Scottish voters restless for greater push to tackle poverty as targets loom

New polling of over 2,000 adults in Scotland has found that:

Poverty is a high priority issue for three-quarters of people in Scotland.
Around three-quarters (73%) of people in Scotland believe poverty can be significantly reduced, but three in five (63%) believe the Government could do more to achieve this.
Previous analysis suggests the Scottish Government will miss its child poverty target by 4%, rising to 6% if the uplift in Universal Credit is cut in September as planned.

The polling, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), suggests political parties in Scotland must respond to public concerns about poverty ahead of May’s election. When compared to other key issues, poverty was one of the five issues most likely to be selected as a priority for the next Scottish government, alongside the NHS, the economy, jobs and employment, and education. Poverty is a particularly salient issue among young people (those aged 16-24), almost 4 in 10 (38%) of whom ranked it within their top-three issues.

The pandemic has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief. Many of the people who were struggling the most before Covid-19 have been hit hardest by its economic impact. At the same time, many families have been pulled under for the first time by strong currents of unemployment, ill health, and financial uncertainty. In Scotland, around one million people are trapped in poverty, around a quarter of whom are children. This new poll suggests there is strong public appetite to tackle this injustice. To connect with voters’ concerns and values, all parties must set out ambitious and credible plans to tackle poverty in their manifestos.

The Scottish Parliament has binding cross-party targets to reduce child poverty to 10% by 2030. Whichever Government is elected in May will be responsible for meeting the interim target of 18% by 2023/24. The Scottish Child Payment introduced last month is a welcome step, but recent JRF analysis found this action alone still leaves Scotland on course to miss its interim target by 4%, which is equivalent to 40,000 children.

There is public appetite for further action, with 3 in 5 respondents (63%) feeling that the Scottish Government could do more to help tackle poverty in Scotland, and over half (54%) feeling that they could do more to specifically help low-income families with children.

Around three-quarters of people in Scotland (73%) believe poverty can be significantly reduced. Across all ages and political affiliations, a majority of people hold this belief. This suggests a nationwide consensus that with the right action, poverty in Scotland could be solved. However, only 11% believe this can be achieved with Scotland’s current public services and economy. Political parties should be encouraged by the public’s belief that it is possible to reduce poverty, while recognising there is little faith in current policy choices and that significant changes will be required and must be communicated well.

Meeting the child poverty targets will require bold action. With families in Scotland on Universal Credit – a benefit whose level is set by the UK Government – facing a £20 cut to their incomes in September, it is set to become greater still. All parties must therefore demonstrate a scale of ambition in their manifestos to match the scale of the challenge ahead.

This means political leaders must look at housing and work alongside social security as levers that can free families from poverty. In its new briefing, JRF sets out several recommendations, including ensuring the delivery of social housing that will bring down poverty levels; action on rent arrears and debt to prevent poverty and homelessness; and work alongside employers and public agencies to deliver a Fair Work Nation that ends in-work poverty.

As part of the polling, JRF explored which policy solutions would command public support, focusing on the benefits system. The most supported intervention was the concept of a minimum income guarantee – which we defined as where the state guarantees that your income does not fall below a certain level – with over three quarters (77%) of respondents supporting it and just 12% opposing it. It was supported by over 60% of those intending to vote in the next Holyrood election and was the intervention most supported by those who said they had not decided how they would vote.

More general proposals that saw high levels of support from respondents targeted increased benefits to groups more vulnerable to poverty, many of which reflect the priority groups identified as at risk of poverty by the Scottish Government. Improving support for groups such as single parents or disabled people, was supported by 72% of respondents while increasing the level of benefits for families with children who are in poverty was supported by 71% of respondents. Both interventions were supported by more than half of potential voters across all political parties.

As a result, JRF are calling on the next Scottish Government to commit to agreeing a floor below which people in Scotland’s income should not drop, as a first step in identifying how we can work to stop people from falling below this level.

Chris Birt, JRF’s Deputy Director for Scotland said:

“Poverty is a high priority in Scottish voters’ minds ahead of the election in May, and parties that wish to resonate with the public’s concerns and values must put a plan to tackle Scotland’s stubbornly high poverty levels at the heart of their campaign for election.

“All parties in Scotland have made a promise to stamp out child poverty. This is a powerful sign that in our country, we will not tolerate the injustice of poverty. But progress is worryingly slow, and people believe the government could do more. We need to see ambitious and detailed plans from all parties that outline how they can achieve their promise. Meeting these targets would mean freeing tens of thousands of children from the grip of poverty, allowing them instead to grow up healthy, safe and ready to thrive as adults.”