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Leave no one behind: the right to adequate social security

This opinion piece is almost 5 years old

Rhiannon Simsdiscusses why the Scottish Campaign for the Right to Social Security (SCORSS) has re-launched with rights placed at its heart and why parents and carers face significant challenges within the current system

The number one principle of the newly re-vamped Scottish Campaign for the Right to Social Security is to increase benefit payment rates to a level where no one is left in poverty. Oxfam believes this is central to ensuring everyone has sufficient income to lead a dignified life.

Our social security system should secure everyone’s wellbeing. It should do so by meeting at least the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) – a minimum level of income based on what the public think is needed to live a decent life – and be adequately enhanced for those with additional needs. Members of SCORSS believe that placing rights at the forefront of the campaign’s name better reflects that social security is a human right protected by a range of international human rights laws.

Research published just last week by A Menu for Change – a project developing solutions to food insecurity – has shown just how devastating the effects of chronic low income can be. The report finds that severe food insecurity – going days with no or very little food – was not a temporary ‘crisis’ experience, but something which many interviewees described having to cope with frequently or on an on-going basis over an extended period of time.

It’s clear that the right to social security is not being met. Commenting on their lack of food and what it means for them, one interviewee told the project: “I think your stomach kinda gets used to it.” In a rich society, our safety net must do more to protect everyone from such hardship.

A host of changes to the benefits system over recent years have meant that not only have people’s incomes been eroded in real terms over time, but changes to eligibility have meant that those who would have previously been better protected are now being pulled under.

But there are some aspects of the social security system that have arguably never been adequate to keep people afloat against the strong currents of poverty.

Rhiannon Sims
Rhiannon Sims

Take benefits for carers and parents as an example: we all know that in theory, work should act as a route out of poverty – but when we look at the structures in place, we see that parents and carers often have their hands tied. Due to caring responsibilities, which disproportionately fall to women, parents and carers cannot work enough hours to keep their heads above water because too few employers offer flexible positions or high enough paid part time work. Equally, incomes from benefits are not enough to make up for their lost earnings.

To get a full picture of this problem, it is important to consider what hours the benefits system expects parents to work when their child is at different ages, expectations which are designed into the system in the form of ‘conditionality requirements’.

Someone with a child under three is not expected to look for work. Between the ages of three to five, the parent is expected to prepare for work, or work part time. After the child is five, the parent will be expected to actively seek work and will be subject to the same conditions as any other claimant. Because of the low rate of benefit payments, and the fact that parents aren’t required to look for work until their child is five, poverty is a structural feature of the system, particularly for lone parents who have no other potential earner in the household.

The scale of this is huge: research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that, UK wide, two million of the children in poverty are in families where the parents were working as much as expected by the DWP. This is almost half the total number of children in poverty. And about two fifths of these two million children were in single parent families.

This is even more striking when viewed alongside CPAG’s findings on the ‘hours question’ which show that, whilst the public’s opinions differ widely in relation to how many hours parents “should be expected to work”, they tend to agree that parents should be allowed to choose what works best for them.

To be clear: I am not advocating for increased conditionality requirements, nor am I arguing for a system which expects parents of young children to work to shore up their incomes against poverty. What I’m saying is that we need to offer genuine choices to those with caring responsibilities. And in the current benefits system, too often it is a choice between out-of-work poverty or in-work poverty.

We need action from employers that makes high-paid, flexible work a possibility for parents who choose employment. And we need a childcare offer that is flexible enough to meet the needs of working parents. But we also need a social security system which provides adequate income to those out of work due to caring.

The Scottish Government has made an important signal of intent through its commitment to introduce the Scottish Child Payment – a £10 top up per child for low income households. This will undoubtedly help parents, and their children, living in poverty. But we need more sustained efforts both at Westminster and Holyrood to increase benefit payment rates to a level where no one is left in poverty, whether they have children or not.

That is why, this Challenge Poverty Week, Oxfam is supporting the shift to put the right to an adequate income at the heart of the Scottish Campaign on the Right to Social Security. Can we make adequate social security a reality? This Challenge Poverty Week, #AyeWeCan

Rhiannon Sims is research and policy officer for Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme in Scotland