How Scotland can do the right thing: loosen poverty's grip on children

Getting Scotland’s goal of achieving one of the lowest child poverty rates for decades back on track needs longer-term investment at scale.  

Since then, progress has begun to unravel. Child poverty in Scotland now stands at 24% - almost a quarter of a million children - the same rate as in Northern Ireland but 7% lower than in England.   

Child poverty in lone-parent families

The first Scottish government formed twenty years ago this week. Since then, politicians have sought to advance Scotland’s image as a compassionate nation, aiming to reduce the grip of poverty with strategies on social justice, closing the opportunity gap, and opportunity for all.

When MSPs sat for the first time, one in three children in Scotland were in poverty (32%). Over the next decade child poverty fell steadily, and dipped to 21% five years ago – the lowest rate recorded among the four UK nations over the period. This was driven in part by a very substantial drop in poverty among lone-parent families reflecting rising employment, working and child tax credits.

Child poverty: progress is unravelling

JRF’s latest analysis Poverty in Scotland 2018 shows how far progress on child poverty depends on driving down poverty for families where someone has a disability or limiting illness. Fully 40% of children in poverty live in a family with a disability. The same analysis shows two out of every three children in poverty are in a family where someone has a job. The majority of families in poverty are couples where at least one adult is employed. We can’t understand modern-day poverty without looking at the role of jobs. 

With wider powers following the 2014 independence referendum and the Smith Commission, Scotland has chosen to prioritise families with children. In 2017, the Child Poverty Act was passed into law with all-party support, setting four targets to be met by 2030 and interim targets by 2023-24. Its headline measure (relative child poverty after housing costs) needs to fall from 24% currently, to 18% within four years and ultimately 10%. But all current projections point the other way: instead of realising the ambition of the Act, Scotland could instead be returning to one in three children in poverty and a generation of progress coming undone.

Forecasting is not fate. Ten years ago, Scotland’s powers to make its own dent in poverty were mostly focussed around keeping housing costs affordable and improving the childcare, education and skills that would boost longer-term prospects. In 2019, Scotland has extra powers over income and property tax, social security and employability which increase its capacity to solve child poverty. Even now, a great deal depends on whether this is helped or hindered by Westminster. While the rising minimum wage acts as an anchor for workers in poverty, the UK benefits freeze, ongoing flaws in Universal Credit and other welfare changes have without doubt created powerful counter-currents making the job in Scotland tougher.  

So what are the next steps to ensure that Scotland continues to develop in the direction of the compassionate and just society we all want?

  1. There is a deeper challenge than we anticipated. Our Destitution in the UK reports have shown the extent of severe poverty in cities like Glasgow driven recently by the benefits freeze, sanctions and deductions. The Scottish Government has mitigated some UK welfare changes, including full funding of Discretionary Housing Payments. It is likely to come under pressure to go further. Poverty will not be solved without ending destitution.
  2. Despite Scotland’s relative advantages on housing affordability and ground-breaking legislation on homelessness in the first term of the Scottish Parliament, the recent Homelessness Monitor shows progress has now stalled. Too many people are getting stuck for too long in temporary accommodation, including families with children. Affordable housing supply needs to be maintained post-2021.
  3. The Scottish Government’s Fair Work First approach will need to go further, both for workers stuck in poverty and those trapped outside the jobs market, not least disabled people and lone parents who need flexibility in care, work and benefits if policy ambitions are to be realised. The welcome growth of Living Wage employers is one part of the fair work picture. Enabling employers to offer adequate working hours is another. 
  4. Devolution of some social security powers marks a new chapter for Scotland. Working with people who have direct experience of legacy benefits, a new Social Security Charter signals a desire to improve the quality of service for applicants – an approach that should influence the other public services we all rely upon. Current policies offer the promise of dignity, respect and fairness, but less in terms of reducing poverty. An exception is the promise of an Income Supplement for low-income families, which offers a golden opportunity to shift the dial on child poverty.

Scotland has backed legislation with the goal of achieving one of the lowest rates of child poverty in the OECD, not just the lowest in the UK. Doing the right thing will require longer-term investment at scale and a commitment to build the public and political will to solve poverty.