Eradicating child poverty is 'the right goal for this decade'
“Whoever is elected to Holyrood next May, thinking about the big turnover here in ministers and MSPs, we need to recommit to [child poverty] targets and not use the economic shock as an excuse,” insists Dr Jim McCormick, former chair of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission.
The targets set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 are challenging. The aim is to have fewer than ten per cent of children living in relative poverty and fewer than five per cent in absolute poverty by 2030.
The year it was passed, 24 per cent of children were in poverty; that’s almost one in four. And this year, defined by the pandemic and lockdown, has seen families reach out for support in unprecedented numbers. Crisis grant applications, foodbank usage and unemployment levels are all on the rise.
“But the biggest hurdle we’ve got is people really believing we can achieve this reduction [in child poverty],” says McCormick, who is now chief executive of The Robertson Trust. “The best way to persuade people we can do it is the power of the solution, the power of the proven example, and the cross-party commitment to not play games with this and to stick with proven interventions that get us there.
“It’s appropriate that politicians argue over the best way to get there, but there should be no argument about the fact that we should recommit and that this is feasible for a wealthy country like Scotland, pandemic or not.
“I think we need to re-energise everyone around this as the right goal for this decade.”
While the Poverty and Inequality Commission, the body tasked with holding the government to account, said it was “too early” to comment on progress towards the targets, numerous forecasts have predicted poverty will rise in the coming years. Doubt was cast on whether Scotland would meet its interim target even before the pandemic.
But that has not stopped those working in the sector being optimistic about what is possible.
One driver of this hope is the rollout of the Scottish Child Payment. Variously described as a “golden opportunity” and a “game changer”, the new benefit will see a weekly payment of £10 for each child in low income families. Phase one of the rollout will see the cash given to families with children under six, but the aim is to extend this to all children under 16 by 2022.
The benefit was due to be delivered before Christmas but was one of many policies put on the backburner at the start of the pandemic. However, after sustained pressure from stakeholders, including the Poverty and Inequality Commission, the government has now opened applications and aims to make the first payments in February.
There is still concern about the lack of support available to seven to 15-year-olds until it is fully rolled out though. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has been calling for interim measures to be put in place to bridge the gap.
Speaking to Holyrood on the day Nicola Sturgeon announced £100 would be provided to every family with a child in receipt of free school meals, John Dickie, director of CPAG in Scotland, says this was “a really welcome first step”. But he adds: “The challenge now will be to sustain that, to ensure that families get the support they need until the Scottish Child Payment is rolled out to all children in 2022.”
This will be a key ask of the 2021 election manifesto of the End Child Poverty coalition, of which CPAG is a member, in the new year. Another will be for the Scottish Child Payment to be doubled to £20 a week before its rollout is even complete. At its current level, it is predicted to lift 30,000 children out of poverty in 2023-24.
Dickie explains: “The harsh reality was that even pre-COVID, the wider cuts to social security support for families and the wider economic situation meant we were looking to see around 50,000 children pushed into poverty. So even to stand still essentially, to stop child poverty rising, will require a £20 Scottish Child Payment around which all the wider action is needed to support families in work.”
Dickie is also calling on the UK Government to increase support. He is concerned the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, announced last April but due to expire at the end of March, will push 22,000 children into poverty in Scotland alone.
We kind of abandon people once they’re in work... Your odds of escaping a low paid job are one in five over a decade.
But new or uprated benefits are no silver bullets. McCormick says: “The Scottish Child Payment, which is a golden opportunity to turn the trend around, will do some of the work, but it certainly won’t put us on course fully to where we need to be.
“We’re going to need, absolutely, other social security measures for families. But the kind of structural driver stuff is also about affordable housing and good jobs, fair work.”
These structural issues are much harder to change, though they are just as important as welfare. Increasing wages and reducing housing costs would help prevent families reaching crisis point in the first place.
