We are all aspirational now. One of the reasons cited for the SNP’s spectacular success at the 2011 Scottish election was its ability to appeal to the aspirations of Scottish voters – the hope triumphing over fear mantra. Labour in coming to terms with its “gubbing” has agreed that it needs to do more to appeal to aspirational voters.
Recent research suggests that people, particularly children, living in poverty are just as aspirational as everyone else. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered that between the ages of 13 and 15 young people living in deprived areas in Glasgow, Nottingham and London have the same aspirations and career ambitions as other young people their age – to go to university and to have a decent career. But something happens in their adolescent years to take those dreams away: it’s not poverty of aspiration or ambition young people suffer from, but poverty of opportunity.
Weak family experience in knowing how to realise such ambitions, the lack of professional career opportunities in their communities and a paucity of support, particularly in schools, to open up pathways all conspire to frustrate younhg people’s aspirations. In short, as a society, we write poor young people off at an early age and do not help them to escape.
The previous Labour government set itself an ambitious target to end child poverty by 2020, the SNP and even the Conservatives have adopted the challenge. Yet, the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ modelling on cuts and changes to welfare suggests that Tory and Liberal Democrat policies and actions could make at least 800,000 more children poor in the UK by 2020. By then, nearly one in four children will be growing up in poverty – in Scotland as much as anywhere else.
Even without an injection of austerity and public sector cuts from the current UK Government, there were signs that Labour’s approach had hit the buffers. That’s the problem when the state tries to fix it for you. Top down interventionist policies which catapult resources into poor communities, rather than grow assets and resilience from the grassroots, don’t work. The same can be said of the tax credit system – its aim was true, but using public money to reinforce low wages and offset expensive childcare costs, could only ever mask rather than eradicate poverty.
In Scotland, previous Labour/Lib Dem administrations fixated on poverty, giving it new names like social justice, a raft of strategies and milestones, targets and outcomes to achieve and record levels of investment. Yet, when the SNP assumed power in 2007, we still had several hundred thousand children living in poverty, with key indicators stubbornly refusing to budge. Worse infant mortality rates, appallingly low levels of breastfeeding, obesity on the rise, parental substance misuse rocketing, violence blighting communities, the lowest life expectation in Western Europe and the bottom 20% still leaving school with few qualifications and even fewer life chances. Thanks Labour.
The SNP is trying a slightly different approach. It gets, with its strategy to end child poverty, the need to prevent dismal outcomes, to invest in preventative spending, to pump prime the early years of life to give all children the best start in life. But its simplistic view of the solutions to income poverty – “we will continue with our efforts to strengthen our society, with more Scots sharing in our nation’s wealth” (from the manifesto) – is also doomed to fail, as decades of application of the trickle down economic approach in other countries will testify.
But the party is also hanging its hopes on the concept of a social wage. Alex Salmond, First Minister, introduced the concept as he set out his stall for this Scottish Government: “a social wage is part of the pact—the promise—between politicians, public services and the people. We will deliver the social and economic circumstances that allow people to dream, to aspire and to be ambitious, but it is for the individual to realise their dreams, to reach for their hopes and to meet their ambitions.”
Since then, the Government has outlined what it sees as its side of the bargain – maintaining free personal care for older people, and free bus travel for older and disabled people, free tuition fees for Scottish students, free prescriptions for all, no bridge tolls and a freeze on council tax bills until 2016.
But where is the SNP’s social wage for children?
They can argue – and they do – that children benefit indirectly from some, if not all, of these measures: that trickle-down effect again. So let’s rephrase the question: where is the SNP’s social wage for children growing up in poverty? For, as research and indeed, decades of experience show, it is not enough to allow people to dream and to aspire, and to leave it then to the individual to reach for their hopes and to meet their ambitions.
In such a societal marketplace, poor children will always lose out. Poor children need extra help to escape the impact of a childhood lived on a low income, to follow a different path than the one society – not they themselves – has marked out for them.
Gone are the high universal ambitions for children of free school meals and smaller class sizes. Neither affordable nor desirable apparently, yet universality which promises to continue targeting increasingly scarce resources at wealthy pensioners and adults is deemed acceptable. Universality needs to be well, universal, surely to work?
Free higher education, arguably, benefits young adults – though just as arguably, you could say it benefits their parents more, just as free school meals would do. But that amounts to an investment in the already-achieving, those who have a life chance before them. Despite platitudes and resources aplenty, Scotland’s education system from 3 to 23 has done very little to enable the poorest and most marginalised children and young people to realise their ambitions of degrees and professional careers. All that money and so little social mobility to show for it.
And even suppose targeting is okay, why so little investment in the ones who need it most? The Early Years, Early Action fund is a great initiative but it has only been given £6 million to spend, and even then, its funds have been scattered like confetti around 24 three year projects. You do the maths.
The £50 million Surestart fund is another fantastic commitment, as is the share of the £500 million (as yet unquantified) preventative spending pot for early years activity. But handing it over to local authorities and community planning partnerships means it will find its way into the same black hole that consumed the Fairer Scotland Fund. Council officials will decide, with little say from those living in poverty, how this money is spent and such is the way of local government that much of it will inevitably be spent on posts and bricks and mortar, rather than activity. If that £50 million is to reach its destination and have a chance of achieving its purpose, it must be invested using a community assets approach, not a professionalised model, that is bottom up not top down.
But it can and could be very different. With independence, we could do so much more to tackle the scourge of child poverty, particularly if we aim to be a child-centred society. A theme I hope to expand on at a fringe meeting today at the SNP Annual Conference. Hosted by the Poverty Alliance, the event will hear from Michael Matheson MSP, Minister for Public Health and John Dickie, Director CPAG Scotland, and little ol’ me, on creating a Scotland Free of Poverty. Please do come along if you are in Inverness!