How can Scotland right the wrong of child poverty?

We can right the wrong of child poverty, argues Emma Congreve, but to succeed we need the Scottish Government to show steady determination and a commitment to properly align policies.

Far-reaching targets to reduce child poverty

We have far-reaching targets to substantially reduce child poverty by 2030, set out in the Child Poverty Delivery plan. Research published yesterday by JRF shows just how vital this is.

Just under a year ago, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation that paves the way for a Scotland where child poverty is almost eradicated. It sent a clear signal that Scottish society will not tolerate the harm to our children that poverty causes and action must be taken.

Child poverty in Scotland is a moral outrage, with 230,000 children living below the poverty line. This covers children and parents in many different locations and situations. But there are common circumstances, like having a disability or needing to care for young children, that increase the likelihood of being in poverty.

90,000 children in poverty in Scotland are in households where there is a disability. Half of these children have no parents in paid work, and a significant number have just one parent at work. Paid work may be an option for many of these parents if they had the appropriate support.

Challenges for families

The bulk of children are families where at least one parent works. However, many have one parent (usually the mother) at home looking after a young child. It is easy to see how this, coupled with low earnings and insecure work for the working parent, can sweep families into poverty’s grip. Part-time work is also often a feature of child poverty.

The challenges families face balancing work and care are familiar concerns for parents across the country. And the reality is that it is still usually mothers taking on the bulk of the childcare responsibilities. That leads us to an unbalanced labour market; a key cause of the gender pay gap which is damaging not just to women’s earning potential, but to the potential of the whole economy. And too often, it also leads to poverty.

Our research has found that parents of younger children are the most at risk of poverty. While the main carer in a family (single parent or one of a couple) with a child under three years isn’t expected to work under Universal Credit rules, financially they may need to if they are to make ends meet. Finding suitable work that pays sufficiently well, alongside affordable and flexible childcare and travel, is sometimes an insurmountable challenge. While families find their feet, there should be an effective safety net in place.

How the Government can help

Outwith social security, there is so much that the Scottish Government could do to help. We need more affordable and flexible childcare for children of all ages. Parents need to be able to choose when is the best time to return to work for them and their children. As well as pre-school care, after school and holiday care is vital to reflect the realities of working lives. But there is a role here for employers, managers and colleagues. Flexibility in the workplace can mean the difference between a relatively secure financial situation and going without the essentials.

Part-time working may be the right solution for some parents, but the gender pay gap won’t shift if it is always women that take the reduced hours and not men. Many men want to take on more caring responsibilities, but some find that employers are resistant to extending paid and unpaid leave to them. Attitudes of peers and line managers in the workplace are also important, alongside formal procedures. We all have a responsibility to be compassionate managers and colleagues. Be kind when your colleague say they need to leave for a childcare emergency and be encouraging when a new father mentions that they’d like to work fewer hours to take on more care responsibilities. 

And parents with a disability or limiting health condition have even more on their plate to deal with. Ill health is often a consequence of poverty, as well as a barrier to leaving it. It is hard to see how this vicious circle can be circumvented without society’s help.  

The Scottish Government are currently working up plans for closing the gender pay gap and the disability employment gap. The potential impact on poverty could be transformational.

What we need:

  • The Scottish Government must provide support, alongside employers, in their efforts to halve the disability employment gap.
  • As people move into work, the UK Government must reinstate the original work allowance for Universal Credit to give low-income working families the boost they desperately need.
  • Businesses and employers are the agents of change here, but the Scottish Government can do more to encourage, lead by example and set out a clear vision for what they expect from employers.
  • The Scottish Government must stand by its commitments in the Child Poverty Act and ensure labour market policies and poverty policies are strongly aligned. Otherwise, progress towards meeting the targets will be held back.