Opinion

Child poverty – another awful election debate

by | 10 Jun 2024

Every political leader says they want to end child poverty but they all want to do it by making the richer rich first. We are shamed by the national debate on poverty in Scotland.

Last night I went to see my daughter in her local youth theatre performance. It was a play about a poor kid from a chaotic household among a group of middle class kids and how he becomes the scapegoat because, well, obviously. It affected me deeply (the kids were all really brilliant in it).

It affected me deeply because of the combination of the sheer injustice of what happens in the play and the deep awareness that that is the daily reality for many tens of thousands of kids in Scotland who frankly don’t stand a chance. You know they’re going to get screwed, I know it, and they most certainly know it.

That is why I want to raise ‘child poverty’ as the second big issue of this election where the level of the debate is so, so poor that it is an embarrassment to observe. ‘ending child poverty’ is one of two priorities every major political leader in Scotland is committed to, the other being ‘growing the economy’.

But before we get to the sorry state of the debate, first, let me be clear what the problem really is. There have been multiple variations on how to describe ‘children in poverty’, from ‘social exclusion’ to ‘low income families’. All have moved away from the most accurate description; people living with multiple deprivation.

It is the multiple part that we have left behind. Even if you were to give the parents of children in poverty significant cash transfers, even so their kids would still face major disadvantages in life. From parents who are ill-equipped to play the ‘sharp elbows’ game to poor quality housing to endemic crime in communities, there are so many barriers to life success for these children that reducing it to only money is deeply insufficient.

This is a pile-up of economic, social and cultural disadvantage that makes young people sitting ducks for the impact of the social failures of our era (and, let’s face it, every other era too). Breaking that pile-up effect is not a simple task.

So, returning to ‘the debate’, if all of the politicians are so keen to do something to end child poverty, what is it exactly? After all, most of them claim this is their number one priority in life, the thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. So what are they going to do about?

Thankfully you don’t need to worry about it too much because they all absolutely agree, almost exactly. To end child poverty they’re going to (drum roll…) cut red tape on big business. For Labour it’s planning regulations, for the SNP its protecting the oil industry from tax rises, from the Tories it’s full-spectrum corporate wish-fulfilment.

The idea that the interests of Shell Oil and some poor kid from a housing estate coincide is frankly offensive

But while the detail changes, the theory remains the same – the politicians are going to bribe the corporations to grow faster, increasing tax revenue which can then be invested in ending child poverty. Literally no other approach is being considered. That’s it. To save poor children we must fatten up the world’s richest corporations.

There is no amount of real-world evidence that will get in the way of this fairytale. Since 1992 there have only been two years without GDP growth. This theory of ‘ending poverty’ therefore states that over those years poverty has declined, since there is more tax take as per the plan. Except that hasn’t happened.

After all, over the same period there has been all-but uninterrupted cuts in corporation tax. Part of the means of ‘facilitating corporate growth’ for the purpose of investing in all these poor children the politicians all care about so much has been to reduce the tax burden on corporations.

So, with the mystical, magical Laffer Curve in tow, corporate tax income has shot up, right? Nope, it has not. It has ricocheted all but randomly all over the place irrespective of what governments did, almost like a wider set of circumstances affect business performance other than just ‘tax’ and ‘red tape’…

What I’m trying to point out clearly and simply is that the idea that increasing corporate profits in any way you can enables you to tackle poverty is utter rubbish, measurably false, empirically discredited. It just isn’t true.

In fact, it is utterly offensive. From low wages to the health-destroying impact of nutrition-free ultra-processed ‘mouth products’ (the more I read, the less inclined I am to call this stuff food), from gambling and alcohol addiction to surge pricing and greedflation, the corporations are not the goodies here but the villains.

The factors that have made them all-dominant are much the same as the factors which placed children in multiple deprivation, from legal tax-dodging to undermining industrial relations and collective bargaining, from monopolisation and profiteering to the use of armies of corporate lobbyists to shape democracy, the idea that the interests of Shell Oil and some poor kid from a housing estate coincide is frankly offensive.

Here’s the truth; I don’t doubt that in their hearts politicians really are bothered by the soul-crushing reality of child poverty, but when it comes to the politics of it, it is something they say to emphasise their moral credentials. It’s not really something they do.

After all, really the only thing they have done is the Scottish Child Payment which was introduced by a politician who knew she could take the plaudits for it because she wasn’t going to hang around to have to pay for it. Those who did have to pay for it all but took the whole lot back again.

I repeat, almost every penny allocated in the Scottish Child Payment has been clawed back from cuts to other budgets for poverty issues (from Council Tax freezing local services to affordable housing subsidies). That’s the political attitude to poverty eradication – do one thing that gets you credit and use it as cover to steal mercilessly from poverty budgets elsewhere when no-one is looking.

Ending multiple deprivation involves an all-encompassing programme of providing services to people which seek to overcome the full gamut of disadvantages they face

Why do politicians say these things and not act? Because their strategists tell them poor people don’t vote. It’s a virtue you signal, but it sure as hell won’t get you a lucrative board position when you retire. And why don’t poor voters vote? Because of all the above. Because this election they can vote for one of half a dozen parties completely committed to helping them by doing absolutely nothing.

Here is the pure, brutal reality; ending multiple deprivation involves an all-encompassing programme of providing services to people which seek to overcome the full gamut of disadvantages they face. There is a word for the body which provides these full-spectrum services. It is ‘local council’ and Labour and the SNP have taken turns running them down.

Worse still, it is services for the poor which have been run down the most. There isn’t a social work department left in Scotland and all those in-community facilities which are so important to ending multiple deprivation have been shuttered. Your bin still gets emptied, the roads are still kept open, schools keep going – but not care services (which are falling apart), not debt advice services, not addiction recovery services.

After I watched that play last night (honestly, it really caught me unawares how viscerally I felt about it), I felt pain. Then numbness. The a rising anger, an anger that resurfaces every time the clash between political rhetoric, political inaction and the poor little souls crushed by that utter political neglect is in front of my nose.

This doesn’t constitute a political debate. There is more credit to be found in the examination of chemtrails or lizard men than there is in taking the political rhetoric on ending child poverty seriously. Their policies are a farce; helping poor people by subsidising Amazon isn’t even ‘the long way round’, it is a measurable fantasy.

Sadly, the media are no more interested in the poor than the politicians. They don’t do their research on the true impact across all services of the disinvestment in support for children in multiple deprivation and they don’t challenge the politicians seriously about it.

And where do these kids end up? Broken, in jail, hated, ignored, stigmatised, harmed beyond what a child should have to face. You know the only thing that made me feel better about it all? It was the theatre workshop kids themselves who chose this play over many less difficult and troubling pieces they could have chosen. They cared enough to take this seriously.

When the lights dimmed and the audience cheered at the end, I’d have voted for any one of those children before the crop of politicians who think ‘poverty’ is a scrabble word that pairs nicely with ‘scourge’. But only when convenient.

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