Over 1 million people living in poverty in Scotland: The families behind the figures

On Thursday 16th March, the Scottish Government released two sets of poverty statistics, on how many people live in poverty and on how many people live in ‘persistent poverty’, in other words, have been in poverty for three of the last four years.

The figures are stark.

17% of Scotland’s population live in poverty before housing costs, equivalent to 880,000 people.  When you include housing costs, a further 170,000 people are in poverty – pushing the total figure to over a million people living in poverty and 1 in 5 of the population. Given shelter is a basic human need, we think it is only fair to include housing costs when thinking about poverty. Housing is an unavoidable expense for most people, and taking housing costs into account gives a clearer picture of a household’s disposable income.

Poverty rates have fluctuated over the past few years, but seem to now be on the rise. More worryingly, poverty among working people is increasing fastest of all, perhaps reflecting the growth in part time working, zero hours contracts, and low wages that fail to rise in line with inflation and living costs.

For the youngest and most vulnerable in our society, the situation is even worse. More than 1 in 4 children in Scotland live in poverty. And for the first time, we now know that over 1 in 10 children are classed as living in persistent poverty, meaning that they have been growing up in poverty for at least 3 in the last 4 years.  The potential impact on the education attainment and wellbeing of each of these children is damning.

These are deeply concerning figures. Here at Shelter Scotland we think it is a disgrace that in a country as wealthy as Scotland, so many children and families should be living in poverty. And all the more that the cost of housing, one of our basic human rights, should be delivering people into poverty in such numbers. But the numbers only tell part of the picture. We work every day with people who are facing the hardships and sacrifices that poverty brings and we see the day to day effect that living in poverty has on children and families.

Foundations First is one of our housing advice and support services, based in Paisley. It works with many of the families who might be included in these figures.  In Foundations First we work to transform the life chances of families in chronic poverty; families in which parents’ aspirations for their children have been blunted by complex and inter-related problems.  It supports families throughout Renfrewshire in housing need, who might be homeless or at risk of homelessness as without a stable home, these families have no foundations to support their journey out of poverty.

Jessica and her partner have three young kids.  Her husband works, but they’re not entitled to housing benefit. Unfortunately a benefits overpayment, through no fault of her own, has led to a stop in her tax credits.  The family wages are not enough to cover rent and everyday essentials, and currently they’re relying on food parcels to get by whilst they work with the Foundations First team for a more sustainable solution.  Our service helps families keep their homes in a very challenging financial environment where daily decisions on which basic human need to meet are often at the gamble of losing their home, sanctuary and place of safety.

For another family, it was a series of unfortunate events that led to their difficulties.  It started when dad, John, was signed off work through ill health.  They were receiving some benefits but still really struggling with money without dad’s full wage.  John’s health improved, he started back at work, but a couple of unexpected expenses threw them off track again: their car needed fixed and their heating broke.  The Foundations First team were able to support them through this period of crisis, helping to maximise their income through sorting their benefits and applying for community care grants and money from charitable trusts, and when times got really tough provided food parcels and emergency gas and electricity vouchers.  Through the support of the Foundations First team, the family have recently moved into a new family home, and are starting to get everything back on track.

For each individual among the 1.05 million people living in poverty, the story and circumstances will be different.  But they often share common threads: a safety net that, when life goes wrong, doesn’t always catch those who need it most; a rigid social security system that doesn’t always cope well with changes in family circumstances and is prone to administrative errors; and at the heart of it, a lack of suitable, affordable housing.

That’s why Shelter Scotland is supporting the Scottish Governments moves to bring legally binding targets to reduce poverty among children in Scotland, why we need to real progress on delivering 50,000 new affordable homes. It’s also why we are calling for a new Homelessness Strategy in Scotland to drive forward an action plan to prevent homelessness. No child should be living in poverty because they can’t afford a home.

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Lisa Glass

Lisa Glass

Lisa is a Policy Officer at Shelter Scotland.