Comment: Ending poverty should be part of the new normal
Edinburgh has a unique opportunity to be a flagship for our aspiration to end poverty in Scotland.
Our capital entered lockdown the country’s wealthiest city, second only to London in the UK.
But beyond the allure of the World Heritage Site, 80,000 Edinburgh citizens, 15 per cent of the city’s population, were already living in poverty – including one in four children.
We will be counting the cost of the crisis for months to come. Yet one thing is certain: those figures will have moved in the wrong direction.
It’s not simply because the crisis has brought poverty into sharp relief that the city has a chance to make it history.
For the last 15 months, 12 commissioners, led by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Jim McCormick, have been laying the groundwork to make change for good.
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission was launched in November 2018, long before COVID-19 turned our world upside down. But people living in poverty didn’t need a public health crisis to know what scraping along the bottom felt like. They were already there.
As Chris Kilkenny, commissioner and community campaigner in Edinburgh, says: “The crisis has highlighted how many people live anyway.”
People previously protected from the effects of poverty will have been thrown in its path by this crisis. But for those living in poverty before COVID-19, anxiety, insecurity and hypervigilance were the old normal, not the new.
If ever we needed reminding that poverty traps, this pandemic has provided it. Take, for example, low paid work.
On 23 March we were told to stay at home for our safety. But a recent ONS study shows that during lockdown, those with the lowest household incomes increased their total time in paid work, working a similar amount of time outside of the home as they did in 2014 to 2015.
At the same time, the Resolution Foundation has revealed that typical pay for workers in shutdown sectors is less than half that of those able to work from home.
Almost three-quarters of those on zero-hours contracts are either key workers or work in shutdown sectors.
The crisis means that the work of the commission is more urgent than ever. But fine words aside, what hope of a better future for people living in poverty might it herald?
The road to poverty is paved with good intentions. We have a rich history of commissions and inquiries. And the last three months have seen calls for more, my own previous Holyrood column included.
So, in COVID-19’s wake, can this initiative really make a difference?
“This interim report is not the one we expected to publish,” says McCormick. “After 15 months of connecting with people and organisations across the city, we planned to publish a shared view of how to end poverty in Edinburgh.”
Now, he says, as the commission grapples with the landscape left by the crisis, all its work has been banked. It has captured the heartache laid bare and heartening stories of community endeavour.
“We are clearer than ever about the principles and values that should guide the city’s actions – and we will set out the material and relational changes needed for the long-term in our final report in the autumn.”
The interim report provides a glimpse of what that vision might look like.
The commission’s goal is unashamedly ambitious. This is not about mitigating poverty’s worst effects. The working title of the movement it seeks to galvanise is EndPovertyEdinburgh.
That movement, the interim report urges, “must be of people with experience of poverty and their allies, drawn from public and third sector services and business and also those citizens who have shown solidarity in such force in recent weeks.”
It is easy to see such a focus on relational solutions as soft and fluffy. Yet the history of another pandemic tells a different story.
Through this crisis I have been re-reading David France’s book How to Survive a Plague, the story of alliances between people with AIDS, the scientific establishment and public institutions.
Those alliances were messy – and far from comfortable for the powerful. But today, 20 million people are alive thanks to the breakthrough in treatment they catalysed.
While whole system change is unavoidable, the commission’s report stresses that local solutions matter too.
“We should aim for small teams, drawing staff from statutory, third and business sectors operating at a small local level using simple existing methods to connect, assess need and build on assets.”
In other parts of the country, such solutions may look different. But the core principles will still apply. And getting it right for Edinburgh could have a significance far beyond the city.
There will be those who say that even a city as wealthy as Edinburgh cannot afford to end poverty – at least not right now.
For McCormick and his commissioners, the reverse is true. “People are asking for such modest things,” he says.
Changes and benefits introduced during lockdown must be locked in and built on.
The commission’s message for Edinburgh is unmistakable. It must find a way to make its private wealth work for public good. If not now, when?