The Scottish Government has not taken the “decisive steps” needed to tackle child poverty, campaigners have said, with a quarter of youngsters living in families that are struggling to get by.
Over the period 2014-15 to 2016-17 an average of 230,000 children in Scotland were living in relative poverty each year, the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said in its report on Poverty in Scotland 2018.
While the Scottish Government had “made some progress towards loosening poverty’s grip” the report added it had “not taken the decisive steps needed to make the transformational change required for Scotland’s children”.
Legislation passed unanimously by Holyrood in 2017 set a number of targets for cutting child poverty – including having just one in 10 children living in relative poverty and only 5% in absolute poverty – by 2030.
But the JRF said there needed to be more link up between poverty strategies and labour market strategies, adding without this “it is questionable whether the Scottish Government will be able to reach its child poverty targets”.
The report also demanded changes to the UK Government’s Universal Credit benefit system, warning without this “more families, especially lone parents, are likely to face higher rates of poverty in and out of work”.
It stated: “In Scotland, almost a quarter of a million children are in poverty, with their families facing impossible decisions such as whether to pay the rent, heat their home or put food on the table.
“There is consensus across the Scottish Parliament that this situation will be ended within a generation, but it will require renewed action by government, employers, landlords and providers of key goods and services.”
The report went on: “The Scottish Government has made some progress towards loosening poverty’s grip, but has not taken the decisive steps needed to make the transformational change required for Scotland’s children.”
JRF said Scottish ministers need to be “clear on and accountable for how existing and new economic and labour market strategies align with its commitment to tackle child poverty, and to track this over time to learn from triumphs and mistakes”.
Child poverty across Scotland fell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the report added that since 2010 that trend had been reversed “mainly due to UK Government-imposed social security cuts”.
Of the 230,000 children living in poverty, 90,000 were in a family where someone – usually an adult – is disabled or has a medical condition that limits what they can do.
Meanwhile 30,000 youngsters were living in a family where one adult – usually the mother – was not in work, with a further 30,000 children in single parent households also affected.
Just over 15,000 children of lone parents who worked part-time were in poverty, as were almost 15,000 children of couples where one worked full time and the other worked part-time, the report added.
Forthcoming strategies from the Scottish Government, to help more disabled people into employment and to close the gender pay gap, “could make a crucial difference for our society”, it continued.
The report stressed: “For employment to become a more reliable route out of poverty, further action on flexible work and childcare is needed.”
SNP ministers have already pledged to increase free childcare to 1,140 hours a year for all three- and four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds, by the end of this Parliament.
But the report said: “It is yet to be seen whether the Scottish Government’s expanded offer of free childcare to parents of three- and four-year-olds will help to transform women’s labour market participation in ways needed to reduce child poverty and close the gender pay gap.”
JRF chief executive Campbell Robb said tackling child poverty in a generation was “achievable” but would need the Scottish Government to “lead the way”.
He stated: “In Scotland, we believe in protecting each other from harm and yet we are now seeing more children growing up in poverty. One in four – almost a quarter of a million children – are now exposed to this harmful reality.
“Families in Scotland are facing impossible situations such as deciding whether to pay the rent, put food on the table or pay for heating. There is consensus across the Scottish Parliament that this unacceptable situation of so many children in poverty will be brought to an end within a generation. This is achievable.
“But it means the Scottish Government needs to lead the way, working with and encouraging employers to open opportunities for parents with disabilities or caring commitments, so everyone can build a decent and secure life.”
Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, stated: “We know what can be achieved when the right solutions are in place. But we also know that much more needs to be done. That’s why more concerted action is required from Scottish government and business.”
A UK Government spokewoman said: “Since 2010 over 3.3 million more people are in work across the UK, and the proportion of people in Scotland living in absolute poverty is at a record low, including for children.
“The best way to help people improve their lives is to support them into work, and Universal Credit gives people the flexibility to increase their working hours while keeping more of their money.
“The Scottish Government now has significant welfare powers, including to top-up existing benefits, pay discretionary payments and create entirely new benefits altogether.”
Scottish Government Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell said: “The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Report is welcome. It explains clearly the challenges we face whilst also outlining how our current programmes, including actions to address the gender pay gap and disability employment can tackle poverty, which remains at unacceptable levels.
“Scotland has consistently had the lowest child poverty rates of the four UK nations. However, as the report makes clear, UK Government welfare cuts will significantly increase the number of children in poverty in Scotland – and across the UK.
“Whilst this means we are tackling poverty with one hand tied behind our back, I know if we take action in the right ways, we have the chance to reduce child poverty to the lowest levels ever in Scotland’s history and that is a future all of us want.
“That is why we are taking firm action through the first Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan which includes £12 million for intensive employment support for parents, a national minimum school clothing grant of £100 to help with essential costs, Best Start Grant payments to help families in the early years, and our commitment to doubling free childcare hours.
“I look forward to working with JRF on their other suggested solutions so we can ensure we continue to do our utmost to tackle poverty.”