Monday, November 25, 2019

Scotland in Poverty

The statistics for child poverty in parts of Fife are stark. A report in 2018 by End Child Poverty said that across the region there were 17,667 children – 24.47% –growing up in poverty. In Buckhaven, Methil and Wemyss Villages, the figure was 36.62% of children, while in the Kirkcaldy East council ward it was 38.68%.
Sam Royston, chair of End Child Poverty and director of policy and research at the Children’s Society, said at the time the figures were “scandalous”.
Reports out this year paint a similarly grim picture. Data released in June by the End Child Poverty Coalition revealed that 27% of children in the St Andrews ward were living in poverty – the highest in North East Fife, with East Neuk and Landward at 20 per cent.

Rhona Cunningham,  Fife Gingerbread’s chief executive, talking about the impact of austerity in Fife. “The welfare reform and how that has rolled out has practically devastated some of the most vulnerable communities,” she says. When she began working at Fife Gingerbread a decade and a half ago, child poverty was “not so much of an issue”. That was five years before the 2008 global financial crash plunged Britain into recession, and an economic crisis that was followed by a decade of deep cuts to public spending by Tory-led governments.
Cunningham and colleagues at Fife Gingerbread help people living in some of the poorest parts of the county. They include former mining communities that have struggled since the pits closed in the 1980s: towns such as Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly, Leven, Methil and Buckhaven, where the charity provides meals, clothing and emotional support to people on low incomes. 
Alleviating child poverty is an urgent priority for the charity. Over the last 12 months, it has helped 816 children and 328 adults. The 2019 Fife Gingerbread Christmas appeal Heat and Eat hopes to raise money for meter cards so families can put the heating on over the festive season. Most people seeking help are scraping by to survive, says Cunningham.
“There is no safety net,” she adds. “There is nothing at the back of them. The prospect of having £500 in the bank is like a lottery win. You’ve got whole communities who kind of feel like there’s no hope.” Cunningham says child poverty can be measured in various ways but gauging the issue at Fife Gingerbread is straightforward. “For us on the ground, it’s quite simple,” she explains. “It’s about families who have children, who don’t have enough income, and they have far too much expenditure.”
She talks about the poverty trap, and says people are struggling on zero hours contracts. They are paid the minimum wage. They struggle to pay high rents for homes in the private sector. The cost of food and travel rises, but pay doesn’t. Childcare is expensive. She says the introduction of policies such as Universal Credit, sanctions and the bedroom tax have caused severe financial problems for families, making them reliant on charities for essentials.
“Every single thing has kind of slowly chipped away at the bricks,” she says. “They’ve already drained their resources as much as they can. Basically they don’t have anywhere else to go.” Another effect of austerity, she adds, is that the benefit system has become “increasingly punitive”.
In May the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Phillip Alston, said “ideological” cuts to public services since 2010 have led to “tragic consequences”. His report said that close to 40 per cent of children are likely to live in poverty by 2021, adding the DWP had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.
As part of a drive to reduce child poverty, the Scottish government announced this year it will introduce a new Scottish Child Payment, a plan to give money to low-income families, starting in early 2021. But a report in October by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation urged the Scottish government to do more, arguing this plan alone will not be enough to reach its target of reducing child poverty to 10 per cent by 2030.
Fife Gingerbread has also been affected by cuts. In January, Cunningham went public about its financial crisis and said the charity needed £600,000 to keep operating at its current level. External funding had ended. At the time, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon was urged to intervene after being warned the charity would be unable to serve two thirds of the 200 families it supports. 
“This is the world we live in. So it is a bit ironic that, at times, when the need is greater than ever, when poverty levels are way higher than they’ve ever been and show no signs whatsoever of reducing, that the services that support the most vulnerable, are the most vulnerable.”
Between 2010 and 2019 cuts of more than £30m have been made to welfare, housing and social services, according to the United Nations. Cuts have been made to budgets from policing to health.
Poverty has risen dramatically over the decade. Poverty in Scotland is rising, from an already unacceptably high level. More people are facing situations where they cannot afford the basics nor play a full role in society. Almost one in five people in Scotland now live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty. The use of food banks doubles when Universal Credit is rolled out. Homelessness has increased and crime rates are up, as well as hospital waiting lists.

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