Home-Start in Scotland supports many families badly affected by poverty. How optimistic should we be about reversing the increase in child poverty in Scotland? In this blog Jenny Duncan, Policy and Parliamentary Officer, Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland describes the challenge as “difficult but not impossible”.

Significant steps were made in Scotland in 2017 in setting out a clear framework towards the eradication of child poverty, with four new key targets being introduced through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act.

However, as with all policy, the 2030 targets themselves are just the beginning of the journey – the actions of the government, at a local and national level – will be fundamental to whether or not Scotland successfully reaches its new goal.

In recognition of this challenge, the Bill requires the Scottish Government to set out in Delivery Plans, on three occasions in the run up to 2030, what actions it will take to tackle child poverty across a range of areas. The first of these is due to be published on 1 April this year.

It is crucial that the delivery plans will be strategic, focussed, and contain specific, child poverty-focussed initiatives. Simply rebadging existing programmes of work and crossing fingers that incorporating these within the Delivery Plans will work will not be sufficient.

Child poverty is already at shockingly worrying levels with some 260,000 children in Scotland alone living below the poverty line, and over two thirds of those children are living in households where at least one parent or carer works.

And, unless substantial new actions are taken, it will get worse. Predictions of increasing child poverty – the IFS suggestion of an increase by 50% just in the next few years alone[1] - are sadly being proved to be correct. We have seen Scotland’s child poverty levels jump by 70, 000 since 2010/11 to the current 1 in 4 figure[2].

It is clear that with wages and benefit levels failing to match the rising costs of living, significant investment in increasing the incomes of families will be required if even more families are to be prevented from falling into poverty, let alone achieve the 2030 poverty reduction targets.

But with such stark figures – many ask whether it is possible to make any headway in Scotland in such a bleak environment. Yes, it is difficult but not impossible.

In 2010, child poverty was at its lowest level across the UK for 13 years, achieved through the continued implementation of policies since the mid ‘90s. As CPAG’s Austerity Generation report notes, these included: “the introduction of a minimum wage, establishment of a more progressive tax and benefit system, protection and real - terms increases for benefits targeted at children, a childcare strategy, the Sure Start programme, and measures to encourage parental employment, particularly for lone parents”[3].

The Scottish Government has even less time than those 13 years to reach its child poverty targets. It needs to hit the ground running and begin making immediate changes which will impact on families’ incomes now.

One way to do this has been identified by the Give Me Five campaign, which has been calling for a £5 top up to child benefit for every child in Scotland.

With an estimated cost of £256m, it would utilise the Scottish Government’s newly devolved social security powers and – while boosting the incomes of all families in Scotland – would lift 30, 000 children out of poverty. A near universal take-up rate of child benefit, would make this an achievable way to reach most families, without the pitfalls associated with means-testing.

Use of social security powers is a key area which, under the Act, has to be considered as part of the Delivery Plans. Furthermore the independent Poverty and Inequality Commission has now advised government that these powers need to be used if progress against the targets is to be achieved, and the Commission sets out a range of options, including topping up child benefit[4].

And this brings us back to making sure key actions in the Delivery Plans are adequately funded.

The budget is obviously crucial to the successful achievement of child poverty targets. Without funding, and political will, the Delivery Plans will fail to reach the 2030 targets, let alone the interim targets “halfway by halfway”, of 2023.

The decision of the Scottish Government to reform income tax in Scotland through the budget process is welcome, and a renewed focus and debate on tax and inequality is a useful lens through which to view public policy development over the next few years.

However, while there will be some benefits from the reforms to Scotland’s income tax system, whether they will reduce inequality and help lift the poorest households out of poverty is another matter. IPPR Scotland’s report[5] on the Scottish Budget shows the lowering of income tax rates for low earners- in of itself - will do little to alleviate poverty. At its most simple, this is because we know that many of those on the lowest earnings will either not be in work, earning enough to even reach the tax-paying threshold, or are living within better off households. It is however vital that Scotland’s tax and benefit powers are used to ensure the resources are in place to invest in the policies, including family benefits, that the evidence shows reduce poverty.

We have seen from the impacts of government policy on child poverty across the UK that no single measure will be capable of eradicating child poverty in Scotland. As the implementation of the provisions within the Child Poverty Act move forward, every service provider in the country – whether faced with a statutory duty or not - should review its service provision and policy priorities and consider what it can do to help reduce child poverty in Scotland at a local and national level.

These measures will be crucial in helping families already in poverty, as well as reaching the 2030 targets, but without significant investment in families’ incomes as well, there is a danger we will collectively fail.

Jenny Duncan is Policy and Parliamentary Officer at the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland 

[1] Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2015-16 to 2020-21. Table B2: Relative Poverty: 2007/08 to 2020/21. http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/comms/R114.pdf Research from the Resolution Foundation also projects increases in child poverty of up to 1.2 million across the UK by 2020/21 compared to 2016/17 available at http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Child-poverty-briefing.pdf (page 11)
[2] Latest 2015/16 Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland figures, Table A1: Relative Poverty in Scottish Households 1994/5 to 2014/15, http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0051/00515392.pdf
[3] http://www.cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/Austerity%20Generation%20FINAL.pdf, page 6.
[4] https://povertyinequality.scot/publications/ 
[5] https://www.ippr.org/blog/an-anti-poverty-scotland-budget-are-income-tax-cuts-on-lower-earnings-progressive