Scotland, UK, Edinburgh, December 2019

A tale of two cities

The Christmas market in Edinburgh lights up the Princess Street Gardens. It is noisy and busy. All seems well in Scotland’s capital but 1 in 5 (23%) lives in below the poverty line. This is 3 times the level of the core EU countries (7%). The conservative government has cut public spending from 41 to 36% of the budget in a few years. The results are beginning to show e.g. in rising child mortality and a decline of life expectancy. Poland and Slovenia do better.

Behind closed doors

Beggars are everywhere in the centre, there must be hundreds of them. If one asks everybody knows where they sleep: Leith Links, the Botanical Gardens, Dean Village. However, the majority of the poor (some 100.000) seem invisible.

Poverty in Edinburgh“Poverty around 1980 had no stigma”

tells Willy Barr, the key person of Citadel, a social centre in Leith, the port of Edinburg. “There was even some bravado, being poor was not uncommon. It just happened and patched up clothing was something to be even proud of.”

Poverty on the street Edinburgh“This has changed, however. Right now shame prevails as poverty is often seen as one’s own fault. There must be something wrong with you, so better not show. Great pain is taken to be “normal” on the outside. What it looks inside the house is a strong contrast.“

“When I started here, I expected that Citadel would become obsolete within a decade. How wrong that proved to be”.

Citadel was originally an initiative of local mothers. At that time Leith was a very rough place with prostitution, drug (heroïne) trade and abuse and street violence. Leith is now party gentrified but the situation has worsened. ”They wanted to create a safe playground and later added other support for the young.

Poverty Leith Edinburgh“Now we are here for all, youth, the family and also the elderly. Basically, we provide perspective and hope. Anyone can ask for support. Asking is the only criterium we have. We try to keep things loose e.g. with clothing we generally say: maybe you can do someone else pleasure. We try to take the stigma away. Leith is actually worse than the average, one in 3 children is seriously affected by poverty.”

“There used to be 4 or 5 places like us in Edinburgh but the others have limited their work to just providing activities to the youth. Citadel managed to get funding outside government grants and the local community helps us greatly. Christmas is the busiest time. We are shipping out hundreds of aid packages.”

Social awareness

In Edinburgh, it is a tradition to say “thank you” when getting off the bus. The Scots are a social lot with a community feeling. Invisibility does not mean the Scots are unaware of what happens. Many step up and do something. Citadel is one of a multitude of private organizations that reach out to mitigate the effects of a withdrawing government.


Social Bite provides food and housing for the homeless. Helping Hands (not charity but solidarity) provides food as well as activities and support and there are many food banks (Trussel Trust, Foursquare, Edinburgh Foodbank and several others). In offices, there are collection points for food banks and in the streets, a multitude of charity shops gather money for good causes. Fresh Start provides help for those who start their own home (again).

Self-help groups like Autonomous Centre of Edinburg, Edinburgh Coalition against Poverty and LIFT (Low-Income Families Together) give legal aid and whatever support is needed to get out of poverty situations. LIFT especially focusses on homeless women with children. The initiatives are all driven by “experience experts”, who were once in poverty themselves, most notably Pauline Nicol Bowie who was once homeless herself.

Poverty is a political choice

Often poverty is discussed as it is some natural phenomenon like an earthquake. It is not, it is the consequence of choices that are made by the voters themselves.

Poverty is sore but it is not a disease

Whitehall/Westminster seems to have made a conscientious political choice to ignore (or condone or even agree with) the consequences of its own legislation. The Scottish government has a way more social attitude and tries to neutralize some of the negative effects the central government creates.

One example is the so-called “bedroom penalty” where empty bedrooms are taxed under the illusion that people would thus move to smaller housing. In Scotland, this measure is not implemented. Also, the Scottish Government will implement the free supply of sanitary napkins. The eviction laws are the same though, where landlords can put anyone on the street. There is no rent protection (as there is in The Netherlands).

Willy Black is a 69, from Granton North Edinburgh. He started as an electrician. A life-long left campaigner and political activist he is one of the driving forces behind the renovation of the poverty-stricken areas like Muirhouse. He is also a leader in the North Edinburgh Fights Back campaign group.

