Refining Our Understanding And Approach To Tackling Child Poverty
Focusing on the drivers of poverty and the priority families identified most at risk, remain at the core of the Tackling Child Poverty approach. However, our understanding of poverty has become more nuanced over the first plan period.
Child Poverty System is highly complex
Experience over the first plan period has shown the complexity of the child poverty system and the vast diversity in the reasons why households experience child poverty and the barriers preventing them moving out of poverty. Poverty on a technical level is a binary – in or out of poverty – but in reality it is experienced as a sliding scale. Many families are near the poverty threshold, but others are in deep and persistent poverty, experiencing multiple adversity. Policies that help those near to the poverty threshold to push over the threshold in the short term will reduce technical poverty and help us meet the targets. But, policies that help families to move away from destitution and develop their own capabilities to engage with the drivers at their own pace, are also crucially important. In the short term some policies may not directly contribute to the targets but may help families move nearer to the poverty threshold, improving their immediate living conditions with a medium to long term trajectory to sustainably exit poverty.
Tackling child poverty needs action at a range of intervention points
Due to these different circumstances, experiences and barriers, tackling child poverty will mean totally different things to different families and will require different combinations of response including a range of services and supports. We have found it helpful to think of different conceptual tiers of response. (See Figure 4 for a visual representation)
The first tier of support responds to circumstances where one or more adults in the family are in work or near to the labour market. Here policy action around fair work, reducing costs, improving the balance between work and benefits, and easier service navigation could allow families to pull themselves over the poverty line with minimal public or third sector interference.
The second tier of support responds to families where adults have the skills, confidence and desire to work if the infrastructure worked better to allow this to happen. Policy action which seeks to make infrastructure more family friendly and logistically easy, such as family-friendly employer policies, workplace adjustments, inclusive recruitment practice, accessible and affordable child care, flexible health and social care for families with a disabled member, logistically sensible transport and digital inclusion could all help in this space.
The final tier of support responds to families experiencing a range of adversity for whom directly accessing any of the drivers is currently a step too far; trust may be at such a level that even engaging with social security is problematic for them. For these families, supporting factors such as improved material conditions, skills, capabilities, confidence, mental health and wellbeing, will be needed alongside income support, before we can expect them to begin to engage with the wider range of services related to the drivers.
Poverty is not a fixed state
We have also developed our understanding of 'churn' in poverty. There is often a view that there are people in poverty and people out of poverty, but in reality families fall in and out of poverty as their circumstances change. This means that for measures such as relative poverty, absolute poverty or material deprivation, data only shows a cross sectional snapshot. The same proportion may be in poverty but it will not be the same people each time. The measure of persistent poverty provides an indication of the proportion of households who have been in poverty for a longer period of time. Triggers into poverty include loss of employment, changes in pay/hours, additional children, relationship breakdown, increases in costs of living including housing, reduction in welfare support. The opposite will help families move out of poverty. A better understanding of triggers and the response in Scotland may also help to understand churn and prevention. Specifically, understanding poverty as a movable state rather than as a characteristic or a group is helpful.
Tackling child poverty should also support wellbeing
The child poverty targets are not an end in themselves. Ultimately, they are about improving parents' and children's wellbeing, quality of life and life chances. We know that poor life outcomes for children and parents are driven by poverty so reducing child poverty, through increasing incomes and reducing costs of living, is one important mechanism for doing so. But it is not the only mechanism. We recognise that there are many other important actions being taken forward by the Scottish Government and its partners that will improve parents and children's quality of life and life chances, in ways that are not in the short term about increasing incomes or reducing costs of living, although this might be a long term impact.
Reflecting on broader outcomes, experience has made us mindful of the need to ensure that income-based policies continue to support wellbeing. For example, it is no good encouraging a single mother to work long hours if this impacts negatively on the wellbeing of her and her child. Additional periodic analysis of wellbeing metrics will be necessary to monitor that driver action is associating with positive impacts on longer-term poverty-reduction outcomes and does no additional harm, as well as helping us to understand and track hopefully improving outcomes for people who remain in deep or persistent poverty.
Poverty levels and driver progress in Scotland reflect external factors
Finally, in taking forward evaluation we need to continue to be mindful that poverty and its drivers are influenced by many different factors, only some of which can be influenced by public policy in Scotland. However, moving forward, we need to ensure that the interpretation of how child poverty and its drivers change over time is supplemented as needed with consideration of key external factors – for example, demographic change, macro-economic changes and UK-wide policy on employment law, migration, social security, foreign policy and trade deals.
In summary, the approach established in the first delivery plan will be continued for the second delivery plan. But experience from the first plan has illustrated how messy the problem is. Monitoring and evaluation will increasingly need to capture the complexity of poverty experience and required successful response, as well as poverty churn and triggers and the wider factors that impact on the targets.
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