At Aberlour we work with vulnerable children and families across Scotland for a variety of reasons. It could be as a result of poor mental health, low educational attainment, children at risk of being taken into care or issues around dependency. So often there is one recurring, and near universal, theme in the lives of these children and families – poverty. We see the effects of poverty every day and the impact it has on so many children and families, and their communities. To understand the impact of poverty for these children and families is to know that poverty cannot only be measured in financial terms, but also represents a poverty of ambition, opportunity, skills and encouragement.
We do what we can beyond financial assistance to support and empower families who are affected by poverty. Our family Cook Group in Dundee provides an opportunity to learn cooking skills so families can cook easy, healthy, cost-effective meals. Similarly, our Summer Food Programme in Falkirk supports families to learn how to cook cheaply and healthily and to ensure their children are well fed during the school holidays. Just as the old Chinese proverb says, ‘give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime’, we believe in empowering families who are living in poverty, not stigmatising them.
In 2017, to know that more than 1 in 4 children in such a wealthy country as Scotland live in poverty should shame us as a society. The reasons are manifold and to eradicate, or even alleviate, poverty is no simple task. There is no quick solution. It will require focus, coordination and leadership from the Scottish Government, working in partnership with local authorities and all and any other agencies that are there to help and support families living in poverty and experiencing inequality. The Scottish Government have already outlined their ambition to eradicate child poverty by 2030, and they have introduced legislation that they hope will help achieve this. However, it will take more than worthy rhetoric and legislation to “fix” poverty. We need income and resource maximisation for families and households, well-designed and sustainable homes for families with low incomes to live in, a just and humane welfare system and a proper universal living wage which increases with the cost of living – after all two thirds of families living in poverty are in working households. Only when we begin to implement such policies will we begin to improve the life chances of children growing up in poverty.
This week there has been much discussion around Universal Credit and the welfare system. Many argue of the advantages of a greatly simplified system of single benefit payments instead of multiple payments for each benefit entitlement. In principle, I agree with this approach. However, the punitive culture of the current welfare system, ensuring sanctions for the most minor of “transgressions”, such as missing Jobcentre appointments due to ill health or being unable to afford the bus fare to get to their appointment in the first place, serves only to plunge already vulnerable families further into difficulty when benefit payments are stopped. Simple perhaps, but also cruel. Even when sanctions have been shown to have been incorrectly imposed or successfully appealed, it can be many weeks or months before they are corrected and reinstated. That can be the difference between parents being able to afford to buy food for their children or not, let alone for themselves. Many families have no other choice than to turn to food banks. Not to mention having to endure the inevitable stigma that comes with living in poverty. This is the everyday reality for many of the children and families we work with. I can only hope that, as promised, the new Scottish Social Security Agency operates a more humane and just system, and with the self-awareness of the role they can play either in mitigating or exacerbating the worst effects of poverty.
I was heartened last week to hear Nicola Sturgeon announce an exemption for care leavers from council tax. I am pleased the Scottish Government have committed to this, and know that it will alleviate some of the financial uncertainty for many of our own young people as they make that (often difficult) transition into independent living. This is just the type of different thinking around how we support our most vulnerable young people that could well be the difference between them living in poverty or not. However, the First Minister’s announcement made me wonder just how innovative can we be in how we provide financial support to young care leavers? Universal basic income (UBI) has been a hot topic in recent years, with pilot schemes and trials in different countries experiencing varying degrees of success. I feel that UBI presents an opportunity for a paradigm shift in how we as a society understand our responsibility in providing assistance to vulnerable young people and families, those on low incomes and those who rely on the welfare system. Perhaps we could trial UBI with care leavers, and see what impact it has on those young people who are most at risk of experiencing poverty?
What we do know is that poverty is not inevitable. If we make the necessary, bold political decisions and have a focused and collective approach as a compassionate society towards the most vulnerable in our communities, it is possible to eradicate. With more than a quarter of children in Scotland currently living in poverty, I certainly think it’s time we tried something different, radical even, to address this most fundamental of issues.