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Reflections on poverty

19 Oct 2015 | James Egan

Highlighting people’s lives, challenging stereotypes and demonstrating what’s being done to ad.dress poverty in Scotland – just some of the key messages during this year’s Challenge Poverty Week.

It is a struggle, it’s not easy, but I get by. But there’s never any spare money to do anything, if you wanted to take the kids out anywhere.

(Lone parent, age 33, two children aged 16 and five) 

This woman’s comment in a recent Glasgow study on welfare reforms is a reminder that women with children are not only more vulnerable to poverty but are likely to be juggling caring alongside part-time, low-paid work. Often the main managers of poverty and debt in the family home, women are likely to go without to provide for their children – not an ideal recipe for keeping good mental health or wellbeing.  

Against this backdrop, and with one-in-three children in Glasgow living in poverty, it’s heartening to see that Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC), the NHS partnership project, continues to tackle family poverty. Over the last five years, midwives and health visitors across Greater Glasgow and Clyde helped the project achieve nearly 10,000 welfare advice referrals to help pregnant women and families with money worries. This led to more than £9.5 million in gains for those entitled. Case studies from the project show the value of this support but more importantly give voice to family’s daily realities, like the young couple with three children, two with disabilities; the family just getting by on one wage; or the lone parent not coping with their job and a new baby with serious health problems.  

Children from lone parent families that benefit from HWC are among the four-in-ten children that now live in lone parent families in Glasgow. The city has the highest proportion of lone parents of any Scottish local authority. Therefore, it’s encouraging that their voices and needs are increasingly being recognised with the setting up of a project that includes Glasgow City Council and One Parent Families Scotland. This new support will be crucial for those parents facing welfare-to-work changes, particularly those with young children, as they navigate a difficult and complex job market that can involve moving back and forth between no pay, low pay, benefit delays and debt. 

Over the last two years, our various reports, papers and blogs may have encouraged partners to support this new lone parents’ project in Glasgow. Yet, looking back, what stands out in my mind was listening to the moving accounts of lone parents during a GCPH seminar, as part of Challenge Poverty Week 2013, and a subsequent short film involving one of the parents. (I would urge you to take some time to watch this powerful film.)

Equally, it’s also been moving to hear the clear voices of school pupils through the innovative Cost of the School Day project led by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Looking at the barriers that prevent all children receiving the same opportunities, pupils involved in the project were clear in what they think could be done within their schools. Over the next year, we will continue to work closely with the project to encourage the sharing of these important lessons more widely.     

Looking to the future 

Looking ahead, we know that the burden of the welfare reforms will fall very heavily on our most vulnerable neighbourhoods, like Calton in Glasgow, as well as vulnerable families. Sadly, lone parents face one of the biggest welfare losses of around £1,800 a year as a result of these reforms. This figure does not include more immediate losses described by the CPAG early warning system, such as benefits sanctions leading to payments being stopped for 13 weeks, or having to rely on family, friends, food banks and charities to get by. This knock-on effect is being felt by charities. A recent workforce survey of the Third Sector in Glasgow found that increasing demands on their services has led to some staff passing a ‘tipping point’ of demoralisation and depletion.

It would be easy in this climate to end with a counsel of despair. Yet, listening to some of these voices over the last five years suggests that we can do more, and do it better. So, here are three modest ideas to end on a hopeful note. First, why not extend the HWC model beyond one health board area in Scotland, and extend this type of help to others, such as adults with mental health conditions worried about benefit changes? Second, let’s revisit successful past employability programmes that achieved good results, such as the Working for Families Fund targeting lone parents or the New Futures Fund for ex-offenders and substance users. Finally, it would do no harm if the valuable suggestions in the Cost of the School Day report were fully acted upon, so that family income and other barriers don’t stop so many children from realising their full potential.

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Challenge Poverty Week 2015

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