Recessionary divide requires new thinking on poverty

At the wonderful Wigtown Book Festival, a panel of “thinkers” was discussing the need for a Big Idea and pondering where new economic, political and cultural inspiration would come from.  Exclusively male, extremely middle class, of course well educated, their bubble was well and truly burst by a wee local woman who queried “and how is any of that going to help a town like this?”  They had no reply. 

The exchange highlights the difficulties facing Scotland in the coming years.  It also neatly points up that Scotland is experiencing a recessionary divide, just as happened in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed, Wigtown was awarded the book town precisely because of its dire economic situation.  Unemployment had not fallen below double figures in over 10 years, local businesses and employers like the distillery and creamery had folded, properties were run down, the population was falling as evidenced by the declining school roll. 

This was supposed to be the white collar recession that would hit cities like Edinburgh hardest.  Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual report on poverty and social exclusion in Scotland appears to bury this myth and support the contention of a divide.  Areas that started the recession with a higher unemployment rate have experienced higher proportional jumps in unemployment.  Thus, in local authority areas like East Ayrshire and West Dunbartonshire, unemployment has grown faster than in areas like Aberdeen. 

The report also examines the impact of the Scottish Government’s anti poverty programmes and notes that several measures that had shown ponderous progress in the last decade, have now worsened or are standing still.  Taking a much longer view, what this means is that despite injecting record levels of cash to tackle social exclusion/social injustice/poverty and to close the opportunity gap, successive Holyrood administrations have largely failed to do anything other than paper over the cracks.  The systemic reasons for poverty that existed in many communities 30 years ago are still there.  And again, proportionately, decline is likely to be more acutely evident in those communities that had made least progress by the start of recession. 

Despite the appetite for debating Big Ideas, we still do not seem to have any answers for addressing the root causes of such poverty (although at least we know now that flinging money and a phalanx of public sector co-ordinators from the top down does not work.)  The left’s clinging to the shipwreck of public services completely ignores the evidence that many of the totems of the welfare state – education, health, housing – have failed the very communities they were established to serve.  The UK coalition government believes that the route out of recession is to cut public expenditure and enable the private sector to create jobs and wealth.  It didn’t work for towns like Wigtown, Kilmarnock and Alexandria in the 1980s and 1990s; it probably won’t work this time either.  The SNP will put “growing the economy” at the heart of its Holyrood manifesto for 2011 but as we saw under the UK Labour government, that by itself will not do anything to close the inequality gap.  Labour’s recent announcement on the living wage is a powder puff policy:  it applies only to the public sector, and clearly has nothing to offer people out of work. 

Some things have worked:  lessons can be learned from initiatives like the Wigtown book town.  Anti poverty campaigners like Bob Holman have been calling for years to empower communities to make choices and decisions for themselves, to be their own solution out of poverty.  The community of Eigg since residents bought the island has become a model of sustainability, on lots of levels.  There are other pilot projects testing and developing local co-production and community ownership models of tackling poverty.  Despite the scale of the challenge, there is hope. 

Yes, we need politicians to develop coherent, workable policy ideas on social justice.  We also need the Big Thinkers to be having Big Ideas.  But it’s the people who are now, sadly, living through the impact of a second recession who are the most vital contributors in the search for solutions to systemic poverty and social injustice.  People like the woman from Wigtown in fact.