Pushed to the periphery? Changing patterns of poverty in Scottish cities

Urban Poverty

The location of poor households near the centre and wealthier households in the suburbs has for a long time been seen as the archetypal social structure of the industrial city. The suggestion that poverty is shifting towards the periphery not only challenges this long-standing stereotype but also touches on a number of important policy issues.

For example, achieving multi-neighbourhood welfare provision is arguably more difficult to achieve if poverty is dispersed or clustered in distant pockets around the edge of the city. Decentralisation may also reduce the visibility of poverty, leading to pockets of adversity hidden from public view. It may also lengthen commute times, making it more difficult for poor households to access employment.

These consequences all suggest that the decentralisation of poverty is of sufficient importance to warrant careful measurement. There is now quite a substantial body of work suggesting that poverty is moving to the suburbs in American and English cities, but these studies have important shortcomings. For example, they fail to take into account the degree random variation observed in demographic data—how do we know that these changes are “statistically significant” and not just a random outcome? The literature also tends to rely on rather arbitrary distinctions between suburbs and inner cities, which make it difficult to compare results across cities. There is also the question of whether poverty is decentralising in Scotland—Scottish cities have previously been overlooked in this field of research.

Key Findings

Our research measures the process of decentralisation and pioneers new methods to quantify the uncertainty. We apply our methods to Scottish data and find significant decentralisation of poverty in all four of Scotland’s largest cities. In the graph below, for example, we can see that the relative centralisation of Income Support Claimants has fallen between 2001 and 2011 in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.


Relative Centralisation of Poverty (based on Income Support Claimants)

Implications for Future Research

Our findings raise important questions for future research. What are the centripetal forces pushing poverty outward? How can we provide services to support the most vulnerable if poor households are becoming less centralised, more dispersed and potentially less visible? Will there be an increase in vulnerable households slipping through the welfare safety net? Will these changing patterns of urban policy challenge our understanding of “neighbourhood effects” and their policy implications?

Understanding what has caused the change, what the impact is, and what the policy response should be, will be important priorities for urban researchers in the years ahead.

For Further Information:

This research has been published in the following article:

Is poverty decentralizing? Quantifying uncertainty in the decentralization of urban poverty – Leo Kavanagh, Duncan Lee & Gwilym Pryce (2016) – published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers.


Pages 1286 – 1298