Can poverty escape the B-list?

by | 27 Jan 2023

The gap between the political rhetoric on how terrible poverty is and the political action on doing anything about it widens constantly. Is there any way Scottish politics can start taking the poor seriously?

First published by Common Weal

There is something I’m finding increasingly unsettling in Scottish politics – no-one really seems to care about poverty. Across all the parties (with very few if any exceptions) there seems to be a pretty substantial gap between how terrible politicians say poverty is and how much they actually do about it. It’s hard to see how to change that reality.

And it isn’t just the politicians. Scotland’s media does pick up poverty issues when they become sufficiently newsworthy (like when statistics on drug deaths, homelessness or malnutrition are released), but how they treat the news is important to observe.

First, it is usually the case that there is less of a connection made in the reporting between the symptom of poverty and the cause. It is quite common for say drug deaths, prison incarceration rates or homelessness to be reported with no mention of poverty at all. When they cover a crisis in the NHS they try to get to the bottom of why it is happening. With the impacts of poverty it seems to be taken as self-explanatory.

And it doesn’t stick. If you get a major news story which impacts on a newspaper’s readership or which has salacious detail or involves political scandal, you always get follow-up. If the story is NHS crisis one day, you might get a health professional approached to explain the problem for a day two story. If its a political scandal the media will keep poking at it to try and uncover the truth.

Good – this is exactly what public interest journalism should be doing. But when it comes to poverty it is rare to get that sustained follow-through. It means that those who consume media are somewhat left to the assumption ‘poverty, its hellish – but what can you do?’.

Yet there may be an even more telling give-away about our political attitude to poverty – it is quite tricky to identify something you could call a public or civic campaign or campaigning organisation which is actually trying to push politicians towards more substantial action. That is not to decry the great work of the Poverty Alliance, but while its contribution is invaluable, it gets a lot of government funding and so has to act more like a public agency than a campaign group.

The trade unions do campaign on low pay, but the structure of the labour market means that the majority of those who are in work and face severe poverty are not in unionised workplaces. This mean they have much less of a voice in the trade union movement.

When you add it all together you get a politics which mouths platitudes about poverty but does little, a media which will cover newsworthy evidence of poverty but then moves on quickly to something else, and a civic sector which at times seems to be organised around every social issue except poverty.

(This is a little unfair because many NGOs are dealing with impacts of poverty even if that isn’t their stated core mission. But then again, they’ve largely become service providers dealing with symptoms, much less so the causes.)

What this means is that the issues of poverty have largely been left to charity. It is organisations or communities which are left to provide food banks or warm banks. It is members of the public who are donating the food being distributed and much of the costs of running these (what have become) essential services.

It is quite tricky to identify something you could call a public or civic campaign or campaigning organisation which is actually trying to push politicians towards more substantial action on poverty

I must admit that I had felt a little hope before Christmas that this might change, that the economic conditions in the country would spread the impact of poverty wide enough to be felt enough by enough people that it might become a more pressing issue on the political agenda.

This hope had also been fuelled by quite a few conversations I had in the run-up to Christmas. People I spoke to who were not affluent but would never describe themselves as poor had been cutting back on heating and economising generally. It had opened their eyes to what that felt like and they kept expressing worry about ‘people who have it worse than us’. 

It wouldn’t have taken many additional conditions to convert that heightened sentiment into an increased push to get the Scottish Government to do something more substantial than it is doing. It would have needed a proper campaign, an interested media and a group of politicians known for a real, deep interest in issues of poverty – and it is hard to argue that any of those were in place.

And yet the evidence on the scale of our problems just keeps on bubbling over. The cynical con-trick that was the ‘rent freeze’ in public rental housing (wait until after rents have risen, freeze them but then unfreeze them before the next scheduled increase in rents) was exposed this week. The drug death statistics (already the worst in Europe and strongly correlated with poverty) are back on the rise.

We learned that in December there were nearly 50 people a day being taken to hospital in ambulances because they were suffering from hypothermia. Presumably once they’d had their body temperatures stabilised they were sent back to the same unheated houses – until the next time.

But the thing that played most on my mind was the most recent homelessness statistic which show there are 47,000 homeless people in Scotland, or just a little less than one in every hundred people. January has been dominated again by the toxic debate about gender recognition. This has been driven by the perception that people face trauma or humiliation going through the system as it is.

Irrespective of what you think of that debate, it must surely strike you as a substantial contrast that the highest estimated number of trans people in Scotland is half the number of homeless people. If we just look at those who actually go through the process of getting a Gender Recognition Certificate we’re talking about more than 1,500 times as many homeless people.

This is not about picking and choosing between different groups in society or setting one group against another. It is to ask whether Scotland’s politicians also think that homelessness is traumatising and humiliating or not? And if so, why won’t they dedicate similar amounts of time and effort into action on homelessness as they have to gender recognition?

Or perhaps more particularly, it is to show that if there isn’t a well-organised and sustained campaign and there is a clear deficit of political will to do anything about it, those on the wrong side of that dynamic are in real trouble. And don’t forget what real trouble means – it means one in five children in poverty and a thousand of them admitted to hospital with malnutrition each year.

Yes, the Scottish Government has introduced the Scottish Child Payment. No, no-one should underestimate how important this will be to those who receive it. Yes, it should be applauded. But it’s a sticking plaster, not a solution. It solves poverty like a foodbank solves poverty. And I find it very hard not to feel like the Scottish Government’s attitude is ‘that’s our bit done then’.

The poor don’t vote enough, they don’t buy enough newspapers and they don’t organise politically enough – so they are at the bottom of everyone’s list

The Scottish Government regularly argues that it can’t really do anything about poverty because too many of the powers are reserved. Yes, of course there is truth in that, but there are two things that completely undermine the argument. The first is that where there are things that can be done, the Scottish Government has resisted.

To take a single example, one of the biggest contributing factors to the experience of poverty is the experience of Scotland’s broken housing system. This is absolutely within the power of the Scottish Government, but what it chooses to do with that power is to follow (almost to the letter) the lobbying demands of the giant corporate housing developers, making the problem worse.

The second is that, if the SNP achieved its goal and gained the powers it says it needs but doesn’t have, it has committed itself to austerity. The Growth Commission and the Scottish Government’s independence paper on the subject make clear that it will follow a fiscal and policy line indistinguishable from Westminster.

It won’t challenge big business (far from it), it won’t change the way public finance is managed, it won’t invest, it won’t regulate – it won’t do any of the things that could tackle poverty. Moaning about not having powers when you’ve effectively promised not to use them anyway really is cynical.

The final reason the issue of poverty is relegated to the Scottish Parliament’s B-list is that it is hard to solve. Not hard as in ‘beyond our comprehension’, hard as it in requires a lot of coordinated work and the will to take on serious vested interests. After all, even before housing it is economic policy which is the biggest determinate of poverty. And there, if anyone can explain to me the difference in stance between Nicola Sturgeon, Keir Starmer and George Osborne I’d be interested to hear it.

Yet we can sort out this problem. We just need a serious, proper plan, the determination to see it through and that willpower to take on the powerful who will oppose it. But the poor don’t vote enough, they don’t buy enough newspapers and they don’t organise politically enough – so they are at the bottom of everyone’s list.

And so the tragedy continues.

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