poverty include single person households, households that include someone who is disabled and minority ethnic households. A shift in priorities and more careful policy design is urgently needed to ensure no one experiences the highly distressing physical, emotional and mental scars of living in very deep poverty.

In the last two decades incomes, from both work and benefits, for those living in very deep poverty have not risen any where near enough. This is despite work making up a greater proportion of the incomes of people living in very deep poverty now compared to in 1995-98.

The UK Government must adopt the Essentials Guarantee that JRF is proposing with the Trussell Trust [3]. This would ensure that Universal Credit provides enough so that no one goes without the essentials. The Scottish Government must re-commit to and accelerate their efforts to create a Minimum Income Guarantee. Both solutions would overwhelmingly benefit those most at risk of very deep poverty.

JRF’s Associate Director for Scotland, Chris Birt, says:

“The story of poverty in Scotland over the past 20 years is a bleak contradiction that both the UK and Scottish Governments need to wake up to. More people just below the poverty line have been pulled above it at the same time as those with the very least falling further behind. This rise in very deep poverty can be plainly seen in the hundreds of thousands of food bank parcels provided across the country every year, as well as the growing gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas of Scotland.

“More must be done to target policies at the half a million people living in very deep poverty. An Essentials Guarantee from the UK Government would ensure that the Universal Credit system, at the bare minimum, gives everyone enough to afford the essentials. A Minimum Income Guarantee in Scotland would have the same targeted effect at reducing levels of very deep poverty.”


  1. Households below 40% of the median household income are defined as living in very deep poverty. In 2019/20, the latest year covered in this report, a single adult in very deep poverty would be living on £110 or less per week.
  2. The poverty line is calculated as 60% of the median household income after housing costs and adjusted for family size.
  3. For more on the Essentials Guarantee, see here.
Food bank worker sorting a bread delivery.

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