Poverty adviser Naomi Eisenstadt on the roots of change

Written by Tom Freeman on 16 May 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview: Nicola Sturgeon's poverty adviser and the architect of Labour's Sure Start scheme, Naomi Eisenstadt, on her independence and the Holyrood baby

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Naomi Eisenstadt - credit Holyrood/Paul Heartfield

When Nicola Sturgeon’s independent poverty adviser Naomi Eisenstadt produced her ‘Shifting the Curve’ report at the start of 2016, she faced accusations that Scottish ministers had ‘whitewashed’ the document to remove critical passages. 

An FOI by The Times revealed the independent adviser had sent a memo advocating an end to the council-tax freeze, only for the wording in the final report to be the rather softer suggestion the government “should consider” ending the freeze.

The criticism which followed seems rather hysterical now, especially considering the recommendation was adopted by the SNP a month later, ahead of the Holyrood election. 

Eisenstadt has been bullish about the accusations, insisting the only thing she’s interested in is progress, and as Holyrood sits down with the social justice veteran in London, she seems unperturbed and still keen to talk about what Scotland can do to improve the lives and life chances of people experiencing poverty.

“It’s been a real pleasure to have the adviser role because it gives real opportunities to have influence, and that’s the whole point of doing it,” she tells Holyrood.


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The pragmatic approach to politics may well stem from Eisentstadt’s own upbringing. Born the fourth child of Jewish immigrants in Manhattan, by the time she had become aware of poverty her family had successfully lifted themselves out of it.

The family had had “extreme poverty in New York,” she says, including “all the classic stories of sharing a bath with the neighbours and all that stuff”.

They were moved into famous social housing developments in New York’s Lower East Side when Eisenstadt was very young.

“Eventually they got thrown out of social housing because my father by then was making too much money. Of course, it wasn’t a lot of money but it was all means tested. 

“So really, my siblings experienced more poverty than I ever did. By the time I was eight, nine, ten, I was in a decent house, you know. By the time it matters, which is really in the teen years, we were pretty much OK.”

And the progression of her family up the social ladder was clear to her when they moved into a house with a swimming pool when she was fourteen. She was aware of her parent’s excitement and sense of achievement.

Eisenstadt’s political awakening came as her teenage years coincided with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. 

“I had one friend through the politics, and we used to talk about the differences. I suppose we had more money [than her family] but I didn’t really think about it. It was much more about the politics. I went with her parents to my first civil rights demonstration.”

The pair also travelled to Washington for the famous anti-war demonstration in 1969.

“I just can’t believe our parents let us go. We were seventeen years old, getting on the train and we met this woman on the train who we thought was an old woman – she was probably a lot younger than I am now – and she had been a veteran of the campaigns in the south. She had in her handbag raw meat to feed to the dogs if they were set on us. 

“We were there, two seventeen-year-old girls, completely terrified! It was a peace demonstration. In the end it was fine, but this woman scared us so much. 

“To this day, I can’t remember where we stayed. We would have stayed overnight, it’s a five-hour train journey from New York to Washington. Our parents didn’t know where we were staying, it’s absolutely astonishing.”

There were “no doubts” the protesters were right about the war, she says, “and it turns out we were right”.

The experience of the civil rights movement still shapes her approach.

“One of the things I talk about now, and of course it relates to Scotland very strongly, and to local government in England and Scotland, is because of growing up in the civil rights era, I was very much in favour of a strong federal government. 

“A lot of the battles in the United States have been about states’ rights, where it was the ‘state’s right’ to prevent black people from voting. Er, no. But that notion about having some agreement on what happens at what level I still really struggle with, and I think we all struggle with it.”

Eisenstadt’s first experience of working with children in poverty, something which would inform the rest of her career, was actually in Scotland working in a social services day nursery in Edinburgh in the 1970s. She laughs as she remembers hearing the children reading back the stories she would read to them in her accent.

But there was not the awareness of effective interventions in such a setting as there is now, with a focus only on “how we looked after the children while they were there”.

Eisenstadt says the “unhelpful distinctions” between the social role and the educational role is something she has “fought against my whole life”.

“I mean, it still exists in how we organise childcare. Do we organise it as an early education experience or do we organise it for women’s labour participation? 

“That is a big issue for me. At the end of the day, a three-year-old does not distinguish between a social or educational intervention. 

“This whole business about ‘ready to learn’ – babies are born ready to learn, and by the time they get to nursery at three, they’ve already learned a huge amount, and that would have been at home. 

