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Beating poverty takes more than good intentions

Children at play in Glenburn, Paisley, an area of multiple deprivation. Credit: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

Beating poverty takes more than good intentions

"Crushing hardship"; parents being 'bullied and cajoled' by a benefits system in which "perverse incentives" are driving them to the limits of their capacities.

There's no sugar-coating in the latest report into the scourge of child poverty in Scotland, in which angry, urgent language seems to try to grab the reader by the shoulders and shake them into paying attention.

Its authors, Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, say it'll take the "urgency" of the governments' Covid response to overcome the hardships now blighting life for so many families.

And while the cost-of-living crisis and 10 per cent inflation are undeniably pushing households into a "devastating struggle to make ends meet", it's taking no excuses for a lack of progress, saying many of the underlying problems "predate high inflation and Covid-19".

Families – most likely single parents, those from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, people with disabled children or babies under one – are experiencing "crushing hardship", it says, fueled in part from the way the dominant UK benefits system "bullies and cajoles parents who are often facing overwhelming pressures".

The cash provided by the Department for Work and Pensions – which still controls 85 per cent of social security in Scotland, despite the devolution of some benefits – is "meagre" and the system is "full of complexity, stigma and perverse incentives" to work that, in reality, are harming their mental health, the findings say.

For many, there's no cushion to fall on - the "constant worry of paying bills, putting food on the table or a phone call from the Job Centre, matched with the scarcity of services to both avoid and treat mental ill-health is a toxic brew that is already holding people back," the report found.

It's a depressing, maddening picture of mums and dads skipping meals and leaving their kids unwashed for lack of credit on the electricity meter, and its one that many will find frustratingly familiar. "That any parent should have to go hungry themselves to feed their child in a country as wealthy as ours is shameful," the report says, "that so many have, surely has to make us stop and wonder whether we are getting things right."

It's an area Holyrood has been tracking for years. The work gave birth to Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, six years ago as a way to monitor progress, or lack thereof, on deprivation and its effects. "Unfortunately, things aren't really looking any brighter for Kirsty than they were last year," Fiona King of Save the Children told us as we marked the girl's sixth birthday. "There are a tsunami of issues and Kirsty and her mum will be really struggling. The pandemic will have had an impact on Kirsty's education and ability to grow and develop."

There are some positive notes. Measures in the Scottish Government's Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan look set to reduce child poverty rates to 19 per cent, according to calculations by the Fraser of Allander Institute, and the Scottish Child Payment is a "crucial lifeline".

But 19 per cent is still not 18 per cent, which is the Scottish Government's stated target for 2023-24.

Social justice secretary Shona Robison has said that tackling poverty is a "national mission" and actions on employment and household costs, plus further rollout of the Scottish Child Payment, will make a difference.

And she's said that Scottish children "deserve" change, something she is "determined" to continue.

But elements within the plan on housing, economic transformation, employability and mental health are "concerningly short on either action, scale or urgency", the report found: "Meeting the child poverty targets will require some hard choices but the Plan does not seem to address what many of those choices are – either leaving them to other strategies or plans or remaining silent on them...  parents and children do not need to be told what the future might look like, they need to see it changing now."

It takes more than good ideas and intentions to beat poverty; it takes money too. A separate report by the Resolution Foundation and London School of Economics today raises yet more questions about what resources will be available to employers to increase wages and governments to implement policies. Brexit has led to a fall in the "openness and competitiveness" of the UK economy, it says, and the drop in trade openness "is not explained by changes in the pattern of global trade during the pandemic".

It's the kind of finding Remainers can wave aloft, saying, 'I told you so'. But with a projected 1.3 per cent drop in labour productivity by the end of the decade and real pay set to be £470-per-worker lower than otherwise, there's little for anyone to celebrate in these figures.

A weaker economy means a more difficult labour market and will likely make things even harder for those households already struggling and the others who are now just getting by, but wondering how long they can hold onto the cliff edge.

Scotland is expected to outperform the rest of the UK, but within the shared British economy and under the watch of a UK Chancellor who directs so much spending, there can be no complacency about the fact that what happens elsewhere will affect fortunes here, regardless. A border alone will not keep households in the black. And this also conceals other regional impacts, such as the painful 30 per cent decline forecast for the fishing industry, which provides lifeline work for coastal communities which may face big questions about their future.

Maybe we all do. 

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