As part of our Rural Poverty series, Dr Greg Thomas (Powys County Council) uses Powys as a case study to explore the issues surrounding rural poverty.
Rural poverty is often hidden from public view and belies stereotypical images of rural areas as rolling hillsides and chocolate-box villages. Powys is one such area that experiences this hidden poverty. Although very few people in Powys today experience absolute poverty, there are those who fail to achieve the standards of living which we expect in an affluent, developed country beyond the basic necessities of life
Poverty does not just damage the individual, but also the economic and social well-being of the entire country. In Wales, poverty is linked to additional public spending on health, education, social care, and police and criminal justice services of around £3.6 billion a year, which is equivalent to over 20% of the Welsh Government’s annual budget.
There are five main types of poverty affecting Powys residents: financial poverty, fuel poverty, health poverty, digital poverty, and child poverty.
Financial poverty in Powys is different to that of urban areas. For example, vehicle ownership is not suitable as an indicator for poverty in Powys. Because of Powys’s rurality, people need to have a car in order to travel to work and, ironically, often need a car to access public transport. The population of Powys are therefore more likely to own a car than the Welsh average; 17.5% of households are carless, compared to the Welsh average of 26%. The fact that Powys residents are far less likely to use public transport than the rest of Wales is related to this. 1.6% of the population travel to work by public transport compared to 6.6% of the national population.
In-work poverty, rather than financial poverty caused by unemployment, is also a big issue for Powys. There is a growing bank of evidence showing how fragile life is for those in low paid work, particularly those on zero hours contracts. There is the need to attract more ‘good’ jobs to Powys to employ local people- something that will lead to increased incomes and self-esteem.
The main drivers of fuel poverty in Powys are the price of energy, the level of household income, the physical quality and energy efficiency of houses, and the occupants’ degree of vulnerability. Fuel poverty has been more prevalent recently due to the average domestic electricity price increasing by 80% and gas prices doubling between 2004 and 2016. In the same period, the average proportion of household income spent on energy has also doubled, which has had a disproportionate effect on the working poor.
Populations in Powys tend to be located in small towns and villages, often with poor connecting road and rail links, which poses a major challenge for access to services. In Powys, 19.4% of patients have to travel over 15 minutes to access a GP, and this problem is far more acute in the north of the county (22.6% of patients) than in the south (11.9%). In total, there are 26,330 registered patients in Powys that have to travel more than 30 minutes for a round trip to the GP. If the patient does not have the time or transport access to attend an appointment, they might not seek help, and the potential benefits of identifying health issues early will not be met. These issues are compounded by an absence of District General Hospitals in Powys.
Access to technology and digital services is not a given for people in Powys, where 27% of households do not have internet access. For those who do have internet, it is often low quality- with average speeds of between 0.1 and 8.5 Mbit/sec, compared to 29.8 Mbit/sec across the UK. Digital technology influences how we work, communicate, consume, learn, engage and think. Technology has enabled more personal services, cheaper goods and products, more choice, wider connections, and improved access to knowledge and communication. Ensuring that everyone has access to the internet and other digital technologies remains one of modern society’s greatest challenges.
Child poverty is the most influential determinant of the health and wellbeing of future generations. The good news is that Powys has the second lowest amount of child poverty of all Welsh local authority areas, with only Monmouthshire seeing lower recorded levels. After housing costs, 21.47% of children in Powys are considered to be in poverty, compared to a Wales wide figure of 27.33%.
Nonetheless, child poverty is still an issue in Powys, and children growing up in poverty may be at increased risk of poor health, crime, and behavioural problems, all of which can be mitigated by effective early interventions. Low income tends to be correlated with early childhood educational under attainment and can adversely impact future earnings, leading to intergenerational poverty if sustained over a long period.
All of the above suggests that traditional indicators may not be suitable for measuring the impacts of poverty in a rural area such as Powys. A range of rural specific poverty indicators should be developed to assess the impact that poverty has on the county, and to identify suitable services which allow people to overcome barriers allowing them to fully participate in society, and engage in education, training and employment.
People experiencing poverty are often best placed to decide what would help them. Typically, decision making powers are denied to people in poverty. In order to tackle rural poverty, it will be vital to ensure that we develop cohesive communities which are engaged with, and have ownership of, their local areas. Due to financial constraints facing the public sector, the third sector will have an increasing role in tackling poverty. Because of this we need to ensure that we develop trust and support between the third sector and local communities.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to rural poverty, and it is vital to fully understand the issues and to ensure that the wider community are involved in creating solutions. Interventions tackling poverty should be designed from the ground up, ensuring that the resources match the purpose of the system, and that community buy-in is secured.
Image: Andrew Hill (CC BY-ND 2.0)