“These distinctions do not work for human beings. They work because professions have to organise themselves.”

At the day nursery of 1970s Edinburgh, the role of the parent was not considered. 

“We were only engaged in the childcare. And in those days the staff were rude about the parents. The parents couldn’t get it right – they were either too affectionate or couldn’t care less or whatever. I found that quite difficult.”

Eisenstadt would go on to have ample opportunities to work with struggling parents however, in a career which saw her employed by a number of third sector organisations including Save the Children and the Circle, and eventually leading to the establishment of the Sure Start centres under the Labour Government.

In her independent work for the Scottish Government, too, she has had “lots and lots” of opportunities to speak to women and men in poverty, she says, and this has demonstrated the pressures on people like Caley, the Holyrood baby Kirsty’s mum.

“On almost everything, money is essential but not sufficient,” says Eisenstadt. “I think not understanding the essential nature of some sort of minimum income is a real policy flaw.”

Government must reduce pressures on families through things like income transfers, benefits and parental leave while also increasing capabilities, she suggests.

“I don’t believe you can increase capabilities while you’re increasing pressures. So all the benefits cuts are increasing pressures while at the same time, the [UK] Government is very keen on parenting courses.

“Well, I’m really not that interested [in parenting courses] if my washing machine is broken. I want to get my washing machine fixed. It’s understanding those sorts of pressures.”

Diet is a good example, according to Eisenstadt. 

“All my experience and some significant research studies say families living in poverty know about good diet, but they can’t handle the stress and it costs more,” she says.

“Then people say, ‘oh yes, but you can make a very healthy vegetable soup for tuppence ha’penny’ and all that. It takes time, you need ingredients and the ingredients go off.

“It just annoys me when people don’t take into account all the other things you have to worry about. The cost of time, the cost of waste. 

“Fresh fruit and vegetables go off, and if the kids won’t eat them, and you have a big row, you know, you give them what you know they’re going to eat, because it’s easier. That’s OK. And it may even be more expensive, but it’s less expensive on the night.”

But can’t cookery lessons help?

“That’s assuming they can’t cook. The ‘they’, you know. We don’t complain that rich people who hire chefs can’t cook.”

She recalls one discussion with a group with the Circle organisation about different kinds of energy meters which revealed the “incredible detailed knowledge” of people living in poverty.

“Again, it’s one of those myths about poor people not knowing how to budget. God, these people know how to budget! They knew how to budget to 50p a week on their energy meters.”

“One of the most heartbreaking comments was a man who said, ‘I really wanted to do maths but at that school they didn’t think I could do maths’. Why not? Just the assumptions that are made about people, the overt discrimination against poor people.”

Eisenstadt’s passion for the subject attracted the attention of the Labour Government under Tony Blair, after Norman Glass’ work on under-fives awoke interest in integrated services. 

“Norman was a Treasury official, he went round voluntary organisations and someone said to him, if you’re interested in children and poverty, you really should talk to Naomi Eisenstadt. So that was how it all started,” she remembers.

“The Sure Start job was openly recruited but I was invited to apply, among others. In a million years, I’d never thought of myself as a civil servant.”

The shift into the public sector proved to be somewhat of a culture shock for her.

“It was thrilling. It was absolutely unbelievable. It felt like you spend 20 years of your life arguing with government about what they could do for young children and then they said, ‘right then, do it’ and they give you the biggest cheque in the world. It was amazing, and I do think we did some amazing stuff.”

A following year in an advisory role in the Education and Skills Department proved less satisfactory, when policy colleagues were resistant to advice.

Her recent experience in Scotland has been different because the policy teams have been more open to her working with them, she says. 

But this close relationship has been a factor in the questioning of her independence in the press.

“My answer to that is if you want to be effective then you need to bring along the people who are going to do it,” she says, pointing to how she could use government analysts and insight into ongoing policy direction.

As a result, the report was a product of productive discussion, but still contained things Eisenstadt “knew were never going to happen” such as measures on inheritance tax.

“The real question is: do you want to be seen as a great radical or do you want to achieve some change, and I wanted to achieve some change. I thought there was a better chance of achieving change in working with, rather than in opposition.”

Her work with the Labour Government was characterised by the establishment of the Sure Start centres, an area-based initiative to improve life chances for pre-school children in areas of deprivation. Children like the Holyrood baby.

Blair described it as “one of New Labour’s biggest achievements”, but funding for the centres in England has not been protected since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, and an FOI by Labour recently showed the number of centres had dropped by 34 per cent.

Eisenstadt recognises local authority budgets have been “very sharply” cut.

