IT’S hard to argue against a policy that would lift 30,000 children out of poverty, but no-one ever said being in government was easy. The Give Me Five campaign, which was officially launched this week, is calling for the Scottish Government to use its new powers to top up child benefit by £5 per week. Every week. For every child.
This would not be cheap. There are about 900,000 children under 16 in Scotland whose parents receive child benefit. Add an extra five pounds a week, for 52 weeks of the year, and you’re looking at an annual cost of nearly a quarter of a billion pounds – £250,000,000 – to implement the policy. And that doesn’t take into account the many over-16s in training or education for whom the benefit continues to be paid.
As a mechanism for reducing child poverty, this top-up would be wildly inefficient. Social security minister Angela Constance says that only £3 out of every £10 spent on it would go to households in poverty. The rest would go to families who might appreciate it, but do not need it.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), which is spearheading the campaign, says an across-the-board top-up is the best approach because linking any increase to means-tested benefits would result in many needy families missing out. Thanks to the Tories at Westminster, fewer and fewer are eligible for means-tested benefits, and those who do qualify run the risk of being sanctioned for the smallest infraction of the rules. If a top-up was linked to accessing such benefits, they would lose it along with the rest of their income if a sanction was applied.
But there are other ways to put money in the pockets of poor parents and carers that involve neither universal provision nor means testing. These policies would not make front-page headlines, but they could potentially make a huge difference. In the spirit of Give Me Five, here are five alternative proposals:
1) Promote the living wage to consumers as well as employers
More than two-thirds of child in poverty live in working households, so the best way to help them is to help increase their parents’ wages. The Scottish Government may not have power to raise the minimum wage, but it can do more to promote the Living Wage by targeting consumers who can afford to spend that bit more. Ethical consumerism need not be limited to choosing free-range eggs, Fairtrade chocolate and locally sourced vegetables – it should also be about checking that fair wages are paid to the workers in Scotland’s factories, shops, hotels, cafes and bars.
2) Enshrine a right to welfare rights
The benefits system is so vastly complex that CPAG’s handbook explaining it runs to more than 1700 pages. Imagine trying to navigate that if you have a learning difficulty, poor mental health or a limited grasp of English. Among the many damaging impacts of austerity has been the loss of welfare rights officers, who can help the most vulnerable claimants ensure they are getting all the money to which they are entitled. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say these workers are worth their weight in gold – so funding to provide them in every local authority should be ring-fenced.
3) Empower kinship carers
When a child is removed from his or her parents and taken to live with a grandparent or other relative, the arrangement is usually intended to be temporary. But what starts off as a weekend of emergency care can end up lasting years, or even the rest of a childhood. Child benefit [i]should[/i] be paid to the person who is responsible for the child, and who cares for them the majority of the time, but it’s not uncommon for a parent to keep claiming long after their child has been removed. Only when a competing claim is made can the money be stopped, and for many kinship carers there’s never a right time to been seen as trying to wrestle this money away from their own child, sibling, niece or nephew. Local authorities need to find creative and sensitive solutions to this problem. It’s understandable that kinship carers worry about rocking the boat, and fear being viewed as being money-motivated, but love alone is not enough to ensure children who have had a difficult start can look forward to a bright future.
4) Provide breakfast clubs in all primary schools
This might be a policy from the Scottish Labour manifesto, but that shouldn’t stop the SNP from adopting it. After all, Jeremy Corbyn has no qualms about pinching idea from north of the Border and presenting them as brand new. The benefits of breakfast clubs go way beyond saving parents a bit of cash – they help ensure children get to school on time and are ready to learn, and their across-the-board provision would also help parents juggle childcare with paid work. It’s a win-win for pupils, teachers, parents and employers.
5) Build more social housing
In 2015/16 there were 190,000 children living in relative poverty before housing costs, but the figure was 260,000 after housing costs. The gap between these figures has widened in recent years, with housing costs rising and wages stagnating. Housing demand isn’t meeting supply, and those who can least afford it are paying a huge premium to private landlords. The answer to this is pretty simple: build more homes.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.