We need to face up to inequalities, and find solutions, to reduce poverty in a fair way, says Jim McCormick, Scotland adviser at Jospeh Rowentree Foundation.
A wide-ranging conversation has begun in Scotland about how to achieve a more equal society. Cabinet secretary Alex Neil kick-started #fairerscotland at a neighbourhood centre in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, with volunteers who work tirelessly to improve the quality of local support. By early 2016, the Scottish Government will set out what it will do to help extend fairness by 2030. Demonstrating how a significant, sustained reduction in poverty can be achieved should form the central part of this.
JRF’s latest monitor of poverty and social exclusion in Scotland shows there are no grounds for fatalism: a significant drop in poverty has already been achieved among older people, alongside a more gradual reduction in child poverty. But it warns that progress in reducing the attainment gap in Scottish schools has been painfully slow; poverty has risen steeply in the expanding private rented sector; and access to training at work is lowest for poorly-paid staff in part-time jobs. While tackling poverty will always be about adequate incomes and controlling the cost of essentials, lasting progress needs us to pay as much attention to the prospects of people in, or at most risk of, poverty.
JRF welcomes the debate and scrutiny in Scotland. Naomi Eisenstadt’s appointment as independent adviser on poverty, to hold the Scottish Government to account and to recommend actions, is a strong signal of intent. Ultimately, some hard choices and clear priorities will be needed. But for now, four propositions are outlined below.
Extending fairness, or social justice, depends on the kind of economy we want. The Scottish Government recognises that “a strong, competitive economy and a fairer, more equal society go hand in hand.” But politicians of various stripes have said as much before. The Scottish debate will need to face up to how and why the labour market is changing, with the creation of well-paid and poorly-paid jobs and the decline of mid-ranking jobs which have traditionally offered progression. The care economy is a good test. As a non-tradeable sector, work has to be done locally. The demand for care will grow as more of us live alone, and for longer, with health conditions and disabilities. How will the care economy make a powerful contribution to poverty reduction, especially for women? While a focus on expanding Living Wage employment is vital, other non-wage improvements to low-paid work matteras well. Employers will need to find a broader mix of approaches to spring the trap of low pay and productivity.
Housing is crucial for poverty reduction. Recent conclusions of the Commission on Housing and Wellbeinghighlight the innate value of ‘home’ for psychological security and the ability to plan ahead. Yet, too many people get stuck in private rented accommodation. Spiralling rents squeeze wages, blunt work incentives and add to the housing benefit bill. All roads to fairness run straight through the housing market. Increasing the supply of affordable housing should be a top priority when new borrowing and bond issuing powers come to Scotland. JRF is exploring the costs and benefits of setting a Living Rent pegged to average wages instead of market-led housing costs. Meanwhile, social housing providers can make their own contribution to tackling poverty, for example through money advice, childcare support and apprenticeships.
‘Social security’ matters – often appearing in Scottish policy debate in place of ‘welfare.’ An independent expert group reporting to Nicola Sturgeon last June proposed a “fair, personal and simple” benefits system. The group’s chair Martyn Evans has spoken of the trade-offs inherent in achieving all three of these appealing principles. The Scottish Government’s initial glimpse of 2030 proposes “a fair and simple social security system.” We can have a more personal system or a simpler one, but probably not both. Either way, social security needs to provide both a reliable safety net and a springboard to work and training. Most countries in Europe (and beyond) are grappling with these goals. As the Scotland Bill currently proceeding through Westminster sets out further devolution in benefits for people with disabilities and carers – and we hope on both childcare and elements of welfare-to-work conditionality– it’s right that Scotland should do the same.