Tackling child poverty is one of the Scottish Government's national missions. An estimated 24% of children in Scotland, or 240,000 children each year, were living in relative poverty after housing costs the years from 2017 to 2020.
There is a considerable way to go to reach the national targets. The target for relative child poverty is to reduce it to 18% by 2023 and to 10% by 2030.
Many families continue to face significant challenges due to poverty. The aim of this publication is to summarise the latest evidence on what works in tackling child poverty and to inform the second Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan (2022-2026).
Searches were carried out across the three key drivers of child poverty to identify policies or approaches that could impact positively on: income from employment; income from social security and benefits in kind; and costs of living. In addition, the search covered each of the six priority family types who are at higher risk of poverty.
What's currently working well, and what should the Scottish Government and partners continue and do more of?
There is wide consensus across national stakeholders and supported by other international approaches that, to tackle child poverty, the following needs to continue to take place:
- Having clear targets supported by policies that directly impact on poverty rates
- Tackling poverty across all three drivers (income from employment, cost of living and income from social security and benefits in kind)
- Having a combination of various policies that support families most in need, and recognising that there is no single way to experience poverty, but a wide range of unique experiences.
Specifically on the three drivers of poverty, evidence supports continuation of many aspects of current policy:
- Enabling and supporting parents to increase their income through paid work and earnings is an important part of tackling child poverty, and employment policies should continue to push the child poverty reduction agenda.
- The current Social Security provision in Scotland is valued by families and is effective at increasing many families' incomes.
- Good quality, affordable childcare is crucial in supporting some parents to enter or maintain employment, and can be an important facilitator in increasing household income and helping to lift families out of poverty. The recent Early Leaning and Childcare expansion is welcomed and valued.
Are there policies, actions or approaches that the Scottish Government and partners should stop doing, or do differently?
In order to tackle child poverty, a combination of universal and targeted policies is recommended by the evidence. A case by case assessment should be made, balancing societal needs, barriers and government resources, to decide whether a universal or a targeted approach should be taken for any given policy.
Across the wide range of policies available, clearer targeting strategies can be developed with the aim of reaching and supporting those most at risk of poverty.
While the current Social Security system in Scotland is valued, many families do not claim the benefits that they are entitled to. The current value of the benefits package available for families is also not always sufficient by itself to keep all of those who do out of poverty. More action is needed to increase take-up and maximise eligibility.
A significant element of the social security system is managed by the UK Department for Work and Pensions. Therefore any proposed changes to benefits delivered at UK level would mean, for the Scottish Government, lobbying for either the changes themselves, or for further devolution of powers in these areas.
The evidence highlights potential areas for improvement in the service design and delivery at a UK level. This includes restrictions on benefit eligibility, payment timing and accuracy, payment consistency, fewer sanctions, policy values and staff attitudes, information provision and communication channels.
The flexible 'Scottish choices' on Universal Credit have had some positive impacts for recipients. Although, for some, this has come with operational difficulties, and many recipients decide not to take up the flexibility, e.g. they would rather receive a larger payment every four weeks or not to have their rent paid directly to their landlord.
While current employment policies are a step in the right direction, more is needed. Employability services which acknowledge and support the complexity of parents' lives, are flexible, rooted in the local community, and individually tailored to parents' needs are more likely to be successful.
To address current high levels of in-work poverty, research suggests that further action is required. Recommendations include to improve the quality and flexibility of available employment and ensure childcare availability and flexibility that matches job requirements. Evidence also highlights the need to address structural barriers such as discrimination (unfair treatment) and undervaluation (being paid less for equally demanding job), particularly for women, disabled people and people from minority ethnic groups.
Affordable childcare can play an important part in supporting families to enter or maintain employment. While the recent early learning and childcare expansion is welcomed and valued, affordable school age childcare is needed along with increased flexibility in opening hours and booking systems. However, it is important to be aware that there is inconclusive evidence on whether more hours of childcare are beneficial for children's outcomes.
What new policies, actions or approaches should the Scottish Government consider implementing?
There is a need for an individual, holistic approach, within a framework of understanding structural barriers, in order to maximise the effectiveness of policies and avoid perpetuating stereotyping and stigma. Clear targeting strategies that identify and support priority families is crucial.
Getting out of poverty is a very complex journey. There are two key complicating factors. First, from an individual perspective, the system is not always clear and it is mostly not a straightforward task to manage the range of support and benefits available. It is help in navigating the system which is therefore probably the most useful for most people in this respect. Secondly, the ability of service providers to offer a 'no wrong door' approach. That is, ensuring a comprehensive advice and support network across the full system.
There are some suggestions of issues to consider when overcoming these barriers, mainly:
- Improvements in the take-up of means-tested or targeted benefits by creating simple and accessible forms and automation of payments where appropriate, supported by an approachable advice service.
- Minimising friction in accessing services by reducing barriers. For example, through supporting access to digital devices or electricity for charging them.
- Maximising flexible access to services to support those in employment with irregular hours.
Additional policies for employability could include equal parental leave policies and proactively advertising jobs as flexible when they could be worked flexibly.
There are some policy approaches around social security that Scotland could consider expanding. One is on further embedding advice and support around social security in places and services that families already use, such as GP practices or schools. Another is about maximising eligibility of benefits, particularly those that are used as passported benefits to other support.
Finally, for some parents, financial pressures are made worse by the lack of child maintenance paid by their child's other, non-resident, parent. Research shows that child maintenance does help reduce poverty for parents who receive it, and that it currently decreases poverty among single mother families more than it increases poverty among fathers paying support. One potential alternative system can be found in Finland, where the government provides child support, up to a guaranteed amount, if payments are not received from non-resident parents. This appears to have a greater poverty-reduction effect than the UK system.
What lessons from the COVID-19 response could be applied to tackling child poverty in the future?
The emergency response to the pandemic put an unprecedented level of pressure on the whole public sector, and raised questions around the way it operates and engages with others. Evidence points towards some key lessons that could help future work to tackle child poverty.
Flexible support to local authorities. Local authorities were able to provide emergency response fast by being allowed greater flexibility. This allowed local areas to respond to crisis and get help to where it was most needed. Lessons can be learned around the flexibility and paperwork attached to some funds or spend.
Cash-first. Cash-first responses can work, as shown through the quick response to minimise food insecurity during the pandemic. It provided flexibility, dignity, safety and convenience, whereas vouchers could be unsuitable in some situations and food parcels may be less able to meet individual needs and preferences.
Flexible working. The need to quickly move to home working demonstrated that more flexible working patterns could be embedded across the labour market to allow for a more diverse workforce. However, not all sectors or job types allow for this type of flexibility. Care should be taken to not further entrench inequalities by creating a two-tier system where office workers experience increased flexibility while those in lower paid jobs do not.
Trusted sector-based approach. In order to provide support to where it was needed fast, a range of different channels were used across digital and traditional mediums. People tended to seek advice from places and organisations where they had an existing relationship or which they trusted. Going forwards, consideration can be given to emphasising provision of advice through services people already use, such as schools, nurseries, childcare providers, healthcare settings, communities of worship or third sector organisations.
Automation of payments. Minimising friction is key for increasing take-up of benefits. One way is through automating more benefits. A significant part of the financial support provided to low income families during the pandemic was directly transferred to people – without the need for filling out forms.
Use of digital channels. For many families, greater access to services and support through digital channels have been helpful in increasing their accessibility. However, digital access and literacy is not yet universal. Further work is required around improving digital infrastructure for families in poverty.
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