Tackling poverty and the problem of “me”

Last night I was lucky enough to secure a place at a lecture given by Naomi Eisenstadt, arranged by the David Hume Institute. Naomi was selected by the Scottish government to provide independent advice on what government can do to tackle poverty and inequality. She shared her experience in this role to date along with her take on how best to address poverty in Scotland.

The first thing that struck me is how excellent a speaker Naomi is. She peppered her speech with insightful in-depth analysis and real-life anecdotes, making her arguments all the more powerful and the evening a very enjoyable one.

In her work with government she decided to focus on the issue of poverty and, for now at least, leave aside the issue of inequality. This is understandable. Policies to address inequality are more unpredictable and many involve challenging aspects of Scottish society who haven’t necessarily been challenged before. That is a big job and will be massively political.

It was pleasing to hear the importance of housing costs mentioned early on, in particular the acute poverty levels that many private renters experience in Scotland. There is already strong consensus on the need to build affordable housing in Scotland and it looks likely that the number of socially rented homes built in Scotland will increase over the next parliament.

Other issues seem to be more difficult to address, however.

In the drive to increase the provision of free childcare are we neglecting to focus attention on the quality of that childcare, and investment in the people who deliver it? This is a huge gender issue. The provision of good quality and affordable childcare can make a huge difference to in-work poverty for thousands of women across Scotland. The childcare sector is also predominantly staffed by women who are on low wages. Investing in this side of our childcare provision – and putting an emphasis on qualifications and professional development – would not only benefit our children, but many low paid women too.

Much of Scotland has a huge vested interest in government policies. As one audience member put it: “the problem of me”. Free tuition fees are probably the most obvious example of this. Could we competently say that we invest the same resource in the education of children from deprived areas of Scotland as we do children from better off areas? And to what extent is that system reliant on thousands of young people on low incomes not taking up the offer of free tuition for it to stack up financially?

Universalism is also deserving of scrutiny, particularly at a time of stretched financial resources. Yes universalism can reduce stigma, but so too can designing our public services around the principles of respect and dignity. A key issue here is how distant our public services can feel from people; there is a real democratic deficit at a local level in Scotland. Our local authorities, in particular, need to be given greater flexibility to bring them closer to the communities they are set up to serve, designing services with people who use them.

Sometimes these challenges can seem too intractable and politically challenging. But with a government willing to focus its attention on these issues, and concrete policy commitments on poverty, there are many reasons to feel positive.

The next big debate that we need to have in Scotland is probably with ourselves. We need to ask whether the free public services many in Scotland enjoy are enjoyed equally across the country, and how can we level that playing field?

This will involve difficult policy choices, requiring strong leadership and, somehow, getting over what is perhaps the most difficult problem of all. The problem of “me”.

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