The latest report on poverty in Britain is a sobering read for those of us lucky enough to live relatively comfortable lives with a reliable income that is enough to cover life’s necessities.
The Poverty and Social Exclusion report, prepared by a network of universities across the UK including Glasgow and Heriot-Watt, suggests that the proportion of families existing below society’s minimum standard of living has increased sharply over the last 30 years.
Faced with such figures, there is sometimes a temptation to counter that measurements of poverty and deprivation are relative, not absolute. But the danger of such an approach is complacency.
There are still millions of people in Britain living in damp homes, which in winter they can ill-afford to heat, on incomes where they have to choose between food and a winter coat. This is still a country where children go to bed hungry.
The report contains some surprises, not least that Scotland’s poverty level is below that of Britain as a whole. Across the UK, the report says 22 per cent of people are “multiply deprived”, compared with 18 per cent in Scotland. It suggests social policies promoted under devolution have protected Scottish families.
There are challenges here to the assumptions some politicians make about poverty in Scotland, not least the image presented of poor Scots suffering disproportionately from Westminster policies. How does the fact that English people are, if anything, greater victims change the rubric of the independence referendum? One of the most striking – and depressing – findings is that full-time work is not an automatic insulation from poverty, with one in every six adults in paid work ranked as “poor”.
TV reality shows that highlight a small minority of poor people playing the benefits system present a misleading and distorting picture. The majority of poor people in this country are struggling to get by with as much dignity as they can muster, sometimes in the face of other problems – poor health in particular – that further impede their ability to get themselves out from underneath their difficulties.
New economic thinking on wealth challenges many assumptions about poverty. French academic Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital – recently cited as an influence by Labour leader Ed Miliband – challenges the idea of “trickle-down” economics.
He argues that inequality is growing, not reducing, because our economic system disproportionately rewards those with capital, compared with those trying to earn wealth through labour or enterprise.
The full implications of his analysis, which is taking root in modern economies across the West, are still to be seen. But starker divisions in poverty pose a challenge to policy makers – and to us all as participants in a democracy – that is difficult to ignore.
Parents’ fears and suspicions
THE announcement that 500 health visitors are to be recruited at a cost of £40 million to implement the Scottish Government’s “named person” scheme for the welfare of children is a sign of how advanced these plans are.
The scheme is now law, and when these health workers are in place they will be the front line in its implementation.
Supporters of the scheme do not like the term “guardians” to describe these “named persons” – a child’s actual guardian is already clearly defined.
The problem is that there is still confusion in the public’s mind – and certainly among parents – about who these “named persons” actually are and what power they have over the way a child is raised.
Opposition politicians and liberty campaigners have expressed deep concern about this measure, saying it should never have been passed into law until a lot more work had been done on its scope, intention and consequences.
In the absence of clear guidance from Scottish ministers, amplified in public information so that parents are in no doubt about their rights and responsibilities in relation to the scheme, an atmosphere of fear and suspicion now hangs over it.
As with the SNP administration’s legislation on behaviour at football matches and the scrapping of corroboration, this new law smacks of the political strategy known in the United States as “ready, fire, aim”.
The question must be asked: is implementing this scheme really the best use of these 500 health visitors? Could people not be more usefully employed by a more careful targeting of resources on the children most in need of close attention?