Poverty and politics

Poverty is a result of political choices, says Alison Johnstone.

Yesterday was the start of Scotland’s annual Challenge Poverty Week. It comes at a horribly difficult time for so many of our poorer families who were struggling even before the economic impact of Coronavirus.

It is a disgrace that in a country as wealthy as Scotland, we have more than 230,000 children, almost a quarter, who are growing up in poverty.

In some parts of the region I represent, home to some of the most prosperous areas of the country, a third or more are in poverty: 33% in Whitburn and Blackburn; 34% in Forth and Leith, and 39% in Sighthill-Gorgie.

This week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation issued a stark warning that Scottish Government targets for the reduction of child poverty will be missed.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Additional cash in Child Benefits, Child Tax Credits and other entitlements produced big falls in poverty in the 2000s and we can do that again.

The forthcoming Scottish Child Payment is the Scottish Government’s flagship child poverty policy and Greens welcome it warmly, but only as a first step. When fully rolled-out, the annual investment of £179m will fall well short of the £250m Greens called to invest in additional Child Benefit. And projections are that 118,000 children who are eligible for the payment will miss out, due to take-up far lower than Child Benefit achieves.

The Scottish Government takes a worrying attitude to further investment. When presented with plans to boost the payment by ensuring it doesn’t fall relative to rising earnings, a modest additional £4m a year in the first year, the Scottish Government said the extra money would represent “a significant and persistent impact upon the wider Scottish budget”. But this ignores the fact that the cost of child poverty runs into the billions every year.

The UK Government must play its part too, reversing the cuts that have done so much damage and retaining the temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit.

We shouldn’t lose sight of what we can do locally, as the much-awaited Edinburgh Poverty Commission’s report, A Just Capital, has shown us. The Commissioners heard evidence that getting help with housing, benefits and other issues is too difficult and too bureaucratic and more local centres where different forms of support can be offered under one roof would be the “single biggest transformation Edinburgh could achieve” to tackle poverty.

Of those 230,000 children, 30,000 are in poverty mainly due to the cost of housing. That is why we need to continue to build many more homes for lower social rents; tackle the scourge of short term lets which take potential homes away from families and bring in much stronger rent controls.

Poverty is not inevitable. It is a result of political choices. We can ensure that we all have what we need if we are willing to pay for it through investment in our social security system, social housing and other public services. And like its approach to the Climate Emergency, the Scottish Government’s eye-catching targets aren’t going to solve it unless they are backed up by urgent action.

With just ten years to go to meet such ambitious poverty reduction targets, time for making these big, bold changes is running out.