Few political leaders capture my imagination quite like Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, a package of government initiatives aimed at creating jobs, investing in education, expanding access to health care and strengthening welfare benefits, was remarkable in its scope, ambition and legacy. LBJ, who as a school teacher in Texas saw first hand the challenges faced by poor families, considered the depth of poverty in the US a national disgrace that demanded a national response. He identified the cause of poverty not as the personal moral failings of the poor but as a societal failure. As Johnson put it in his 1964 State of the Union address, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
Campaigning in Lanark and Hamilton East as Labour’s candidate in last summer’s election, President Johnson’s War on Poverty frequently came to mind. I spoke with a single mother in Hamilton, who couldn’t afford to pay for her children to take part in after-school activities with their friends; a family in Larkhall, in which three generations of men had never been able to find a job; and parents in rural Clydesdale, relying on a food bank in Carluke to feed their family. Recent analysis by End Child Poverty shows that around 24 per cent of children in the constituency suffer the indignity of poverty, a shameful statistic. But what’s equally striking is the extreme inequality between neighbouring towns: the child poverty rate in Larkhall is almost double that in Uddingston and Bothwell.
Lanark and Hamilton East is no outlier. Almost one in four of Scotland’s children live in poverty, significantly higher than in most other European countries. This is projected to rise in the coming years, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasting that more than a third of children in the UK will be living in poverty by 2022. That is 5.2 million children – the highest number since records began. Prime Minister Theresa May claims that “work is the best route out of poverty”, yet two-thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one person works. The families of public service workers are increasingly vulnerable: according to the TUC, one in seven children with a parent working in the public sector will soon be living below the breadline.
The reality is that eight years of Tory austerity has reversed the progress made by the previous Labour Government, which lifted two million people out of poverty across the UK. Further cuts to social security, and the rollout of Universal Credit, is only making the situation worse. Just this week, the Trussell Trust reported that food banks in Scotland distributed 170,000 emergency food parcels last year, a 17 per cent rise in food bank use over the past 12 months. They also showed that food bank use in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out went up by 52 per cent in the first 12 months of the system, an increase four times higher than in areas where it is yet to be introduced. The Conservative’s ideological insistence that “the best government can do is get out of the way” is wrong at the best of times – and these are clearly not the best of times.
The SNP, for their part, have failed to take meaningful action to tackle child poverty in over a decade in power. Earlier this year, Douglas Hamilton – the Scottish Government’s top advisor on poverty – cautioned that while rhetoric in Scotland is progressive, “we don’t have the actions to match up to that.” The Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Bill sets the laudable aim of reducing child poverty to ten per cent by 2030. But we can’t afford another lost generation of children, living without basic necessities and with the increased risk of chronic mental and physical illness, their opportunities restricted from the outset. Scotland’s children need radical action now. They need a War on Poverty.
We need a national effort that brings together government, trade unions, business, and civil society to systematically address the myriad causes and consequences of poverty and inequality. Given the prevalence of in-work poverty, it should set out how we support those on low pay – starting with the introduction of a real living wage of £10 per hour – and guarantee job security for all. It should show how we can realise the right of every child to a decent, secure and heated home. And, as a matter of urgency, the Scottish Government should provide support for councils to follow the lead of Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire in providing free meals to children who need them 365 days a year.
When it comes to welfare, there are a raft of measures that the Scottish Government could take immediately, any one of which would lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty.
First, adopt Scottish Labour’s plan for a £5-a-week child benefit top-up – rather than continuing to vote with the Tories to block it.
Second, increase the child element of universal credit: a top-up of £50 a month would reduce child poverty in Scotland by just under a fifth.
Third, introduce a Scottish Child Tax Credit, using Holyrood’s new powers over social security to target the poorest households in the country.
Fourth, initiate a pilot program to test a “minimum income guarantee”, a hybrid concept designed to combine the benefits of a universal basic income and a means tested household payment.
Recent modelling by IPPR Scotland found that a minimum income guarantee could bring poverty rates down in Scotland more effectively than a universal basic income. Mr Hamilton recently described Holyrood’s new powers over tax and social security as a “game changer”, adding that “We’ll no longer be able to say ‘The reason why there’s so many people in Scotland is because of Westminster’s benefit policies.’” The time has come for the Scottish Government to match its progressive rhetoric with bold action.
Andrew Hilland is Director of Research and Secretary to the Global Citizenship Commission and a former Senior Policy Adviser to Gordon Brown. He is campaigning to become the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidate for Lanark and Hamilton East.