Robin McAlpine – January 27th, 2022
The Scottish Government’s advisers have said that it must quadruple Scottish Child Payments to £40 if it is to stand any chance of meeting its child poverty targets.
This is undoubtedly true, but we should take this call not as a solution but as a big red warning light. It tells us that, underneath, something is very wrong. If we have an economy and a society in which this kind of emergency bail-out is necessary it should make us look not at the quick-fix but the heart of the problem.
You can take this as a straightforward issue of decency and empathy – how on earth can we possibly preside over this level of child poverty in a wealthy society?
But you can look at this from an instrumental perspective instead if you want to. If 75% of people who got free school meals at school are not being paid a living wage by the age of 25 (and they’re not), we’ll still be paying for the social failure we create now in another quarter of a century.
Or see it as an opportunity – if you give cash to poor mothers their children are born with bigger brains. This means that the lifetime health costs for that baby are lower and their chances of making a positive (potentially major) contribution to life in Scotland are increased.
Cash transfers are just mopping up after failure, and they don’t work in the long term. The Blairite apologists among London’s centrists hold tax credits as one of the Blair era’s great achievements. And yet, if the achievement is so great, why is there so little legacy? Patching over failure in the good times just means the failure remains when the patch comes off in the bad times.
And the patch always comes back off again in the bad times. Patching is never a solution to a problem, and when the ‘problem’ is starving children, it isn’t scratching the foothills of what should be the ambition of a decent, wealthy society.
Yes of course a lot of the problem is the UK economy and in Scotland we have limited power over that. But it is intensely frustrating to see this argument rolled out again and again to act as an excuse or cover for not doing what we could do.
So what can we do? First, while a lot of economic powers are reserved (meaning we can’t raise the minimum wage for example) we are not powerless. We can’t regulate to create a better economy – but we can intervene to create better jobs. That is at the heart of why Common Weal is so insistent that we need an industrial strategy.
A Green New Deal is one of the most powerful tools for doing that because we’re going to need the jobs to do what needs to be done anyway, but there are lots of similar kinds of ‘entrepreneurial state’ intervention which can make a difference. For example we could radically change Scotland’s flawed public procurement system so that it is orientated to creating jobs by sourcing from small, local suppliers.
The generation who are on school meals just now could be encouraged to sign up for retraining for good jobs – if the Scottish Government was working to create them.
The other half of that equation is that we can reduce the cost of housing for families if only we’d invest in a proper national programme of really ambitious public rental housebuilding. This has nothing to do with the waffle about ‘affordable homes’ which are mostly just slightly less expansive profit-making wheezes for the bulk builders.
This points to another crucial aspect; poverty isn’t only about finance, it is also about the quality of life that people experience when they have little money. Again, the health impacts of poor housing condemn people who grow up in it often to have lifelong problems with health.
Likewise food. We seem to have accepted that food is the domain of corporations, at least when it comes to the poor. Public policy almost never intervenes on food – but it can.
The Good Food Nation Bill is finally crawling its way through Holyrood, and it is woefully unambitious. From a legal right to good food to public provision of good food hubs to cooking lessons for people who’ve never been taught, we can stop accepting bad diet is an inevitable part of being on a low income.
We know that the education system is the place where intergenerational poverty really manifests itself – the children of poor parents go to school with so many learning disadvantages most never catch up. Initiatives like breakfast clubs or after-school homework clubs have been making a tentative step into the lives of many children.
But it is piecemeal and nothing like enough to overcome the problems of poverty on young people’s education. Middle class parents provide learning support that many poorer families (who themselves had a disrupted education) can’t – and exams then exacerbate the problem.
We need proper investment to break this cycle, but it just isn’t forthcoming. In education, the voices of the well-off parents dominate what governments do. That is a cycle we need to break.
Finally taking poverty seriously isn’t only about these kinds of material issues either. The social and psychological experience of poverty can be brutal and scarring, making material interventions impossible. If a parent has a drug or alcohol addiction, the benefits of the kind of actions mentioned above are much less likely to reach the child.
Poor people aren’t poor parents; that is a disgusting stigma put around by the right wing media to justify inhumanity towards poor people. But it really is true that being a parent is a much harder fight if you live in poverty than if you don’t.
So is growing up in a community scarred by crime and addiction. So is coping with the intense psychological impacts of poverty (people who don’t have to worry about the next meal will never truly comprehend the mental impact on people who do).
That’s why prevention is key. We have a care system which is nominally about ‘protection’, but it is protection as enforcement not protection as prevention. This is why the National Care Service is such a stunning opportunity – and why what is being proposed feels like such a complete let-down.
Care support – from financial advice to help with childcare to housing support to psychological services to addiction counselling and much more beyond – can transform lives for the poor. Instead often the poor experience care as a kind of ‘punishment’ for their failures. (Common Weal’s massive Care Service proposal is nearly ready…)
These are just examples of what we could do. But they are not what we do.
Instead we get KPMG to design our care system in the interests of private profit and bureaucrats, we run schools for the middle classes going to university, we moralise about foodbanks without tackling the food system, we bow down before corporate bulk housing speculators and we follow an economic model every bit as neoliberal as London.
It is quite heartbreaking that 20 years of devolution seems to have made next to no difference to children in poverty. The £40 lifeline the Scottish Government is being urged to throw them now will be life and death for some of them.
But it is also an echoing condemnation of just how far down the public policy pecking order that 20 per cent of Scotland’s population is when compared to the vanishingly small number of financiers and speculators in whose interests our society continues to be run.