CONSERVATIVES LIKE TO PRETEND that poverty is complicated. They insist that it’s not just a question of low wages and inadequate social security, but more an issue of personal responsibility. Indeed, as he embarked on his damaging welfare ‘reforms’ in 2012, Iain Duncan Smith’s illogical rhetoric generated headlines like, “Extra cash ‘can harm the poor'”.
Poverty, Duncan Smith argued, is caused by people’s lifestyle choices, so extra money reinforces bad behaviour. Unsurprisingly, as the cuts and changes inspired by this philosophy took effect, food banks proliferated.
As long as the UK is governed by politicians who believe that, whilst they struggle to live on an MPs salary, Universal Credit is good enough for the voters, the distressing rise in foodbank use might seem unstoppable. But now, with its own distinctly different approach, the Scottish government may be slowly stemming the tide of that misery.
This Spring, when the Trussell Trust released its annual figures for the number of emergency food parcels it had given to hungry people, one thing stood out. The statistics going back to 2014/15 showed that in every region and country of the UK the figures had risen year on year – with one exception. In Scotland, in 2021, there had been a fall. It was not a big fall, but in the context of every other region seeing big rises, it seemed significant.
Then, on 24 November, the Trussell Trust published more recent statistics, up to September – and we see the trend has continued. As the Trust’s own data briefing says: “Data from food banks in our network in Scotland does however remain an outlier in terms of being the only area of the UK to experience a significant (25 per cent) decrease since the same period in 2019. Different policy interventions in Scotland to boost the income of people in receipt of social security may have impacted on the levels of need for food banks in this period.”
Indeed – why wouldn’t a boost to incomes reduce the need for food aid?
One of the biggest of these policy interventions is the Scottish Child Payment (SCP), introduced in February this year, which currently pays £10 a week per child under the age of six, to support low income families. A few days ago, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SCP will double to £20 per week per child from next April, and be rolled out to children under the age of 16 by the end of 2022.
The Director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, John Dickie, said: “The First Minister’s commitment to double the new Scottish child payment in the coming year is a hugely welcome development on the path to meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets. This is a real lifeline for the families across Scotland who are facing a perfect storm of financial insecurity as the UK cut to universal credit bites”.
In 2018 the Scottish Government also introduced Best Start Grants for babies and children in low income families. The Pregnancy and Baby Payment gives eligible families £600 on the birth of their first child and £300 on the birth of any subsequent children – not putting a limit on the number of children that can be supported. The Early Learning Payment is £250 for toddlers, and the School Age Payment is £250 to help with the costs when a child starts Primary school.
Scottish Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “For a two-child family, the Best Start Grant package will provide total support of £1900 to £2400 more than they would get under the previous UK system. This shows the direct difference we are making to families across Scotland with our new powers over social security.””
And in Scotland, people who receive Carer’s Allowance can now get a Carer’s Allowance Supplement, an extra payment twice a year. The first payment in June was £231.40, and the second payment this month will be £462.80.
In these and other ways, the Scottish Government is making a real effort, within its devolved financial and political powers, to put extra money into the pockets of people on low incomes, and particularly investing in babies and children. There is every chance that this will pay dividends in the future, in terms of health, education and life chances in general.
In findings that will surprise no one who lives in the real world, the Trussell Trust says: “Significant evidence exists to show that increasing the value of benefits reduces overall levels of need for food banks. Statistical modelling carried out as part of the State of Hunger (2021) research found that an increase of £1 in the value of all main income replacement benefits was associated with a decrease of 2.6 per cent in the number of parcels given out in a typical local authority.”
It is early days, but this ‘cash first’ approach to poverty by the Scottish Government seems to be working to reduce the need for emergency food aid. We will need to keep an eye on the statistics, and of course one person needing to use a foodbank is one person too many, but in the face of rising foodbank use across the rest of the UK, the fall in Scotland, however small, seems grounds for cautious optimism. And it completely undermines the disrespectful argument that giving people more money is not the answer to poverty. Everybody should have the dignity of an income which enables them to buy their own food, and the statistics from Scotland suggest that the way to achieve that is really not complicated at all.
From an English perspective it seems that while Boris Johnson’s government talks about ‘levelling up’ but is in many ways actually regressing, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government, in cooperation with the Scottish Greens, is quietly getting on and doing something about it.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden