Single minded? The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act and lone parent households

This guest blog from John H. McKendrick, Professor of Social Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University and co-director of The Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit (SPIRU), welcomes the Poverty and Inequality Commission’s advice on reducing child poverty, and reflects on parts that are specifically relevant to single parent families.

There is much to enthuse those concerned to tackle poverty in the Advice on the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018, the first such note published by the Poverty and Inequality Commission in February 2018. The Commission has made 40 recommendations, which span general principles for delivery, three substantive priorities for reducing child poverty (work and earnings, social security and housing), and a reminder of the importance of considering the quality of life as lived. It will be interesting to see how much of this advice is acted upon by the Scottish Government as it articulates its first delivery plan in accordance with the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, published in March this year.

Back in 1990, I started out on my research career by undertaking postgraduate research at the University of Glasgow, which became my PhD thesis The Quality of Life of a Deprived Population Group: Lone Parents in Strathclyde Region, awarded in 1995. Time has not been kind to the key components of that thesis. The behemoth that was Strathclyde Region was abolished in 1996, while single parents have persisted to be a population that continues to experience more than its fair share of poverty and deprivation.

The future may be brighter – for single parents, if not the proponents of two-tier local government. The Scottish Government, through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 committed Scottish Ministers to: (i) set out in their Delivery Plans what (if any) measures they proposed to take in relation to children living in single-parent households; and (ii) include in their annual progress report the effect of those measures on reducing the number of children living in single-parent households for each of the four poverty targets.

This then, is to be a strategy that aims to tackle single parent poverty, a point that was not lost on the Poverty and Inequality Commission in their Advice Note. In addition to acknowledging the challenges that poverty presents to all parents and the generic actions that would tackle poverty for all in Scotland, the Advice Note gives due consideration to the specific challenges that are faced by single parents. It notes:

  • the higher risk rate of child poverty for those living in single parent, compared to couple parent families (page 8);
  • those expectations of Universal Credit that are particular to single parents (page 15);
  • the barriers to finding and sustaining employment that lone parents face (page 16);
  • the factors that make for a successful employment programme for lone parents (page 17) (the evidence draws on the work of Helen Graham and Ron McQuaid);
  • the evidence from the Resolution Foundation that Universal Credit, on average, drains working single parents of £1350 per year (page 23);
  • the research to which One Parent Families Scotland contributed on school clothing grants (page 34);
  • and that parental separation is one of the household events that can push families into poverty (page 36).

While it would be churlish – if not downright misguided – to suggest that the Poverty and Inequality Commission were not attuned to the challenges of tackling single parent poverty, it is prudent to issue a cautionary note. Recommendation 4 states: “The Delivery plan should focus particularly on a core set of actions that are likely to have the biggest impact on reaching the child poverty targets”. What is most striking about single parent poverty (as with that for families with younger parents, those from BME households and those in which a disabled person resides) is the higher relative risk of poverty for these groups.

Although the number of children in Scotland living in poverty in these households is far from insignificant, there are many more children living in poverty in couple parent households (and families with older parents, non-BME households and those without a disabled person). A watching brief is required to ensure that the search for the “biggest impact” to meet the 2030 targets does not lead to a disproportionate focus on the largest sub-populations, to the point that we lose sight of minority populations and the particularities of the poverty that they experience.

The variegated nature of child poverty is also addressed within the Advice. Recommendation 15 might serve as a useful call-to-action to tackle single parent poverty in a nuanced way. It states:

“The Delivery Plan needs to particularly recognise the barriers that may be faced by those at greatest risk of poverty, including single parents, households with a disabled member and black and minority ethnic households, and consider how it can address the specific needs these households may have. In doing so the Delivery Plan should consider the recommendations made in Addressing Race Inequality in Scotland: The Way Forward and actions to ‘reduce by at least half the employment gap’ between disabled and non-disabled people set out in A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People.”

So, how did the Scottish Government respond? In Every Child Every Chance, the first delivery plan for 2018-2022 under the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill 2017, single parents are identified as one of six ‘priority groups’, i.e. families most at risk of poverty. Significantly, the expected impact on single parents (as a priority group) is specified for each of the key actions that the Scottish Government proposes. At first glance, the Scottish Government seems to have listened to the Poverty and Inequality Commission and seems to be taking tackling single parent poverty seriously.

However, some caution should be noted. First, as is often the case with single parents, there is a need to ensure that, in practice, identification as a ‘priority group’ does not lapse into regarding single parents as a belligerent problem population. More carrot, less stick is what single parents require to achieve their potential. Second, it is interesting to note that the specific references to actions to support single parents only pertain to employment. Acknowledging the particular challenges that single parents face in the world of work is to be welcomed. However, perhaps there is also a need for a single parent specific focus when it comes to the other key drivers of child poverty, i.e. reducing the cost of living and social security. This point is linked to a final cautionary note: the projected impact on single parents of many of the key actions that are proposed are either vaguely specified (“all priority groups should benefit”) or not specified (“we will consider how best this programme can be delivered to all the priority groups”).

To summarise: for single parents, as for Scotland as a whole, this is a promising start, but there is much still to do.

John McKendrick is based at the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit (SPIRU), Glasgow Caledonian University.

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