In just under six months’ time, the Scottish people will go to the polls to elect the next Scottish Parliament, and with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting poverty’s damaging impact on people’s health, prospects and living standards, we must come together to take action, says Chris Birt.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. It has closed businesses, ended jobs and severed family ties and support networks. It has heaped stress on our public services, our economies and ourselves.
It has also shone a light on the devastating impact poverty can have on people’s lives. From a health perspective, people in our most deprived communities are twice as likely to die from coronavirus as those from our wealthiest. From an educational perspective, the gap in attainment will have widened as a result of interruptions to school and childcare. In housing, arrears are building up through no fault of tenants. Employment opportunities, already low paid and insecure, have become scarce.
But we know from past recessions – when storms strike our economy, it's our worst-off people who are hit hardest.
In Scotland, over one million people live in poverty. Around a quarter of them are children. It is worth reflecting on what that can mean – a cold house, empty cupboards and disappointed kids on Christmas Day. By any measure Scotland is a wealthy country and by any measure current poverty levels are unacceptable.
We need determined, collective action
While the economic shock caused by coronavirus could make this worse, it only will if we let it. we believe that through determined, collective action to tackle poverty we can solve it.
We are encouraged by the compassion shown by communities, businesses and public services to provide food, help people who are sleeping rough, and to break the isolation for people on their own. Fundamentally, though, it’s not right that people should need to turn to foodbanks, have to sleep rough, or need to live in temporary accommodation. We must strengthen our public services so we can all depend on them when we need them – and so that nobody is cut adrift.
Each of the parties in the Scottish Parliament have put us on the journey towards positive change, through the legally binding child poverty reduction targets. A key question for all the parties to answer in this election is how they will ensure we meet our interim targets in the next parliament.
We will be making the case for a renewed focus in three policy areas to reduce the number of children growing up in poverty:
- investing in good affordable housing that reduces people’s cost of living while giving them the safe and comfortable home that will all want and deserve.
- providing routes out of poverty through good-quality jobs
- a social security system that holds our people steady when they need it.
We need more new homes for social rent
We need to maximise the contribution housing can make, by accelerating delivery of sufficient, high-quality social housing, in areas of high demand. There is no way to achieve our child poverty targets without more families with children accessing lower-cost housing. We must find ways to stabilise housing costs overall and reduce the rent burden on all low-income households. Supply is crucial for ending homelessness, and for opening up opportunities for those who have been locked out – but quality placemaking is vital too and here we need to hear the voices of residents and tenants as loudly as we hear planners, developers and landlords in public policy.
We need to protect and create jobs
With unemployment rising significantly due to the pandemic, it places an even greater responsibility on government and business to protect and create jobs. If there is any silver lining in the pandemic, however, it has taught us that we can radically change the way that we work. We can be more flexible, we can be more digitally enabled and we can offer help to people who need it a bit more. Many of these new ways of working have, however, tended to benefit people who are already in higher-paid roles.
So we need to ensure that we are equipping people with the skills, resources and support to grasp those opportunities. To do this will require the co-ordinated effort of the public, voluntary and private sectors. Together we can make a significant difference to solving poverty through work if we are focused on sustained, effective action.
JRF has shown that the impact of coronavirus will be heightened for certain groups, such as low-paid workers, underemployed workers, and women and people from minority ethnic groups, who already faced additional barriers before coronavirus.
Better jobs that pay well are going to be vital to the recovery of the economy. In the coming months JRF will be working with grassroots partners, policy-makers and people with experience of poverty to develop solutions that enable work to be a reliable route out of poverty for parents on low incomes.
We need a strong social security system
On social security, actions like the Scottish Child Payment show the positive choices that the Scottish Parliament can make. This will pull tens of thousands of children out of poverty, and it will prevent more from being pushed into poverty because of the pandemic, providing exactly the kind of social security we all need – an anchor that holds us steady in tough times built upon dignity and respect.
In that vein, this Parliamentary Session will also see Social Security Scotland assume responsibility for benefits to support people with disabilities. In this initial phase, the Scottish Government has understandably prioritised a smooth transition and building a more person-centred system over significant changes to those benefits. This election, however, will allow parties to set out their position on the adequacy of current provision and any future changes they may wish to make.
Change is possible
No one claims it will be easy to turn the tide of poverty in Scotland. Even so, it was right to set ambitious targets, and now we have a shared responsibility to rise to this challenge. It will require us all to play our part, to focus on the changes that make the biggest impact, to listen to the people affected and to make bold decisions. We are excited to work alongside others to play our part in that effort.