I was listening today to a seminar for Challenge Poverty Week, covering the latest report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Poverty in Scotland . The report identifies six main ‘priority groups’ which put children at a greater risk of poverty. The groups are
- families with children under 1
- larger households
- single parents
- people in minority ethnic groups
- families with a disabled person, and
- workless families.
There are no great surprises in that. I think, from memory, that this pretty much reflects the findings of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth in the 1970s, with a substitution: pensioners don’t feature, leargely because this is about child poverty, but the position of minority ethnic groups has been recognised.
The next question, however, is what to make of the information. Shona Robison, for the Scottish Government, clearly thought that a focus on these priority groups was the way to break the ‘cycle’ of poverty. She suggested that the government would be offering ‘bespoke’ responses to families in this position and recommended better paid work as the way out.
There are problems with that. The place to start, perhaps, is with the statement that these people are at greater risk. Yes, the risk is higher, but that doesn’t mean either that all these people are poor (the highest proportions are those in minority groups, and people who are disabled) or that people are trapped in poverty. Low-income poverty is a position that many people pass through. Very young children are important, because women’s capacity to earn is impaired. Worklessness is important, but work is no guarantee of coming out of low income. Precarious work is widespread, and part of the problem.
The other main problem relates to the assumption that people and families can be targeted on an individual basis. Poverty is a moving target, and most attempts to deal with it by targeting are doomed to failure: people’s incomes fluctuate, their household status changes, they do whatever they can to improve their situation. What we need is not a set of individualised responses, but a reliable, predictable foundation of the benefits and services that make it possible for people to secure their position.