SCOTLAND’S SEVERE POVERTY LAID BARE… DESPITE THE HYPE

Soothed by upbeat economic statistics? Cheered by record numbers in work? Lulled by spending on welfare and social protection? Snap out of it, says Scot-Buzz editor BILL JAMIESON.

Far from life getting better in Scotland, the scale of severe and extreme poverty is laid bare in a new Scottish government report. It’s a sobering antidote to all those “economy getting better” press releases from the Holyrood administration.

We report its findings here. But the picture of Glasgow’s Calton district says it all: high unemployment, poor life expectancy, low per capita income. Cuts in social programmes leave little hope that this situation will improve.

Six in ten people in relative poverty in Scotland were in severe or extreme poverty in 2012/13. The analysis shows of the 820,000 people in relative poverty in 2012/13, 510,000 were in severe poverty and 230,000 were in extreme poverty. In percentage terms, that’s 10 per cent of Scots living in severe poverty, and 4 per cent in extreme poverty. Over half a million people in Scotland were living on less than half the average income. Of this total, 330,000 were working age adults, 100,000 were children and 80,000 pensioners.

A household is defined as living in relative poverty with an income below 60 per cent of the UK median income. Severe poverty is defined as living with an income lower than £11,500, or 50 per cent of UK median income, while extreme poverty is defined as lower than £9,200, 40 per cent of UK median income. Commenting on Severe Poverty in Scotland, Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil said: “It’s a disgrace that so many people live in such severe or extreme poverty, but it’s an unfortunate and inevitable result of the UK Government’s failed austerity agenda and welfare cuts that are slashing incomes for some of our poorest households. “With employment increasing and unemployment down, Scotland is outperforming the rest of the UK, yet the statistics show that a job is no longer any guarantee against severe or extreme poverty. “

By any measure, these are deeply depressing figures. They show that little has improved in Scotland despite claims that we are among the wealthiest countries in the world – and despite continuing rises in welfare and benefit spending for most of the past 60 years. Glossy pictures in Scottish government reports of happy-family ‘aspirational’ Scots in upwardly mobile jobs present neither a complete nor accurate portrayal. Life in Scotland, far from getting better on these official poverty measures, looks to be getting worse.

The survey knocks on the head any comfort that might be drawn from the latest GERS figures showing that in 2013-14, welfare and benefit spending was the largest single category of Scottish government expenditure, accounting for £22.3 billion or one third of the £66.4 billion total. Some say this spending is inadequate and ineffectual. But without it, these latest baleful figures would almost certainly be worse. Take away this £22 billion of re-distributive expenditure and the extent of deprivation in Scotland would be truly dire. No amount of do-gooder prattle about “lifestyle changes” can compete against a deeply ingrained culture of lassitude and despair evident in Scotland’s poorer areas.

And Alex Neil is right. Welfare spending has indeed fallen in recent years as more people came off the unemployment register and were no longer entitled to benefits. That might have made things look better on those labour market statistics. More folk may be in jobs. But it now appears this is not the same as reducing poverty. Surely no more powerful argument has been made for more powers for the Holyrood parliament. It may well be that ‘more powers’ does not mean more money. But we’ll have more control. The Scottish government believes we’ll be able to fight poverty by raising taxes and borrowing more. Some say this will only make matters worse. High earners will leave. Capital will migrate. And severe poverty will continue to blight us. That looks unavoidable. But at least there’s official recognition of its disturbing extent in Scotland.

Food bank Scotland and a welfare safety net full of holes: is this the greater reality? If so, what can we do about it? All suggestions welcomed…

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