“I always felt three and a half thousand was too many, that we didn’t need them everywhere,” she says.

“The difficulty is once you put them everywhere, people fight for them when they begin to close. I consider it a major success that David Cameron’s mother was on the picket line to save their local children’s centre. 

“One of the things I feel most proud of in the whole Sure Start story is it is the first programme the government set up for poor people that everybody wanted. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.”

Don’t the cuts concern her, though?

“I would have liked, in terms of the cuts, to maintain very well-funded all-purpose centres in poor areas, and in fact, the closures don’t bother me as much as the hollowing out, claiming, ‘oh no we haven’t closed our centres’ but when you look, the centre is a person and a bunch of leaflets. 

“They can’t do anything then… you keep them open for political reasons but they are shells. That to me is a waste.”

It is clear Eisenstadt cares more about progress than party politics, but amid the tribal nature of Scottish politics, does she feel there has been enough progress following ‘Shifting the Curve?’
Moves to pilot different models of childcare are under way. 

There has also been a commitment to enshrine socio-economic status in human rights legislation, something which was in the UK bill but never enacted by the UK coalition government. “It will be interesting to see if that’s going to happen.”

As for linking schools with industry and the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda, “it’s happening [but] it’s just slow and in my view, it’s still not systematic enough. It’s not an expectation”.

This brings Eisenstadt back to her questions about the level of decision making.

“If you are in a rush you want to tell everybody to do it. You tell everybody to do it and you still get very mixed performance because the people who don’t want to do it don’t do it with any energy or enthusiasm. 

“At some level, you have to let locals decide for themselves because they’ll do it much better, but then you get more patchy delivery.”

Both Westminster and Scottish governments have been characterised by “power to the centre”, she says.

“I mean, everybody’s in favour of local democracy until it’s their issue. The voluntary sector is terrible on this.”

The Scottish Government’s plan to introduce ambitious national targets to reduce child poverty are welcomed by Eisenstadt “because it is not a zero-sum game”.

But both child poverty and inequality are rising in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK. Eisenstadt suggests Scotland should compile “counterfactual” reports on what would have happened if Scottish Government measures to mitigate the impact of UK cuts hadn’t been enacted.

“One of the things we looked at in the UK figures during the Blair-Brown years is not just how much child poverty fell but also, what if the things we did to make it fall hadn’t happened,” she says.
But under the Labour Government while child poverty went down, inequality rose “massively”, Eisenstadt concedes, something which proved unsustainable.

“It was very explicit. That was the very famous Peter Mandelson quote, ‘I’m seriously relaxed about the people at the top’.”

Inequality was not just driven by wage inequality, she says, but also shareholder value which was favoured over wages, while tax credits, funded by the taxpayer, were left to pick up the slack. And tax credits are now being cut, pushing more into poverty.

Isn’t it a source of frustration, then, that we are still talking about inequality and social justice fifty years after Eisenstadt became politically active?

She says the 2015 election, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump has left her and friends “in deep depression”, culminating in tears on inauguration day. 

However, the picture is not all gloomy. Eisenstadt says it has been “a joy” to work with a dedicated social justice team in Scotland, and she has seen real progress at points in her career. 

“It isn’t always worse, we did make some progress, and on social issues, I think the country is transformed. I mean, on gay issues the Church of Scotland is considering gay marriage! Who would have thought? Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.”

The life chances of young people remain an issue, however, when young people are starting jobs at lower salaries and there is still a focus on university rather than valuing all talents.

“We need the same kind of body of evidence that made the case for under-fives for the transition from adolescence into adulthood, and all the evidence from the Resolution Foundation stuff is that that is an area which has got significantly worse in a generation.”

Could the British class system play a cultural role in this? Eisenstadt points to the success of immigrant communities such as Ugandan Asians, Somalis and Pakistanis who have risen to middle-class careers in one generation, while the educational attainment of “poor white boys” who believe their future is written off persistently lags behind.

“There is a real social class issue in Britain which is very different from the United States.

“I still feel being American has really helped my career, because I don’t have a class accent and because I don’t respond to them. I’m curious, but I don’t have deference or rage.”

People don’t see her as an immigrant, she says, because she’s American and white. But she remains sharply aware of the experience of her father and mother who left middle-class backgrounds in Europe to enter absolute poverty in the US.

“I asked my mother when I started at Beanhill [in Milton Keynes], working with adults who were really poor, I said, ‘how did you manage it with four kids?’ She said, ‘I just never thought it would stay that way.’

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