Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond

Gerry Mooney

Poverty in Scotland 2014 seeks to inform the terms of debate on poverty and inequality in the run up to the independence referendum by providing the latest facts and figures, setting out the anti-poverty cases of the ‘Yes Scotland’ (pro-independence) and ‘Better Together’(pro-UK) campaigns, and exploring how other regions and nations have sought to tackle these questions within a variety of constitutional settlements. In doing so it draws together the expertise of academics, anti-poverty campaigners and other experts both in Scotland and internationally. 

In particular, the book highlights the increasing degree to which poverty and issues relating to social welfare have become central to the debate around Scotland’s constitutional future, reflecting both recent reaction to current UK welfare ‘reforms’, the role the welfare state has played in binding the UK together, longstanding distinctions in approaches to welfare provision in health, education and social services and increasing divergence in the degree to which the principles underpinning the post 1945 welfare state remain key to the provision of public services.

The book also highlights the extent of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland today:

  • 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).
  • 200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children).
  • Despite an improving position relative to other European countries poverty in Scotland, and across the UK, is significantly higher that in many countries.

While real progress has been made in reducing the numbers of people living in poverty, specifically among children (falling by 160,000 between 1996/97 and 2011/12, a 44% fall in total) and pensioners (down by nearly two thirds since 1996/97), these trends follow dramatic increases in poverty between 1979 and the mid 1990’s and reflect the success of a range of specific policy interventions. A continued fall in poverty between 2009/10 and 2011/12, despite the economic downturn and wider austerity measures, has reflected the fact that as median incomes fell the incomes of low incomes households were protected, at least in part,  as a result of previous investment in benefits and tax credits and their uprating in line with inflation. This protection has now been removed with cuts to benefits and the way in which they are uprated. Informed forecasts conclude there will be massive rises in poverty in the coming years. In Scotland alone up to 100 000 children will be pushed into poverty by 2020.

Poverty in Scotland 2014 explores the uneven distribution of poverty in Scotland. Alongside children, certain groups of people are at particular risk of poverty. These include lone parents, people who are not working, people affected by disability and people from some minority ethnic groups. The scale and intensity of poverty also varies with place. Glasgow still has a disproportionate share of Scotland’s poverty. However, large numbers of people in poverty live in areas with lower overall concentrations of poverty. More people are income deprived in Edinburgh than in any other local authority area except Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. Poverty is also prevalent in rural Scotland, particularly in relation to the material deprivation of older people. A local child poverty map published by End Child Poverty found almost every Scottish local authority contains wards where more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty. 

The principles across a range of issues that have been identified as necessary for a strong, cohesive and more equal Scotland, whatever the outcome of the independence referendum are explored. Key here are issues relating to taxation, the labour market, local approaches, participation, gender equality, inclusion and universalism.

Drawing on a number of different national and regional contexts, the book explores how other nations have sought to tackle poverty and inequality within a variety of constitutional settlements and demands for further autonomy. For example, in Canada it appears that whilst provincial autonomy opens up space for positive anti-poverty policy development, without strong national commitment and co-operation there is a risk of families falling through the net in provinces with less developed social welfare infrastructure.

Contributions from Catalonia and the Basque country highlight the very different responses to poverty and inequality that can develop alongside demands for greater autonomy/independence, with evidence from Catalonia suggesting ‘political self-determination is not intrinsically socially progressive’ whilst the Basque country has used its devolved powers to develop ‘a public income guarantee scheme’ and a ‘more robust and ambitious anti-poverty policy’ than other regions. The Nordic countries attract considerable international interest as having a model that creates conditions for a flexible and competitive economy alongside adequate welfare provision and low levels of poverty. However Nordic countries are not without their problems and, focussing on responses to very varied rates of youth unemployment across the region, the book shows lessons that could be learned Finally it is argued that Scotland can ‘learn most from what Ireland did not do’ highlighting how employment will never be the only route out of poverty, Irish experience show that income support and social transfers are crucial.

In concluding, it is argued that whilst Scotland has undergone significant change since the first editions of Poverty in Scotland in the early 1990’s it remains a highly unequal country. The full powers of the existing devolution settlement have yet to be deployed in addressing inequality and poverty, but it is also argued that the tone of debate in Scotland, in ‘no small part due to the independence referendum,’ is positively different from that taking place elsewhere in the UK, with notions of ‘welfare’ regaining some of their more positive meanings and connotations. Whatever the outcome of the referendum the debate on the constitutional future has provided forum and opportunity to explore the makings of a new approach to tackling poverty and inequality, with the contributors to this book opening up new ways of thinking about the issues as well as learning from other countries that other ways of doing things are possible.

Poverty in Scotland 2014 is published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), in association with The Open University in Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University and the Poverty Alliance. It is edited by John H. McKendrick, Gerry Mooney, John Dickie, Gill Scott and Peter Kelly: CPAG 2014 and available from CPAG.

Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University in Scotland.

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