I’ve just shared a brief interview on Good Morning Scotland with Jim McCormick, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Jim has prepared a report called A Scotland without poverty (not to be confused with a Poverty Alliance report of the same name) proposing a ‘leadership strategy’ to develop effective anti-poverty policies. The main proposals include an extension of free child care to 15 hours a week, getting more people into work and building career ladders, more intensive employability support, improving housing conditions, extending financial inclusion, improving takeup and taxing Winter Fuel Payment.
This is much too limited. The first problem is that it doesn’t address the principal conditions shaping the lives of people who are poor, which are not about work – they mostly affect people who are not part of the labour market, including long-term sickness, disability, childhood and old age. There are very limited responses to two of those , and even less about the first two. The second problem is that for those who are engaged with the labour market, work is too insecure and unpredictable to build resources. Work is not the answer. Even to reduce poverty, we need to ensure access to the conditions of civilisation – the phrase is Tawney’s – with a secure foundation of health, education, housing and public services. Even within the limited framework of devolution, those are indeed issues that a Scottish Government could address.
The weakness of that comment is one it shares with the Rowntree report. Jim refers to a ‘leadership strategy’ – a strategy issued from on high – and I have just done the same thing. Poverty is a difficult, complex, multifaceted set of issues. In that situation, it’s not possible to insist on priorities in one field without sacrificing others – so how should those priorities be decided? We need to look at what matters to the people who are experiencing poverty, and build from there. ‘Leadership’ is not the way forward: try listening instead.