Poverty is an epidemic in Scotland and we need to act
We need to be tackling poverty not just the educational attainment gap caused by poverty
Ironically, it has been the SNP’s failure to respond to their own poverty adviser’s recommendations that has put poverty on the agenda in this election.
Last July Nicola Sturgeon appointed Naomi Eisenstadt as her poverty czar to provide the Scottish Government with “informed advice” on poverty and inequality. In January Eisenstadt published her report outlining 15 recommendations for tackling poverty, which Sturgeon promised to respond to by the end of March. March came and went without a response.
Last week Alex Neil told Holyrood’s welfare and social justice hustings the response would not now be forthcoming until after the election, which gave Labour its chance to capitalise on the moment and fill the vacuum with Kezia Dugdale’s announcement that they would implement all 15 of the report’s recommendations.
Clearly the SNP does care about poverty. You don’t choose to appoint a poverty adviser just to ignore what they say. And the party has already taken actions to alleviate poverty such as promoting the living wage, mitigating the bedroom tax and funding crisis payments through the Welfare Fund.
The SNP also committed to some of the recommendations such as building more social housing. But it does say something about where poverty comes as a priority on the agenda that it can wait until after the election.
While the referendum in 2014 had a sense of idealism about it, at least from the point of view of Yes voters, the current election has been more about fear of what would happen if. What if we raise tax and all the rich people leave? What if we move from the centre ground and some people don’t vote for us anymore?
It has some of the feel of the No campaign, but this time it’s coming from those who would have advocated something far more radical two years ago.
Much of the rhetoric in this election campaign so far has centred around closing the educational attainment gap between rich and poor, but very little on closing the actual gap between rich and poor. If young people are underachieving just because they are from poorer backgrounds, why not deal first with the reasons for that? In every other policy area the focus is on prevention.
Trying to reduce the educational attainment gap without dealing with the root causes of the gap is like offering paracetamol to cure cancer; it’s dealing with a symptom, not a cause.
Education has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament for 17 years and yet poverty is still with us – and getting worse. Child poverty is running at 22 per cent and is expected to increase by 20 per cent by 2020. There was a 13 per cent increase in homeless children living in temporary accommodation last year. Are those children likely to fulfil their full potential in school?
In disease terms something that affected around a fifth of the population would be considered an epidemic. Poverty is not easy to resolve, as Eisenstadt acknowledges in her report. “This is a significant challenge. If there were easy solutions, governments would have introduced them years ago,” she said.
For many of those who voted Yes in the referendum, it wasn’t independence for independence sake, it was independence in the hope of building a better country. But if we wait for the never-never land of a future independent Scotland to act, it may never happen.
This is core to who we are as a nation. Do we actually care about our neighbour when it comes to putting our hands in our own pockets? Do we want to use the welfare powers we will soon have to make the country a more equal place even if it means more spending at a cost to us individually?
Scottish Labour’s Neil Findlay suggested last week that reducing health and wealth inequality should be the first minister’s job, something on which their performance will be judged.
“In the coming year, there’s a real opportunity to think not just about the recommendations I’ve made, but more broadly – about how the Scottish Government spends its money, whether it could direct spend more effectively, and whether it could take decisions to shift and group together investment so it has maximum benefit for those on low incomes,” said Eisenstadt. “This would likely mean some tough decisions, but tackling poverty does demand hard choices.”
We need to be making those tough choices, because the consequences of not making them are tougher still.
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