Dr Gerry Mooney: Education is one way to help open doors

TACKLING inequality and disadvantage is part of the Open University's mandate, writes Dr Gerry Mooney

Austerity measures are putting more families and communities at risk of poverty. Picture: Chris James/Epicscotland

Tackling inequality and disadvantage through education and learning opportunities has been part of the DNA of The Open University (OU) since its development in the late 1960s. The OU recruits students from every postcode in Scotland; every walk of life is represented in our student population.

Increasingly, people are looking to The OU both as a means of supporting their learning about social issues such as poverty but also to bring them new opportunities to build a better life. Indeed, for many this also means building a better Scotland.

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More than a decade ago, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Poverty Alliance, Glasgow Caledonian University and The Open University in Scotland came together for the first time to publish Poverty in Scotland 2002. This book was intended to bring a discussion of the causes of disadvantage to a wider audience. Further editions ahead of the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections, and another in 2014 before the referendum on independence, followed. Poverty in Scotland 2016: Tools for Transformation was published a few weeks ago, as this year’s Scottish election campaigns got under way.

Poverty in Scotland 2016 points to the importance of policy: that policies can and do make a difference in tackling the massive social problems and harms caused by poverty and disadvantage. The wider context is hugely challenging: the threat of increased poverty is very real.

Debates around the levers to tackle poverty – including some that have been in the hands of the Scottish Parliament for a number of years – together with the further devolution of some tax and welfare powers have added to the repertoire of tools at the disposal of government and other agencies. The provision of additional devolved powers to Scotland, not least around taxation and welfare benefits, is to be welcomed. That said, there are strong arguments that this latest phase of devolution does not go nearly far enough, even if it marks an important shift in devolution itself.

Devolution and the 2014 independence referendum opened up a valuable space for the development of new ways of thinking about poverty and the role of social welfare. The promotion of social security, of a living wage, decent jobs, an improved health service, and good quality and affordable housing are aspirations and goals which are well within our reach – if there is the political will and determination to see these through.

However, the challenges that poverty and disadvantage raise are becoming even more pronounced. As Poverty in Scotland 2016 demonstrates, UK government ‘austerity’ measures are leading to a widening in the scope of the population who are vulnerable to poverty, while at the same time further deepening the impact of poverty for those who were already poor.

One of the key messages of the book is that more and more people, families and communities are being drawn into or nearer to poverty. Across Scotland, financial insecurity combined with other social insecurities, in relation to housing, health and so on, is creating a ‘fearful’ country: a Scotland where the threat of ‘falling into’ poverty is now perhaps greater than it has been for generations.

This tells us that current UK government policy measures are having harmful effects, both individually and socially. It also tells us that policy to date, not least in relation to the dominance of a ‘work-first’ model cannot address the significant levels of poverty being experienced today. The marked increase in in-work poverty shows that claims of ‘worklessness’ – a refusal to work – are wide of the mark.

There is an additional point which emerges here that we all need to reflect upon.

The threat of rising poverty levels, and the growth and spread of financial and social insecurities, means that poverty cannot be dismissed as a marginal or residual issue. It is not just a problem that only affects a small minority of the population, and the idea that poverty is about people who are responsible for causing their own predicament is challenged by these developments.

Poverty is an issue that shapes and disfigures Scottish society. It immediately belies the recurring myths and beliefs that in some ways Scotland is more progressive, egalitarian and committed to equality for all.

The task that faces all of us is to go beyond such myths, and the political rhetoric to which they give rise, to generate a Scotland-wide discussion. Ultimately, this is not solely a question of poverty. It’s about the kind of society we would like Scotland to become.

• Dr Gerry Mooney is senior lecturer in social policy and criminology at The Open University in Scotland. Poverty in Scotland 2016 is available from www.shop.cpag.org.uk.