For him doing something to help has two basic reasons: “Either you do something because it is “right” or because it gives you a good feeling. In both cases, you at least try. The third option is indifference where you just do nothing”

He tells me there is yet another reason for the absence of the poor in daily life in Edinburgh’s central areas: good housing has become totally out of reach within an area of 15 to 20 km from Castle Hill. So no wonder we do not see them, most of them just are not there and confined to areas like Muirhouse or further away.

He shows me around North Edinburgh. But first, we go to Fettes, the private school for the elite (tuition around 15000 Euro per year). Tony Blair went here. The posh classic building provides a strong contrast with the deprived housing areas just down the road.
Willy remarks when we pass through a red tunnel underneath a railway line: “For some, we now enter God’s own country. There may be a lot of bad here but the social cohesion is often very strong”.

“This apartment block was in the past referred to as “Terror Tower”. One member of the team of the movie Trainspotting lived here. He looked after our kids as a baby sitter.”

Muirhouse povertyA lot of the housing was put here as early as the forties to move people out of the Old Town slums  They are renovated and insulated now but then looked like a house but it was like living in a paper bag. Willy points at the green weeds on the roofs “I call it the hanging gardens of Muirhouse”. The reason is dampness and faulty drainage. They result in asthma and other diseases. He managed to have a part of the houses properly insulated (picture above).
Muirhouse poverty When homeless the government has the legal obligation to supply a roof above the head of families with children within seven days. Last year there were over 350 cases in Edinburgh where it took much longer. Usually, there is no housing available so they are sent to “Bed and Breakfast” places. Cynically they are referred to as “disposal places” after the Edinburgh story of Burke and Hare (they provided corpses for anatomy to the University in the 19th century).

Willy points out that there are many community-building activities like community gardens like at the now derelict Madelvic plant, where in the 19th century an effort was made to build electric cars. In Muirhouse the community initiative has managed to start a social centre with EU funding.

A story of sleeping rough: Anna

Early in the morning just next to the Christmas fairground on Waverley Bridge Anna (real name known by the editor) sits silently on the wet pavement and waits for a few pennies, maybe a pound. She is just one of many homeless that sleep rough in the centre of Edinburgh (though one really has to look for them). Sometimes she comes out and openly begs on the street.

poverty Edinburgh “What happened, what made that you are sitting here now in the cold rain,” I ask her.

“I am here to collect enough money to pay for a bed. I can come by with 10 pounds as I know a friendly hostel and they give me a place for a reduced rate when they are not fully booked. Last night I stayed outside down near Waverley station. I hardly slept so I went here early to make sure I have a bed tonight. It is important to have a place in reach of the CCTV’s, it provides some security. I have 2 pounds now so 8 to go. Then I stop and may be able to take a shower.”

“I cannot leave as my place will be taken. The other beggars are a mixed lot. Some are Rumanian (Roma). They are brought here and picked up by a luxury Mercedes, it is an oiled organization. On a good day, begging can bring up to 60 to 70 pounds.”

“A lot of those who sleep outside that are drug-addicted. They rather use the money for drugs than for a bed. I stay away from it, though the pushers keep coming to give me a free packet as a starter. But a lot are also like me, hostel hopping when they can.”

“It is a year now I live on the street. This rucksack and my sleeping bag is all I have. I did it to myself in a way, in the beginning, it was ok as I wanted freedom. I am 26 now, my mother was a heroïne addict and social services offered her the choice to either have me adopted or to let me stay in a foster home, so she could visit me. She never did. I traced her back 3 years ago but she did not want to have anything to do with me. I have no family (at least that I know of) and actually, the foster system brought me education and they let me stay till 25 which is 4 years longer than normal as I am dyslexic and also have ADHD.“

She later excuses for distrusting me at first. She needs to be on her guard and also the foster environment made her cautious in human relations.

“I wanted to be free and make my own destiny. It proves harder than I expected. I worked as a volunteer in a charity shop and am trying to find a job now. I found work but I need a fixed address. I need to do something but do not know what.

