Dr Jim McCormick: We will rise to poverty challenge

Too many parents are struggling to put food on the table for their families. Picture: Michael GillenToo many parents are struggling to put food on the table for their families. Picture: Michael Gillen
Too many parents are struggling to put food on the table for their families. Picture: Michael Gillen
The face of poverty in modern Scotland has changed. And this is no less true for the Capital.New analysis published yesterday by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows a rising tide of child poverty '“ the majority of families affected has at least one working parent.

It’s not right when families are doing what’s expected of them and they still fall below the breadline. Parents experiencing in-work poverty – especially women – face constraints on working hours and wages when they need flexible work and childcare in order to progress.

Others who aren’t expected to work, due to illness or disability, are caught between inadequate benefits and little support to move back into work when they are able. Other families may be able to make ends meet if it wasn’t for high housing costs.

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People need new anchor points to withstand the currents of insecurity that can affect any of us. We won’t solve the problem without enabling people to boost their incomes and reduce their costs. This includes the “poverty premium” that sees low-income consumers pay more for energy tariffs and the cost of credit, for example.

But addressing the challenge involves more than money. Strengthening long-term prospects offers another kind of anchor – for example, by ensuring many more children get the best possible quality of early years care and learning, and that adults of all ages have easier access to skills, training and support to progress in work.

Our ambition must be for poverty to become less common and temporary. There is a world of difference between a short spell on a low income – due to losing your job or a short term illness for example – and getting stuck in poverty for years. People need springboards, not just safety nets. Some of these can be designed by cities. Sometimes the key to unlocking the right opportunity is being able to access suitable advice and guidance, from peers as well as service providers.

Things need to change. That’s why I have the privilege of chairing the new Edinburgh Poverty Commission to start work in the coming weeks.

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This will be an independent group, involving people from different backgrounds and types of expertise, including people who have struggled with the realities of poverty. It will seek to understand what’s driving one in five families into poverty in the city and map out responses that are within the gift of service providers, businesses, landlords and communities themselves.

We won’t be starry-eyed about the challenge – some of the key decisions lie with the UK Government, some with Holyrood and some with employers. The city council and its partners can advocate for change but can’t make them happen alone. But we will be intensely practical – paying attention to what’s working well in Edinburgh, what needs to improve and what’s needed for the long term as well as the next few years.

The Commission will start with the “bedrock” insights that poverty is real in a well-off place like the Capital, it is damaging and costly, that we share a responsibility to act and that much lower rates of poverty can be achieved. But more of the same won’t do. We need to understand the lived experiences of people facing a tough time across the city, and then be willing to try new ways of equipping them with better tools and opportunities.

I’m hopeful about the odds and invite readers – sceptics as well as those already persuaded – to share their ideas for making positive change stick in Edinburgh.

Dr Jim McCormick is chair of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission and Associate Director for Scotland with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.