Scotland's poverty challenges
The poverty debate in Scotland is at a crucial moment. Our report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation today identifies several distinct challenges for not just the Scottish government, but a range of other actors.
Spurred on by opposition to welfare reform, there has been a redoubling of efforts around reducing poverty in Scotland. This has not just come from the Scottish government, but a range of organisations, especially those with direct experience of poverty. Our report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, launched today, covers some of these efforts and charts the main trends in poverty over the last number of years. As part of this, we have identified what we consider to be the main poverty challenges for Scotland for the next few years.
The first challenge is to maintain and make use of the energy of the different organisations tackling poverty in Scotland. There have been a range of strategies produced by local councils as part of their poverty and fairness commissions and the detailed NHS outcome-focused plan and the focus should be on ensuring these produce tangible outcomes for people in poverty. Scotland has been in promising positions before, with a number of strategies and groups relating to poverty that have faded away without attention and without fulfilling their potential.
Beyond this strategic challenge, the most obvious specific challenge is in-work poverty, and ensuring the work on offer is good quality and well paid. The First Minister has made the living wage a key priority, and has tasked the Poverty Alliance with increasing accreditation in the private sector. This is an important part of the answer to in-work poverty, but it is not the only part. There are other areas that matter – for example, the report finds that in-work training, an important part of in-work progression, tends to benefit those who are less at risk of in-work poverty, such as full-time workers and those with higher levels of qualifications.
The second major poverty challenge is responding to the major changes in the statistics identified by our report. Increasingly it is the young, the working, and private renters who are in poverty. These changes are partly positive, due to large reductions in pensioner poverty and no increase in social housing costs relative to income These changes do though make things harder for government – people in the private rented sector are often more transient and perhaps less likely to be in receipt of social security.
But while the nature of poverty may be changing, some longer standing problems remain. There is a persistent gap in educational attainment between those from deprived and non-deprived backgrounds. And it is more than just about educational attainment – the Poverty Truth Commission has prioritised the costs of school and the stigma associated with not meeting them. Disability remains a significant social disadvantage - people with disabilities and their families are underrepresented in the poverty statistics, as disability benefits such as Disability Living Allowance are intended to meet extra costs, but are included as income in the statistics despite this. Excluding these, and we find almost a fifth of people in a family with at least one disabled adult are in ‘severe’ poverty, with less than half the median income, with 27% in total in poverty. Involving disabled people in the policy making that affects them is the bare minimum required to start resolving such inequities.
The last of these challenges is the one that was repeatedly mentioned during this project as the worst aspect of welfare reform – sanctions. Sanctions have been part of the social security system for a long time, but from 2010 have become much worse, both in terms of severity of the sanctions and the number handed out. In the most recent data, around 6% of all jobseekers were being sanctioned, with a further 4 to 5% being referred for a sanction. The fear of not knowing whether income is going to be lost is an often neglected psychological cost of the regime. It should be a priority to do all that possible to assist those sanctioned through increasing access to advice and hardship payments.
Much of the policy response and poverty debate in Scotland in recent years has focused around mitigating the impact of welfare reform. This is important and many of the actions welcome. But the problem of poverty is wider, and can’t be resolved by government alone. Harnessing a range of organisations and voices in pursuit of a strategy, and committing to it, is the overarching challenge for poverty in Scotland.