The Poverty and Inequality Commission recommended the government “extend its commitment to investing in affordable housing beyond 2021 and go further in investing more in social rented homes”, while the Edinburgh Poverty Commission made clear there was “no pathway to ending poverty in Edinburgh without resolving the city’s housing crisis.”
The Edinburgh report also highlighted work was not always a route out of poverty and called for more to be done to challenge low pay and security of earnings. While there is a limit to how much the Scottish Government can do in terms of labour market regulation, which is a reserved area, McCormick says it should use commissioning and procurement levers to put in place “more demanding targets or conditions”.
Specifically, he argues that for every £1m of public money, one full-time job with training ought to be created. He also believes a push for living hours – guaranteeing adequate and predictable hours of work – would help build on the success of the living wage campaign.
And a devolved area he says Scotland has “fallen short” on for the last 20 years is supporting people to progress in their careers. He tells Holyrood: “We kind of abandon people once they’re in work and then we wonder why progression rates are so poor. Your odds of escaping a low paid job are one in five over a decade. That’s a story of economic mobility has stalled.
“I think the best marker of a just recovery in this decade is going to be whether we can open up progression pathways for people again and do it through a lens of equalities, because this isn’t just about any job for anyone, it is about those highest poverty risk groups.”
This is a particular concern for lone parent families. Over 90 per cent of single parents are women, who are already more likely to be in part-time work and are impacted by the gender pay gap. Single mothers often find it harder to progress in their careers because of childcare responsibilities or hidden costs of training.
Satwat Rehman, director of One Parent Families Scotland, explains: “I do think there are structural issues with the labour market. The casualisation of work, the expectation of flexibility, the gig economy – all these things, they’re there and they make it very difficult for the families that we work with, the parents that we work with.
“We also need to look to see, what do we need to invest in to make it so that we’re able to support single parents to be able to gain qualifications and the training in order to move into jobs that are beyond entry level?
“Or to be able to progress in work and not just remain stuck at a certain level because they’re unable to access either in-work training opportunities or because it’s been very difficult to get qualifications through further education because of the difficulties in the way they interact with the benefit system and having to go on and off benefits. There are all these things put in place that make it more difficult and make it more insecure for families.”
Part of the solution to this problem is ensuring training opportunities are open to everyone. There also needs to be flexible childcare, a point reiterated by the Poverty and Inequality Commission, which called for the commitment to 1,140 hours to be reinstated this academic year.
As the Edinburgh Poverty Commission highlighted, all of this requires a significant amount of partnership working between the two governments, local authorities, and the public, private and third sectors. It isn’t just about topping up incomes but also removing the routes into poverty.
McCormick says: “Some families, all they need is that support with their bills and their ability to make ends meet. Others will have unresolved housing problems or relationship problems or trauma that’s unresolved and is holding them back.
“The more we can, there’s that horrible word ‘holistic’, but the more we can take seriously Social Security Scotland’s local delivery presence and start forming gateways that plug people into much, if not all, of the support they need – again, that idea of embedding and making the journey as easy as possible – the more we can do that, we’ll get better outcomes and we’ll also make savings. [It’s] better value for money if people can be supported across many fronts rather than doing it separately.”
And while COVID has and will put pressure on resources, McCormick says many of the groups supported by The Robertson Trust have benefitted from having to step back and reconsider how services are delivered.
“We see many organisations making greater use of digital and telephony support, in a kind of triage sense, for people in Scotland who are comfortable and equipped to receive advice in that way. What it also does, if we get it right, is it frees up that capacity for longer-term, face-to-face working with people who want or need that type of support – opening up more channels, more choice for people, offering that support much faster so people don’t have to get to the point of crisis, ideally.”
This holistic, preventative approach ultimately means putting in place measures to support families at highest risk of poverty – single parent families, those with a disabled member of the household and the BME community.
And as the footballer Marcus Rashford proved with his campaign on free school meals, there is clear public support to ensure children are not living in poverty, so perhaps it is the politicians that need to get ahead of the curve by making the eradication of child poverty the worthy goal of the next ten years.