We Can – And Need to – Grip the Scandal of Child Poverty

It was reported this month that child poverty has risen in every council area in Scotland since 2015. The biggest rise is in Glasgow, where one in three children lives in poverty. 

This cannot be blamed on Covid. Child poverty was rising in every local authority area in Scotland even before the pandemic struck. 

Along with the drugs crisis and the mental health crisis that we never talk about, tackling child poverty should be right at the top of the Scottish Government’s social policy agenda. 

Yet, such minimal debate about child poverty that we have at all in Scotland, focuses only on the symptoms of poverty and not on its underlying causes. There is no mystery about what those causes are. Family breakdown, unemployment, addiction, and poor educational attainment drive families into poverty and keep them there. 

All of these areas of policy fall within the devolved competence of the Scottish Government. 

Scottish Ministers are fond of saying that, in a country as wealthy as ours, there is nothing inevitable about poverty. It is the product not of destiny, but of the policy choices we as a country make. They are right about that. Different policy choices, made here in Scotland, would make a material difference to child poverty in our country. 

But, rather than making those different choices, we have instead a blizzard of next to useless papers, documents, plans, and commissions. We have a Fairer Scotland Action Plan (2016); a Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017; a Child Poverty Delivery Plan (2018); two Annual Progress Reports (2019 and 2020) and a Poverty and Inequality Commission with—you guessed it!—a Strategic Plan (2020). 

Read it and weep for the sheer bone-headed pointlessness of it all. The amount of civil service time and resource that is wasted on this production of glossy feel-good picturesque guff is shameful—and, meanwhile, child poverty grinds on, rising in every single council area in the country. 

As ever in Scotland, the issue is stuck in a deep rut of constitutional paralysis and finger-pointing. SNP ministers point to Universal Credit (which is reserved to Westminster) and to the fact that most powers over welfare and social security remain in the UK Government’s hands. They conveniently ignore two truths. First that the Scottish Parliament has the power to top-up any reserved benefit. And, second, that Holyrood also has the power to create any new benefit it wishes in a devolved area (and family policy has been devolved in full since 1999). 

But this tired old argument about powers fundamentally misses the point. Child poverty is not going to be solved by benefits alone. Benefits put cash into otherwise empty pockets—they are an essential safety net—but even the most generous benefits system in the world will never address the underlying factors that drive families into poverty in the first place. Benefits tackle the symptoms of poverty, not its causes. 

And this is what is missing in Scotland—an honest debate about how to grip poverty’s underlying drivers. For we are never going to push poverty down unless we understand it not through the prism of benefits, but through the prisms of education, work, childcare and housing. The attainment gap is not only a consequence of poverty—it is one of the key reasons why families remain in poverty, unable to escape. Families who feel they have no choice but to abandon work because of the inflexibility of childcare are families who experience, every day, our failure to understand that employment support and flexible childcare are policies critical for an effective anti-poverty strategy. And failures to meet (even modest) social housebuilding targets are failures that contribute directly to the deepening and widening of child poverty in Scotland. When the number of children in temporary accommodation in Scotland is the highest on record, is it any wonder that child poverty is on the rise throughout our country?

All of this—every single aspect of it—falls squarely within the devolved competence of the Scottish Ministers. 

That is why a politics that focuses on schools and skills and jobs and housing is the politics we need. Because a politics that focuses on these things will be a politics that tackles child poverty at cause. Extending free school meals will tackle child poverty. Recruiting teachers will tackle child poverty. A national tutoring programme will tackle child poverty. Innovating in teaching excellence will tackle child poverty. Investing in skills training will tackle child poverty. Revolutionising our decrepit apprenticeships schemes will tackle child poverty. Building affordable homes will tackle child poverty. 

And the converse is also true. Not doing these things, because you are too busy appointing commissions and writing strategic plans and publishing glossy brochures on why you’ve missed another target, whilst sitting back and idly pointing the finger at Westminster, will do nothing but condemn yet another generation of Scotland’s children to the grinding misery of a life trapped in the endless cycle of poverty.

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