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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

An intersectional approach to poverty and inequality in Scotland

In our report, “Intersectionality: Revealing the realities of poverty and inequality in Scotland”, we used an intersectional lens to better understand the nature of poverty and inequality in Scotland. 

From our research, we brought together findings on the current state of policymaking in Scotland, using this as a basis to develop recommendations on how the Poverty and Inequality Commission - an advisory non-departmental public body who provide independent advice and scrutiny to Scottish Ministers on poverty and inequality - can put an intersectional approach into practice in their own work. 

We brought together existing research about intersectionality, evaluated Scottish policy’s efficacy in acknowledging intersections of oppression, and spoke to both people with direct experience of living at multiple intersections of oppression - along with policy experts from the third sector and academia.  

Crenshaw created the term intersectionality as, “A lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”.

Our interviews spanned a range of topics – from access to public services such as housing and healthcare, to digital access, the reliability of social security, food insecurity, no recourse to public funds status, and barriers to employment.  

What was made clear through our discussions was the multiple ways in which intersecting oppressions shape the way people experience these issues. In turn, this affects how people engage with public services across Scotland. 

What is intersectionality: and why does it matter for Scottish policy? 

The term intersectionality was coined by American law professor Kimberlè Crenshaw in 1989.  It was borne as a way of refuting the idea that power and inequality should be dealt with in siloed ways - for example, only considering dimensions such as race, gender or class in isolation from one another. 

Instead, Crenshaw created the term intersectionality as, “A lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. 

For example, one participant we spoke to told us how she experienced difficulties in navigating the benefits system as a lone parent with English as a second language. The demands on her time as a working lone parent, and the additional difficulty of navigating the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) appeals process in a second language led her to feel disempowered by the system - layering greater insecurity onto their already precarious position. 
 
Another participant spoke to us about how her intersecting experiences of being transgender and having ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) meant she faced barriers in engaging with public services. This was especially so in healthcare, where she experienced pervasive discrimination. In her words, “Doctors kept putting barrier after barrier in front of me”. 

Intersectionality matters: by understanding the interactions between the forces that drive inequality, and how they shape the multiple identities and the social positions that people hold, we believe we will be better positioned to make progress on reducing poverty and inequality in Scotland.  

What did we find? 

Due to a lack of: a) policymaking coherence and; b) policymaker competence in regards toin regard to intersectionality, policymaking processes rarely take an intersectional approach when identifying problems or developing solutions.  

Indeed, policymaking processes ‘as is’ reinforce siloed approaches to tackling inequality. Additionally, there is a lack of intersectional data on outcomes, slowing progress in understanding and addressing inequalities. In particular, systemic racism in Scotland is not currently well understood or addressed within policymaking. 

"If we hope to eradicate inequalities at their root in Scotland, our policy must account for the multiplicity of ways inequalities manifest in people’s everyday lives."  

This all matters because, as we discovered, ‘one size fits all’ approaches, aimed at reducing inequality, leave people behind.  
 
For example, Holly - one of the experts by experience we interviewed - spoke of her frustration at her local authority’s digital access scheme, which failed to account for the needs of older generations. “Nobody considers people like us”, she told us.  

If we hope to eradicate inequalities at their root in Scotland, our policy must account for the multiplicity of ways inequalities manifest in people’s everyday lives.  

What must be done? 

Targeted approaches that are focused and work to eradicate barriers to access specific groups face are needed. 

Policymaking must also be made more democratic, engaging with experts in intersecting inequalities. To achieve this, new tools are needed to bring people into the policymaking process. 

As one of our interviewees Fern states, “The policymakers should reflect the community. Only then will it actually make sense.”  

Ultimately, embedding an intersectional approach into policymaking is not something that will happen overnight – there are no ‘quick fixes’. Dismantling structural inequalities is a process that will take sustained work and appropriate resourcing.  

What are our recommendations for making this happen? 

Through our research, we came up with four recommendations on ways in which intersectional approaches can be utilised in developing and scrutinising policy, and how the Poverty and Inequality Commission can utilise an intersectional approach in their own work.  

These are listed below: 

1. The Poverty and Inequality Commission should examine their own working practices, and develop a strategy for embedding intersectional analysis across their work.  

It should include analysis of how structural inequalities such as race, gender, disability and class create distinct experiences of poverty, and focus on designing solutions that recognise and respond to the reality of people’s lives. 

2. The commission should embed partnership working with experts by experience - both in their work on understanding poverty and inequality in Scotland, and in their designing of policy solutions.  

This should be supported by the development of a ‘gold standard’ framework for participatory working, and work with experts in structural inequalities.  

Through learning from experts in co-production – a collaborative and equitable form of carrying out research, where interviewees are considered ‘co-producers’ of knowledge - establishing lasting relationships with communities and community groups, and hearing from those who are often furthest away from support, there should be renewed focus placed on building solutions to poverty.  

This should be supported by expert facilitation and take a wellbeing-based approach, ensuring participants are equal partners in designing work from the outset.  

Additionally, where some direct experience approaches have focused solely on capturing people’s experiences, the commission’s work should go further by contextualising lived experiences, and investigating their implications. This will identify systemic barriers facing particular groups and enable us to work towards solutions. 

3. The commission should partner with community groups across Scotland, to build long-term relationships with people with direct experience of poverty and/or other forms of inequality.  

Having designed a co-production approach with experts, this work could prioritise relationships with groups that are less often heard from in the poverty debate in Scotland. This includes asylum seekers, refugees and Gypsy/travellers.  

From this foundation, the commission could establish a (paid) broader advisory group of people with direct experience of poverty and/or other dimensions of inequality, who participate in the commission’s work defining problems and developing solutions. 

4. The commission should gather evidence and develop recommendations on how to address persistent gaps in understanding of ethnic minority groups’ experiences of poverty in Scotland.  

This should be achieved through partnering with experts in race and ethnic inequalities to gather evidence, and mapping gaps in understanding of minority ethnic groups’ experiences and how they relate to poverty. 

This could span intersectional analysis of minority ethnic women, minority ethnic disabled people, minority ethnic migrants (including settled and new migrant experiences), and younger and older minority ethnic people’s experiences and outcomes. 

Concluding thoughts 

Our policy must reflect the everyday and multifaceted needs of people in our society in Scotland. Intersectionality is a vital tool that can help us achieve this. Rather than shying away from the complexities inherent in the nature of social inequality today, our policy must be equipped to face these challenges head on.  

Indeed, in certain areas we have already seen the benefits of placing intersectionality at the heart of Scottish policy.  

For example, Scotland’s independent Care Review was referenced by many of our interviewees as an example of a good practice intersectional approach to policy making – many also favourably noted how the review was designed to hand power over to people with lived experience of the care system. Over the past few years, the review has supported a sustained focus on the multiple disadvantages facing care-experienced young people in Scotland. 

It is important to remember too, that while the focus on lived experience is greatly welcome, that there must be a nuanced and critical reading of these experiences. 

As one interviewee from the third sector noted, “It's not just about lived experience but a critical reading of that lived experience that can shape policy-making. There is always a risk that it becomes just about people’s experiences, not about the people that need to hear them.” 

Indeed, the Scottish government must also turn their gaze inwards, and evaluate the perspectives and processes of the powerful in shaping policy and developing strategies that attempt to tackle social inequality.  

As always, there is still work to be done. We hope through this report to have laid a blueprint for how we can continue the journey to expanding on the existing initial work in this field.  

Read the report in full here