The welfare state has become the focus of political division as the benefits budget is cut and wages decline in real terms.

The emergence of food banks providing basic groceries to people who are going hungry has become the symbol of increasing levels of poverty.

But what does it mean to be poor in Britain in 2013? The Poverty and Social Exclusion report provides some stark answers, especially in relation to children. Based on two surveys last year involving 14,000 people across the UK, including 2700 in Scotland, it is the most comprehensive study of deprivation ever undertaken in this country. Its grim statistics reveal the shocking extent of life literally on the breadline, where choices have to be made between heating or eating.

It showed 7% of adults lack at least either fresh fruit and vegetables every day or meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every other day and 3% of families contain children in that situation.

Despite major improvement programmes to social housing, one person in 14 in Scotland lives in a house that is damp and one in 12 cannot afford to heat the living areas. But the fact that one in six children live in a home that is either damp or not adequately heated brings home the extent to which families with children are living in poverty.

Few people would dispute that people living in these conditions are in poverty or suffering deprivation and the survey bears that out. For example, more than 75% of Scots said that all children should have three meals a day, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish or an equivalent, and more than half thought no-one should have to suffer damp or inadequately heated and poorly decorated homes.

This gauging of attitudes to poverty among the general population is a valuable part of the survey because defining poverty can be problematic. The relative measurement of 60% of median income was adopted to overcome international differences in living standards. When incomes fall, as is happening at the moment, the number of people below the poverty line will also fall, although no-one is better off. When political rhetoric labels benefits claimants as skivers, the poor become divided into the deserving (the seriously disabled and the very elderly) and the undeserving (the long-term unemployed and those with large families), and attitudes towards welfare provision hardens, as the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey showed.

Yet the Scottish results from the Poverty and Social Exclusion report carried out by academics at Heriot Watt University and the University of Glasgow showed that most people believe everyone should have enough for more than the absolute bare necessities so that, for example, children can take part in clubs, go on a school trip once a term and have a holiday away from home one week a year.

Yet one in six children lacks two or more of these activities. Politicians in Scotland make much of more inclusive attitudes north of the Border. The reality is that large numbers of families in Scotland are living in poverty, which is unacceptable. If that is to change, the debate about welfare has to move from demonising the poor to how to fund the services that will enable them to provide a decent life for their children.