I come from Wales but picked Edinburgh just by, so to speak, throwing a dart on a map. It is ok here, there are lots of places where I can get food and the police is nice. They let you beg and do not bother you if you just sit there and do not bother anyone (in contrast to Cardiff where they swipe you off the street).


There are many like Anna, hostel hopping, as even when they have a small job they cannot find affordable housing. Apart from when they beg they are largely invisible, or at least indiscernible, like ghosts. When you did not know she was homeless Anna would at first glance just be another girl.

“I take care to look after myself, I wash my clothing once a week, it costs me 5 pounds but I feel it is important.”

We go for some breakfast and to be able to eat she has to remove her denture that replaced her front teeth. “They were knocked out by a boyfriend I once had.” She says drily. “He is in prison now for other violence offences”.

“It is as if I look at life through a window looking out. Outside is a world I do not take part in. I can look but not participate.”

I live on a different planet

“In reverse, I sometimes walk around in residential areas and through the lit windows from the dark, I can look inside. I often see the happy families, something I never had and maybe never will. I know I should not continue this for long but for now, I do not know how to get out but I manage ok.“

The UK will now definitely leave the EU and it will become clear how this will affect the position of the poor. Many fear for the worst.

Thank you to Vicky Allen, Senior feature writer of the Herald and the Times for contacts and inspiration.

For those who want to read more:

Scotland compared to the Netherlands in boring figures

For Scotland and Edinburgh, the latest figure (2015) comes at 22% as compared to The Netherlands 7%. Also, the income-inequality is reasonably comparable. So, it seems a sound estimate that there are 3 times as much poverty when both countries are compared and the ratio holds also if the comparison is made between Scotland and the northwest part of the EU. In the southern and eastern countries of the EU, the figures are higher but when considering these, factors such as self-proficiency (living of non-monetary means like own gardens, etc) and the size of the non-official (black, grey) economy distort the picture.

Despite this, the UK is more comparable to e.g. Poland than to the north-western EU countries.

Inequality in income

The difference in income is mostly measured by the Gini coefficient where 0 is no inequality and 100 total inequality. The UK ranks in a World Bank survey 34, the Netherlands 28. The ratio of the average income (after taxation and other governmental measures) of the richest 20% to the poorest 20% gives 5.4 for the UK and 4.4 for the Netherlands. At first glance, not a huge difference but it is significant.

Wealth inequality

The difference in wealth is yet another consideration when discussing poverty. Here the differences are more striking: the median wealth of an adult in the UK is 3 times that of the Netherlands, illustrating a more skewed distribution. In other words, there are more “rich” (partly caused by the rise of real estate prices).

In the UK the top 10% finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. In the Netherlands, the top decile of highest earners owns 61 per cent of the countries’ wealth so where in income the Netherlands scores better, the wealth seems more concentrated.

What are the causes?

Poverty and inequality are political choices, not diseases or physical catastrophes like earthquakes. Where the unemployment rates in the UK and The Netherlands are statistically similar (around 3,5%) this does not mean those, who are actually employed cannot be poor. Minimum wages are comparable with the Netherlands 5% higher. So the wages and unemployment seem not to be the major items. What is the essential difference then?

The most influencing parameter is to what level society is prepared to make sure wealth is redistributed by governmental measures: tax levels, social security insurances and “safety nets” BEFORE income sinks below subsistence level.

Tax equalization is one factor, for above 150.00 in the UK 45% is charged (with some provision to make it actually higher) for the Netherlands above 90.000 the rate is 52%. However, there is a whole system of social security measures to be taken into account which on the whole favour low incomes in the Netherlands. It is by no means perfect at all but there is a seriously mitigating effect on taxes below 33.000 with provisions for child care etc. though the tax 10 % and social security insurance  28 % (including old-age pension) for the lowest brackets make up for around 38 % vs 20% in the UK (however without social insurance fee).

One example is e.g. the Dutch system of old-age pension, where every individual living in the Netherlands reaching a certain age (used to be 65 but has recently adjusted to 66 or 67) has the automatic right to a monthly allowance covering subsistence level expenditure. This regardless of any other income.

