Hidden Poverty in Welsh Communities

Landscape Panorama with the Great Outdoors - a large horizontal scene with beautiful scenery and activities such as cycling, sailing and hot air ballooning.

Amy Lloyd

Poverty is sometimes depicted as a primarily urban phenomenon but there is financial hardship in all regions and geographies in Wales. One in five (21%) of the Welsh population are living in relative income poverty; an even greater proportion are going without essentials. Three in ten people (31%) are struggling to heat their homes, and nearly one in four (24%) are eating smaller meals or skipping them entirely.

The Wales Centre for Public Policy has commissioned three linked blogs exploring under-recognised geographies of hardship in Wales. These describe how poverty has particular drivers and manifests in specific ways in different kinds of communities – peri-urban, rural and farming – and may therefore require tailored policy solutions.

In her guest blog for WCPP, Eleri Williams from Building Communities Trust (BCT) highlights that the experience of hardship for those at the margins of urban centres, may be intensified by the absence of social connection and social infrastructure. Underpinning Eleri’s blog is recent research by the Buildings Communities Trust (BCT), which found that hardship in the peripheries of major urban centres is exacerbated by the lack of community and civic assets.

These ‘less resilient areas’ are often post World War II housing estates and former mining communities, with fewer community centres, pubs and shops and less active and engaged communities. BCT research adds a new dimension to the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD), suggesting that residents of peri-urban areas are more likely to be unemployed and experience long-term health issues, compared to those living in poverty in areas with more engaged and active communities.

In his guest blog for WCPP, Professor Mike Woods shows the hidden nature of rural poverty. Data used to measure deprivation is often aggregated in a way that masks the prevalence of poverty in rural areas. Families experiencing deprivation in rural areas are often dispersed amongst wealthier neighbours, whereas deprivation in urban locations is often more concentrated. It can also be difficult to get the right indicator for poverty in rural areas. Car ownership, for example, is more of a necessity than a luxury due to poor public transport connections and distance between homes, workplaces and amenities.

As such, rural families can be much more vulnerable to spikes in fuel costs. Even homelessness takes a different form, with fewer people sleeping rough than in urban areas, instead bunking with relatives or friends. A previous WCPP report highlights the challenges of evaluating the impact of interventions designed to address rural poverty.

For those living in rural areas, the interconnections between employment, transport and housing present particular challenges. High rates of low-paid employment, unaffordable housing, and poor public transport are driving rural poverty. Tourism has brought employment for some, but the prevalence of second homes and holiday lets has made finding somewhere to live much more of a challenge. The long-term rental market has contracted, and the cost of property makes home ownership out of reach for many. Welsh agriculture makes a significant contribution to employment in Wales relative to the UK, accounting for over 4% of employment in Wales. Agriculture is also linked with other related jobs (for example, in auction markets and abattoirs), but the future of agriculture in Wales is uncertain.

In their guest blog for WCPP, Dr. Peter Gittins and Dr. Eifiona Thomas Lane outline concerns that hardship for farming communities is set to increase. Incomes are generally low; over half of Welsh farms have an annual income of less than £25,000 and changes to farming subsidies could significantly impact farm productivity. In some cases, subsidies account for over 90% of a farmer’s annual income.  Efforts to address the climate emergency risk intensifying challenges for farming households. As skilled custodians of our land, farmers can contribute to biodiversity and conservation of our natural resources, but as recent protests over the Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales have highlighted, adequately supporting farmers to achieve biodiversity and conservation aims can be challenging. Other efforts to reach net zero have led to wholesale purchases of productive farmland for carbon offsetting, intensifying pressure on the employment – and cultural – ecosystem in rural Wales.

The impacts of poverty on physical and mental health are profound. Poor nutrition, inadequate housing and heating, and stress lead to poorer health outcomes. Recent research has highlighted concerning levels of mental and physical health problems in farming communities in the UK, especially pain, discomfort, anxiety and depression. And the stigma associated with poverty prevents people from seeking the support they need. As Mike Woods points out in his blog on rural poverty, the strength of the notion of rural self-reliance and fear about standing out in a small community can stand in the way of accessing help. This in turn can reinforce national approaches to welfare provision that focus on notions of personal responsibility, rather than collective entitlement to welfare support.

Structural causes of poverty impact the physical and mental health of individuals living in peri-urban and rural areas, and in farming communities. Different structural causes and consequences require particular policy considerations and approaches. Farmers need support to balance agri-environmental schemes with socio-economic realities; rural communities need support to build employment, transport and housing opportunities, and strengthen access to amenities; and community infrastructure and resilience needs to be enhanced across all geographies of Wales.