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by Tom Freeman
01 July 2014
Choosing poverty

Choosing poverty

On the one hand, 30,000 more Scottish children have fallen into poverty. On the other, no change.

The fact today’s poverty figures contradict each other tells a story in itself. The UK Government remain resolute in their conviction with regards to income inequality. Chancellor George Osborne maintained in his budget the coalition’s ‘austerity’ measures have not made Britain more unequal. The Department of Work and Pensions’ report today says the percentage of children in relative and absolute low income has generally remained flat. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and many other independent studies say otherwise.

Today’s figures from the Scottish Government, too, use relative poverty, defined as having a household income of less than 60 per cent of the average. Nevertheless, they are the latest in a long list of studies and statistics showing families in the lowest income bracket are struggling to feed their children.

It is therefore inevitable poverty is now a central theme of the independence debate. While the Government in the UK deny the levels of poverty, Yes Scotland has used child poverty in one of its poster campaigns, and Labour has said erecting a border would drive wages down.

But for those voters who care more about what kind of country they live in than what it’s called, where are the real political solutions?

Public health expert Sir Michael Marmot told the Health and Sport Committee recently inequality and child poverty is a political choice. “A choice has been made that the worst-off should suffer more as regards the percentage decline in income as a result of the operation of the tax and benefits system. The lower someone’s income, the greater the drop. That is a political choice,” he said.

Looking across Scotland’s political diaspora it is difficult to identify the political leaders who will choose another path and create a more equal country, regardless of whether it is independent or not.

The SNP put transforming childcare at the heart of the White Paper, but it does little to tackle low pay and poor working conditions; and the party are reluctant to talk about an independent Scotland with higher taxes. Meanwhile Labour have committed to match the coalition’s cuts and capping benefits. Only last week Ed Miliband committed to replacing benefits for 18-21 year olds with a ‘youth allowance’.

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland told Holyrood recently: “There are some fundamental choices facing the politicians, but also all of us as a society: are we willing to pay for the social infrastructure we know is the hallmark of societies with low levels of child poverty? And are we willing to pay to tackle low pay and to redistribute pay within the labour market to ensure nobody is left with a wage packet that can’t feed their own children?”

A more honest and open discussion about tax from all sides, and how it could be used to tackle poverty, would inform those who have yet to make up their minds about the future of the country.

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