Scotland should be a place where every child gets a good start in life and can succeed. Poverty holds children back and hinders their progress, yet a quarter of children in Scotland currently experience poverty.
Parents trying to juggle working and caring responsibilities, jobs that don’t always offer a pathway out of poverty, and the high cost of housing, all combine to lock families in a daily struggle to make ends meet.
This is not acceptable, and it is a problem virtually all Scots agree must be tackled.
The Scottish Government has set out ambitious targets in its Child Poverty Act to redress this injustice. The Act was supported by every party in the Scottish Parliament, meaning that child poverty reduction will remain a priority regardless of changing governments – as well it should.
The Scottish Poverty and Inequality Commission – on which I sit – was asked to advise Government on a delivery plan that would hit the targets and loosen the grip of poverty on families in Scotland. Our advice was to focus on the three areas that will have most impact:
- Boosting incomes through work. Work is the best route out of poverty for most people. The plan should target employment support at those who can work. For those in work, but still living in poverty, Government needs to test different approaches to support people to move into a better job or (where possible) work more hours, so work really does pay. The city-region and growth deals are one avenue for delivering this, and it must be clear what contribution they will make to delivering lower child poverty.
- Using social security powers. The Scottish Government can use its new social security powers to top-up benefits, providing a lifeline to families struggling against the current of events that threaten to pull them further into poverty. Topping-up the child element of Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit (payments targeted at low-income families with children) is more than twice as effective at reducing child poverty compared to spending the same amount topping-up child benefit (which some have called for). Factors such as benefit take-up and the impact on work incentives must also be considered, but the government must remain focused on policies that have maximum impact on reducing child poverty.
- Keeping housing costs down. High housing costs restrict the choices people can make – forcing choices between heating and paying the rent. The Scottish Government’s welcome commitment to building more low cost rented homes will mean families have more disposable income to spend on other essentials. The priority should be those areas with the highest need.
Scotland has the right ambition to solve the injustice of high levels of child poverty, but it now needs to deliver. The right plan, aligned with creative and focused use of its powers, will enable the Scottish Government to demonstrate to the rest of the UK what happens when you unlock children’s potential by reducing child poverty.