It made me think of Mary Brooksbank’s famous Jute Mill Song in which she captured the struggles of women working in the city’s jute mills more than a century ago, but the verses still ring true.
“Oh dear me, I wish the day was done,
Rinnin up an doon the pass is nae fun,
Shiftin, piecing, spinnin, warp weft an twine,
Tae feed an cled my bairnie affen ten an nine.”
Today, low-paid work, coupled with inadequate social security, provides scant reward for the daily struggle to feed and clothe a family.
It is in this context we strike a loud warning that we are unlikely to meet our child poverty targets without further action by the Scottish government. Our report shows we entered the Covid-19 pandemic with a million people living in poverty, including around a quarter of a million children. A boy born in one of our poorest communities can expect 25 fewer years of healthy life expectancy, and a girl 21, than someone born in our least deprived communities.
A glaring injustice is built into our society. This was not caused by the pandemic, but it was exposed by it. Those on the lowest incomes faced the harshest impacts on both their incomes and health. Ultimately, the death rate for Covid-19 in our most deprived communities was more than double that in our least deprived ones.
Long before the pandemic, the Scottish government and parliament recognised the scandal of such high levels of poverty and set demanding child poverty targets for 2030/31 – to take relative child poverty from its rate of around 25 per cent then, to below 10 per cent.
The parliament also insisted on an interim target of reducing child poverty to below 18 per cent by April 2024. Before the pandemic the rate was still around 25 per cent and our report projects that even with the planned doubling of the Scottish Child Payment, it will rest at about 22 per cent in 2023/24 – missing the target by four percentage points and leaving 210,000 children in poverty.
That result is not, however, inevitable. The targets can be met by action and will only be missed by omission.
Today’s massive cut to Universal Credit shows the UK government’s indifference to the impact of their decisions. Vague promises of well-paid jobs in the future, will not pay this winter’s bills. By plunging tens of thousands of Scottish families into poverty, the UK government is increasing those families’ struggles and will make the Scottish government’s task in meeting the targets more difficult.
To her credit, during our launch event, Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison acknowledged the damage that this decision would have but recognised that, whether they like it or not, it will be the Scottish government’s job to do the hard work to meet those targets.
What will that hard work have to look like? The Scottish government is already committed to doubling the Scottish Child Payment and they should do as soon as possible. In our launch event, the Cabinet Secretary confirmed that the timing would be set out in December’s budget. But that alone will not be enough to meet the interim targets in just a couple of years.
In March next year, the Scottish government will publish their next Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. It is incumbent on them to set out a specific and measurable route to the interim targets. But with time running out, it seems likely that increases in social security spending will be needed (beyond those already planned) to get there.
That is because efforts to systematically increase people’s skills, improve the flexibility of childcare and transport, change workplace practices and build affordable housing take time. They will be vital pillars of how we reach the 2030/31 targets, but they are unlikely to show significant impacts prior to the interim targets.
As we set out in our report, all of these efforts must be far better targeted at priority groups for action such as single-parent families, families where someone is disabled or minority ethnic families. One such group is families with a baby. Around a third of babies are born into poverty. Overwhelmingly this is caused by women being denied adequate maternity pay and support. This is an indictment of government interventions and employer support for women that government and employers must reverse.
With 80 per cent of children in poverty being in one of these priority groups, the path to meeting these targets must remove the barriers that these families face to securing a decent income. Bespoke support is needed for different families – whether to gain new skills, secure childcare or social care, access transport, have a home that is affordable and adequate social security support when they need it.
Once we are on course to meet the interim targets we can turn our sights to the transformational change needed to meet the 2030/31 targets. The Scottish government’s commitment to minimum income guarantee is crucial. Setting a floor below which no-one should fall should be the mark of any society and it can be a uniting goal in our national mission to end child poverty.
While the government can target policy to ensure no-one falls below the floor, businesses and other employers can use it as a yardstick against which they support their people to secure a good standard of living.
This is key, as any government would struggle to meet these targets without action from across society; we need to capture our collective kindness, compassion and ingenuity. If we can do so, Mary Brooksbank’s Dundee of the early 20th century will no longer feel relevant to the Scotland of 2030.
Chris Birt is associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation