Poverty isn’t inevitable, local action is possible

05 October 2018

For Challenge Poverty Week 2018, Dr Sonya Scott discusses actions to tackle poverty.

The impact of poverty on some of us, is bad for all of us. Lives are cut short and years of human potential are lost. One pound in every five is spent in the public sector on dealing with the consequences of poverty. But poverty isn’t inevitable, it’s the result of political and economic decisions and we can do something about it, even at a local level.

One-in-four children are held back by growing up in poverty in Scotland and over 50% of children will experience poverty at some point in their first seven years. Worryingly, these rates are set to increase substantially in the next few years, largely due to £74 billion worth of cuts to social security (affecting in-work as well as out of work benefits). This is unjust and 98% of people in Scotland agree that eradicating poverty is a priority.

Herald life expectancy inequality

A recent GCPH report highlighted the gap in life expectancy between neighbourhoods in Glasgow.

The New Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 sets ambitious targets for reducing child poverty in Scotland and places a legal duty on the Scottish Government, Local Authorities and the NHS to do something about it. However, if we are to make real progress in reducing, and hopefully one day eradicating poverty, we need to be really clear about its causes. The three main drivers of poverty identified in the Scottish Government’s Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan are inadequate incomes from work, inadequate income from social security and high costs of living. Put simply, poverty occurs when the cost of living outstrips family incomes.

But what can local services, employers and businesses do about it? Here are three main strands of action that could help.

1. Maintain and create high quality jobs

Children whose parents don’t have a job are more likely to be living in poverty than children with someone in the family working. So, maintaining and creating new jobs is essential to reduce poverty. As employers, we need to identify the barriers that some people face when finding, as well as holding on to, a job. We need to support people like lone parents, disabled parents or those caring for a disabled child. Flexible patterns of working, as promoted by The Fairer Scotland Action Plan and The Timewise Initiative, would be a good start. However, given that 7-in-10 children in poverty live with someone in paid work, clearly having any paid job is not enough. We need to make sure that existing and new jobs pay enough to meet the costs of living.   

There is much that local employers, such as the NHS and councils, can do to reduce poverty. By using recruitment links with services that help people into paid work we can ensure that job adverts reach those furthest away from the jobs market. Employers can also offer flexible working patterns, and provide a minimum income standard, including through contracted public services. Other important measures include prioritising clear career pathways for parents, particularly those in lower paid jobs, and using public sector purchasing powers to maximise the benefits to local communities.

2. Ensure an adequate and accessible social security safety net

None of us know when we might need to rely on the safety net of the welfare state. It is our collective social insurance. Ensuring that the net is adequate to provide a minimum standard for healthy living when we need it is in all of our interests. Recent reform of the welfare system has reduced the UK social security budget by £74 billion by 2015/16. These cuts fall heavily on families with children. However a number of benefits are now devolved to the Scottish Government or are under the control of local councils. Therefore, both national and local government need to make these as generous and accessible as possible. Some councils now automatically pay school clothing grants, instead of asking families to apply, which has increased uptake, or provide a one-stop shop to assess all local benefits under a single application. Others are thinking about significantly investing in discretionary housing payments to mitigate the impact of increased housing costs.    

We know that many people are unaware of the benefits available to them. Investment in money and welfare advice services is important and can result in a substantial return on investment into the local economy. There is scope to build on approaches that use universal services, such as through NHS or education services, to identify unmet need and ensure people can receive entitled support. Returns of £39 for every £1 invested have been noted when adopting these approaches.

3. Reduce essential living costs

The main costs crippling poor families are housing, transport and childcare. We need more affordable housing, better regulation of the private rented sector and to increase the flexibility, accessibility and affordability of childcare and transport. There is much which can be done on each of these issues at local government level. In addition, we can monitor and reduce wherever possible cost barriers for local services. The Cost of the School Day project, which has identified and acted on hidden, unaffordable costs for families living on low incomes, such as money for school trips, branded uniforms and homework printing costs, is a good example of what can be achieved in this respect.

cost of school uniform

The Cost of the School Day programme highlighted the basic cost of a uniform for pupils.

Poverty is harmful, unaffordable and unjust. Poverty is not inevitable, and while Scotland and UK level government action is undoubtedly needed to ensure adequate incomes and affordable costs for all, there is still a lot local services, employers and business can do with collective will and effort.

Tackling poverty is in all our interests – we must make it our priority.

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About the author

Sonya Scott Consultant in Public Health Medicine

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Sonya Scott is a consultant in child public health for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. She has particular interest in what we can do to reduce unequal life chances across social groups.

Read all articles by Sonya Scott

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