News October 2021

Signals in the noise: getting to grips with poverty

A year from the start of the Trust’s strategy, and to mark Challenge Poverty Week, our Chief Executive, Jim McCormick, looks at the poverty pressures bearing down on low-income households in Scotland and where action is needed if we are to apply the lessons of the pandemic.

A year after The Robertson Trust’s new strategy was launched and with Challenge Poverty Week 2021 coming to a close, the odds of achieving a sustained cut in poverty risks for children are hanging in the balance - despite all parties at Holyrood having committed to significant reductions in the years ahead.

This has been a week when grassroots organisations, people with direct experience, national charities and funders have made common cause to amplify what their stories (Moving on Inverclyde and Geeza Break) and the published data tell us: a gradually rising tide of poverty before the pandemic gave way to a long-lasting storm.  

The furlough system of job protection and the Universal Credit uplift of £20 a week, combined with protection against eviction for private renters, created a lifeline for families to stay afloat. But the hope and determination evident throughout this week have been sorely strained by the UK Government’s decision to remove the uplift.            

Recent analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows the impact this will have in every UK parliamentary constituency. It shows just over 450,000 households in Scotland will now lose £1,000 a year in Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit payments. More than one in three families with children (37%) will now have less money in their pockets – a much higher risk than for adults without children (13%). Of the ten places where children are most likely to be impacted, six are in Glasgow, two in Fife, one in Dundee and one in Dumfries and Galloway. In Glasgow Central, two in every three families with children will now be worse off.

The combined impact means more than £450M removed from the Scottish economy, including £220M from families with children, at the same time as energy bills are soaring. This is money spent on the essentials of food, fuel, broadband and making up rent shortfalls not being covered by Universal Credit before the uplift. The UK Government’s response of a £500M hardship grant scheme to help families through the winter replaces just one pound in every 12 removed.        

Addressing poverty in all its forms takes more than money. That is why our resources are focused on ways to strengthen education and work pathways and in the protective effects of emotional wellbeing and secure relationships, as well as increased financial security. But there is a simple truth about poverty that we ignore at our peril, even if that is exactly the mistake made by policymakers in each generation: poverty is, at heart, about not having the resources to meet your needs. It cannot be solved in isolation by a good education or joined-up public services alone. These make their own powerful contribution. But we can be very sure that these will fall short if children go to school hungry or families are locked out of affordable housing or decent jobs with enough hours to make ends meet.         

The Scottish Government’s recent Programme for Government includes one policy commitment that would undo some of the damage - the planned doubling of the Scottish Child Payment “as early as possible in the lifetime of the Parliament.” There is no shortage of consensus that this should happen, having been pledged in each party manifesto. We can expect incremental steps towards a £20 weekly payment in the years ahead. But in the weeks ahead, many more families will be pulled into poverty or dragged deeper below the water line. A doubling of the payment in the forthcoming Scottish Budget must be a burning priority for Ministers. Even then, we should be under no illusions. This would compensate no more than half of the households losing the £20 Universal Credit uplift and leave us with much more to do on housing and work to avoid veering far off course relative to Scottish ambitions to cut child poverty.

The pandemic has also exposed the challenge of severe and multiple disadvantage. Deep poverty – experienced as destitution for too many – has been growing. The Hard Edges Scotland report in 2019 showed 190,000 people in Scotland experienced at least one of homelessness, problematic substance use or offending. In recent months we have been exploring how far the hard edges have been smoothed – or better still, removed – in the ten years since the Christie Commission reported. Two consistent messages have stuck with me as signals in the noise.            

The first comes from the hopeful story in a blog from Mike Burns on Aberdeen City and Shire’s Housing First Pathfinder. It has achieved a tenancy sustainment rate above 90% for people with multiple and complex needs, none of whom have been evicted. The repeat pattern of sofa surfing and rough sleeping is being prevented. While Housing First is only a partial response to homelessness, progress has occurred because housing, addictions, mental health, care services and third sector organisations have all been around the same table. Given the sobering trends evident seen long before the pandemic – the number of people with mental health problems experiencing homelessness more than doubling and the continued rise in drug deaths – the urgent need for integrated commissioning, joint budgets and third sector around people’s priorities is crystal clear.

At the same time, Mike sounds an alarm bell due to progress forged during the crisis unravels in some local authorities. Any default to planning and budgeting in service silos is the quickest route to failing people. Even avoiding this risk, it will not be enough to join up ‘service-land’ more efficiently. A deeper cultural shift is also required reflecting the Christie principle of meaningful participation. People experiencing these hard edges must shape the services, support and budgets they need.

The second message is the need for a decisive shift towards investing in whole family support offering practical, relational and financial help before needs spiral. Mary Glasgow’s blog makes a compelling case for universal support to reduce the stigma that often stops families from reaching for early help:

“Early childhood has a profound, life-long impact. Our hard edges are created when we experience poverty and unsafe relationships as children.”

These are smoothed away when the opposite applies, but the help has to be available in the first place. The Programme for Government pledge of at least £500M over the next five years in a Whole Family Wellbeing Fund is a further hopeful sign. It aims to help children and young people stay safely with their families wherever possible. Its prospects will turn on how far it embeds the culture and ways of working nurtured by The Promise Scotland

Through our financial and wider support for third sector partners, as well as the unique opportunity that independent funders have to influence, the Trust seeks to shift the odds for people facing the burdens of poverty and trauma. This requires flexibility, openness and responsiveness, and through the duration of our 2020-30 strategy, we are committed to reflecting the trends we see, data we gather and conversations we have to refine our priorities and ensure we are consistently working towards long-term solutions. We will of course be sharing our thinking (and the voices of others) along the way and I’d encourage all those interested in keeping in touch to join our mailing list or follow our social media channels.