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It is possible to end child poverty

This opinion piece is about 6 years old

Russell Gunson on why it will take more than optimism and increasing benefits to end child poverty in Scotland

We should be optimistic about reducing child poverty in Scotland – but we must also be ambitious

When it comes to some of our most intractable policy problems, the belief that change is possible can sometimes be the hardest thing to keep hold of. Optimism in our ability to make things better is a necessary foundation on which success is built, but all too often, particularly in tackling some of the hardest problems, optimism can be in short supply.

And so it is with child poverty. Our belief that we can substantially reduce child poverty in Scotland will not be enough to achieve it but, without that belief, progress will be pretty much impossible.

Russell Gunson
Russell Gunson

Scotland, like the UK, has a poor record on poverty. We’ve had high levels of child poverty entrenched in many areas for generations, acting as extreme economic and social headwinds, holding countless people back. While poverty rates came down markedly across the UK in the early 2000s, they have been pretty steady since. And with UK Government cuts to benefits our analysis has found that poverty rates in Scotland are likely to increase over the next few years, from an already high base.

Today over a quarter of all children in Scotland are in relative poverty (26%). While better than the equivalent UK figures, it represents a huge and long-standing social and economic injustice, and one we should not get used to living with.

Only a few months ago, in November 2017, the Scottish Parliament united to unanimously pass new legally binding targets, to reduce relative child poverty in Scotland to less than 10% by 2030. The fact that the targets exist is good and, given the UK Government’s decision to abolish its UK-wide poverty targets, currently Scotland is the only part of the UK that has statutory poverty targets. But there’s no point in having targets without action. We don’t just want to have world-leading child poverty targets, we want to see world-leading progress.

The legislation that set out Scotland’s ambitions on child poverty also created the Poverty and Inequality Commission, which published its first report last month. The report is an important contribution to focusing minds on how to turn our ambitions into reality. It set outs clearly in its recommendations that investment in social security will have to form part of the package in meeting Scotland’s poverty targets, and opens the door more generally to helping to focus efforts on delivering the targets.

IPPR Scotland’s own recently launch report, which was used to underpin the Commission’s advice, aims to do likewise by outlining the scale of the challenge we face in meeting our targets, in financial terms at least. We do so, not to overwhelm people, and not to give oxygen to pessimism, but to help make sure we understand the scale of the challenge of reducing child poverty, so that we can match the scale of the challenge with a similar scale of ambition in tackling it.

So how much would it cost, in financial terms, to reduce child poverty in Scotland?

We modelled what effect boosting the child element of Universal Credit would have on child poverty in Scotland. We did this for 2019/20, assuming the full roll-out of Universal Credit and other elements of UK benefit reform. We found that we could take 45,000 children out of relative poverty in Scotland by topping-up the child element by £50 per month, at a cost of £390m for 2019/20. We also found that we could take 100,000 children out of relative poverty in Scotland by topping-up the child element by £150 per month, at a cost of £950m in 2019/20, bringing relative child poverty down to around 19%. This would not meet the Scottish Government’s targets but it would go a long way to do so.

Clearly these are very big numbers but if we spread that cost over 10 years, in time to meet our 2030 targets, we could break this down into a much more manageable level. Equally, not all of this need come from government investment. Rather than increasing social security payments, we could boost low incomes by delivering inclusive growth, increasing earnings for the lowest paid. But however we do this, we will need to be ambitious.

The debate in Scotland on ending poverty has not always reached the scale of ambition we need. At points it’s been as if a 50p income tax rate on the highest earners would be enough, or that all we need is for the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament or UK Government to click its fingers and poverty would end. However, we will need more than government action alone.

The next Scottish Government budget needs to represent a down-payment on reducing child poverty in Scotland. And it’s likely we will need to see government investment, with cross-party support, throughout the next 10 years to prevent and reduce child poverty. We’ve done this before in other policy areas and we can be optimistic that we can do it again.

However, as with optimism, government action will be necessary but not sufficient. To reduce child poverty in a sustainable way, in a way that entrenches public support for doing so, we will need a whole-Scotland approach beyond government alone, beyond tax alone, and beyond benefits spending alone, with the delivery of inclusive economic growth, reductions in low pay, increased opportunities to progress your career, and ultimately increased incomes for the poorest families in Scotland.

Reducing child poverty is indeed an ambitious challenge, it is now time to come forward with equally ambitious solutions, so that we can match our UK-leading targets on child poverty, with world-leading progress.

Rusell Gunson is director of IPPR Scotland