Money changes everything? Poverty and deprivation in Northern Ireland

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  • Wed 11 Mar 2015
mural with two hands symbolising solidarity

To think that deprivation and poverty are one and the same is, arguably, a limit of the imagination on the part of those for whom hardship is an abstract concept, rather than a day-to-day reality. Along with a lack of alternative data sources, this lack of imagination has permeated a long line of research linking deprivation, via poverty, to adverse life outcomes. Our research on Northern Ireland seeks to isolate the causal impacts of deprivation, with a view to informing future government policies aiming at minimizing its effects.

Linking deprivation and poverty

A substantial body of research links deprivation, via poverty, to a series of adverse life outcomes, including lower wagespoorer education outcomes; and poorer health (including mental health). Despite the prevalence of such findings, however, measuring and defining deprivation remains a notoriously difficult task. Researchers have, therefore, adopted a series of proxies, including obvious and grounded measures such as access to free school meals; parental occupation and education; and the proportion of social housing.

Recently, creative variations on this theme have looked at the uneven geographic dispersal of the gains from the Norwegian oil boom; the relocation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel; and the number of house demolitions in Chicago. While these methods are increasingly imaginative, their underlying assumption—namely, that poverty and deprivation are synonymous—remains prosaically strong. But beyond rather crass assertions about the ‘latent talent’ of individuals living in impoverished regions, the impact of childhood poverty (in isolation) on later life outcomes isn’t entirely clear. Indeed, the logic of such synonymy implies a number of questionable conclusions. For example, it suggests that two identical individuals, from identical families, with the same academic strengths and weaknesses, will perform differently through no other virtue than the wealth of the neighbourhood in which they live.

Given such concerns, it is no surprise that a number of governments, including that of the United Kingdom, have recognized the need for a more complete definition and understanding of deprivation. In turn, this has results in the creation of more detailed and meaningful metrics – typically known as multiple deprivation indices (MDIs).

MDIs augment measures of poverty by including indicators of crime, health and access to services—which, at least superficially, have stronger ties to adverse socio-economic outcomes. Taking the example of education performance, a school in a high-crime area is more likely to suffer property damage and lost school days with knock-on effects on individual learning outcomes. Similarly, students living further from schools are more likely to suffer access restrictions than those living nearer them, again leading to potential attendance-related issues.

Furthermore, the strong link between parental health and school outcomes suggests direct links between the general health of a local area and the opportunities and life outcomes of children growing up there. In most cases, poverty is highly correlated with these other MDI ‘domains’. However, in our view, the link between deprivation and poverty is far from settled.  

Government policy, sources of deprivation and the drivers of adversity

Imagine, for a moment, a benevolent government concerned about entrenched deprivation and the disadvantage such deprivation adds to life outcomes. In order for this government’s policies to be effective, policymakers must know precisely what they are targeting. In this context, even if financial proxies are highly correlated with wider deprivation measures, it does not logically follow that poverty, alone, is the driver of the adverse outcomes associated with deprivation.

In a setting where poverty is not a direct cause, any policies that target only financial deprivation will prove unsuccessful in reducing or eliminating the handicaps associated with growing up in a deprived region. Similarly, if poverty is only one aspect of a complex phenomenon, then focusing solely on financial adversity may lead to incorrect, or at least incomplete, identification of the areas most in need.

Our recent research, which focuses on Northern Ireland, fully elucidates the complexity of this issue. We use a relatively unique feature of Northern Ireland’s past—a low-intensity 30-year paramilitary conflict—to isolate the causal impacts of multifarious deprivation. Our results show that the most deprived regions in Northern Ireland today are those that experienced the most intense violence in the past. Furthermore, poor schooling outcomes are driven by the net effect of a full array of ‘neighbourhood bads’.

Over and above this, poor education of parents and high localized crime rates (including property damage), are the only features of Northern Irish MDIs with singular impacts. However, once the other measures of deprivation are accounted for, financial deprivation does not play a causal role.  

Northern Ireland, political violence and an alarming cycle of deprivation

Our findings should be startling for British, Irish and Northern Irish policymakers. Not only do individuals in Northern Ireland experience the same handicaps from deprivation as they would in other countries but their exposure to such adversity is intrinsically related to a conflict that, nominally, ended 20 years ago. Furthermore, while fatal violence has remained low since the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, community disturbances—most commonly manifested as communal street riots—are a frequent occurrence.

Given the role played by crime in influencing adverse outcomes and the fact that these riots are included within the crime domain, the link between Northern Ireland’s past and its present becomes prescient. That these riots, in turn, are also likely a symptom of deprivation fully illustrates the damaging cycles of hardship in Northern Ireland.

Low opportunities, as well as perceptions of differing opportunities between the communities of Northern Ireland, are often cited as causes of the violence that beset the country for most of the latter half of the 20th century. These same divisions are also likely to be drivers of ongoing tension. In a country with over 400 years of ethno-nationalist divisions, the effects of the deprivation trap are, therefore, particularly severe. Lowered opportunity appears to drive a series of disturbances that, in turn, contribute to further worsening particular neighbourhoods.

Broadly speaking, the British and Irish governments—as well as the devolved Northern Irish parliament and the European Union—failed to address these issues in the decade after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard, the design of optimal counter-deprivation policies in Northern Ireland is doubly important. Not only will active, and correct, policy engagements reduce the handicaps associated with growing up in a deprived region—they are also likely to act as important building blocks for a long-term and sustained peace in a divided society. 


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).