The latest child poverty figures give cause for concern. They always do, and many say they always will. The two measures of poverty we examine when analysis is conducted are relative poverty, and absolute poverty. But by using these markers to judge progress, we have to recognise that both figures are relative, and as a result, there will always be a percentage of society that is not doing as well as other parts.
That doesn’t mean we should give up on poverty, just because the poor will always be with us. Instead, we should recognise that while having everyone in the same income bracket would sort out the problem, the reality is that this isn’t going to happen, for a variety of reasons.
We must focus our efforts on looking at what opportunities are available to people who live in areas with low average incomes. While those people may remain poor compared to others in our affluent society, they can still better their lot if the circumstances around them improve, and allow them. They need to be given a chance, and without a better chance, we will continue to produce statistics which show that no significant progress is being made on poverty.
However we should be wary of calls to reduce poverty by taxing the rich and giving to the poor, because although it is possible to do this, it isn’t the right answer. In some cases, this will scare off high earners, who can choose to take their labour elsewhere, but higher taxation also acts as a disincentive to ambitious individuals and companies who decide against improvement or expansion because of diminishing marginal returns.
If we accept that lack of opportunity is one of the major contributing factors to poverty, then closing the attainment gap in education is essential, and it is the Scottish Government’s stated intent to meet this objective. We await results on that front. However, unless investment is made in poorer areas to attract enterprise and create jobs, a better educated workforce will be under-utilised, or simply wasted.
And if we are to hold great store by a particular measure of poverty, our focus should be on material deprivation – the situation where children are going without what are considered to be life’s necessities if an acceptable standard of living is to be maintained. It is heartening that some headway appears to have been made on this position, with a recent trend of increases in the number of those classed as living in low income and material deprivation after housing costs having been replaced by a 20,000 drop. It is too early to say if this represents a trend or a blip, but it is a welcome move in the right direction.
Equalities minister Angela Constance has said that the annual child poverty report will be used to help inform the Scottish Government’s approach and actions. In fact, the way ahead is not in the fine print of a report. The secret is not in analysing statistics, but in delivering opportunity. For a government in need of achieving economic growth, giving the poor a better chance in life would seem to be a natural fit.