For me, the conclusion is the difference between the “Anglo Saxon” mentality (sorry Scots) where the winner takes all and the mainland “compromise” attitude where the well to do are actually in favour of protecting the lower class. The most striking country is Sweden where the Wallenberg family historically has a huge part of the private wealth (estimates between 35 and 60%) but is reputed to support a generous social security system. It needs to be said that in the whole northwest EU the attitude has changed for the worse, leading to a progressive deterioration (or removal) of the “safety net” (as it has also in the UK) but still the difference seems to stay, relatively speaking.

The UK has reduced public spending (where expenditures for social security, health and education are the major part) to 36% of GDP by the end of 2019 from a peak of 41% in 2006 dropping well below (again) Poland. Today, rates of public spending in the UK as a whole are only a fraction above those of the US. Almost every other country in the EU spends more on its public services than the UK does; almost every other country in Europe now has lower infant mortality than the UK.

Conclusion of this all

The social security and tax systems in the UK compared to The Netherlands make the real difference. In the latter case, they make sure people stay above the poverty line. In the first, these measures are just absent. Tax measures are clear political choices. Better be poor in The Netherlands than in the UK. Though that is still a lot better than Ukraine.

Post Scriptum: the vision of an expert:

Dr Hayley Bennett Research Fellow, Social Policy University of Edinburgh

One of the biggest differences between the two systems is that the Netherlands has both a ‘social insurance’ model alongside social assistance for the neediest. Crudely, this does not exist in the UK. We have simply the social assistance model. The UK government administer this (via jobcentre Plus/Universal Credit), it is means-tested and conditional (meaning it can be withdrawn by administrators). Local governments (with the exception of the Scottish Government which has gathered a range of newly devolved powers in relation to social security in recent years)  are unable to subsidize or add financial top-ups to the very low rates of income replacement available via a social assistance model.

This leaves local governments in a tough position as they have to deal with the reality of low incomes and poverty but do not administer social assistance (as is the case in other European systems) and cannot afford- nor have the regulatory powers- to establish a separate system. Sometimes local government and devolved governments (e.g. Scottish government or Welsh Assembly) fund welfare rights and advice so that individuals can access the national benefits (social assistance) they are entitled to, or appeal administrative decisions.

However, even if people receive the social security they are entitled to, the levels are so low it doesn’t actually stop you from being in poverty. As such, social enterprises and charities often fill the gaps in provisions, although again this rarely involves the direct transfer of money to people experiencing poverty, but instead is immediate aid such as food banks or homeless shelters.

Working-age benefits have taken a hard hit since the 2010 financial crisis with the UK government’s austerity program and rhetoric around ‘tightening the state’s purse strings’. Working poverty is now a key feature of all poverty debates in the UK. Pensioner poverty, on the other hand, has noticeably decreased in recent years and benefits have been maintained at a more appropriate level, so you do see less visible instances of poorer old people but on the whole poverty (whilst high and growing) is less visible.

There are indeed homeless people on the streets, but thousands more in ‘Bed and Breakfast’ accommodation, sofa surfing, or working families who are surviving with large amounts of debt and little to no assets. This raises suspicions that in a few decades we’ll see pensioner poverty return as an issue as there’ll be growing numbers of people with small private/workplace pensions and perhaps no homes as assets to sell to fund their old age social care (as is the current model).

As you point out, the tax system is an important part of tackling poverty and inequality. In recent years the UK government has raised the tax-free allowance to £12,500 with amounts above that being taxed at only 20% (up to £50,000) [– note the numbers slightly differ in Scotland that has some limited powers over income tax rates now]. Raising the tax-free allowance has been a key policy for consecutive conservative governments since 2010.

However, ALL workers receive the income-tax-free allowance, meaning that many high earners benefit substantially from having more money that is not taxed at all. In fact, as there is also VAT on nearly everything people purchase, the tax becomes a larger proportion of the earnings of lower-income people than of higher earnings. At the same time, an article from today:


  1. If I hear conservative politicians (indirect wording) they say that poverty and inequality is a ‘ private ‘ problem and that it is not a government task, responsibility, priority to solve.. We can read that there are others taking initiative .. great work, compliments. Johan

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