The poverty trap: addressing child poverty through social protection in Glasgow

“People Make Glasgow” slogan on a building in Glasgow. Photo by Lison Zhao/Unsplash.

Roosa-Maria Savela, PhD student, MSc in Global Health and Management;
Dr Jennifer S. Martin, WHO Global Coordination Mechanism Consultant, Founder of Pandemic Periods, Co-founder of Women in Global Health Finland, Glaswegian.

Glasgow is the largest and most vibrant city in Scotland, with around 600,000 citizens. The city’s slogan, “People Make Glasgow”, is displayed for all to see above George Square. Yet the world’s friendliest city has a dark underbelly. Glasgow has considerable deprivation and been disproportionately affected by austerity compared to other, more prosperous parts of the country (MacLeod et al., 2018). People living in Glasgow experience pronounced levels of premature deaths, increased incidence of adverse health behaviour and outcomes (Cowley et al., 2016). This “Glasgow effect” phenomenon is unclear and poorly understood (Cowley et al., 2016). Previously, the vulnerability has been explained by the deindustrialisation, neoliberal policies, and the city’s previous high levels of deprivation. During the 1970s and 80s, deindustrialisation increased rapidly and affected people living in Glasgow’s health through increased poverty, unemployment, and associated health behaviours. This period was followed by the UK government’s neoliberal policies, which similarly created unemployment, inequalities, material deprivation, and welfare provision changes (Collins & McCartney, 2011; D. Walsh et al., 2017).

Nowadays, people living in Glasgow are still experiencing high deprivation levels, which further increases child poverty rates and affects individuals’ health outcomes, health behaviour, and premature deaths. Low socioeconomic status (SES) also contributes to a vicious circle, a “poverty trap”. People are experiencing sub-optimal health and disability due to low SES but cannot escape poverty due to the consequences of economic deprivation. In fact, children living in Glasgow’s most impoverished neighbourhoods have a life expectancy of 14 years less than children in the city’s wealthier areas. The issue is essential since poverty, above all, violates children’s rights and stifling their potential in societies (UNICEF, 2018).

Child poverty in Glasgow and related social and health outcomes

One in three children in Glasgow experience poverty (Glasgow City Council, 2017). Child poverty increases the risk of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are defined as both direct child maltreatment and a broader set of experiences related to family circumstances, such as “household dysfunction” (David Walsh et al., 2019). Besides this, a child’s low socioeconomic status is a significant predictor of neurocognitive performance (Hackman & Farah, 2009) and the overall health profile of a child’s later adulthood (Marmot, 2017). Economic deprivation during childhood is linked to overall mortality rates and many physical and mental health outcomes (Marmot, 2017). However, ACEs and a family’s lower socioeconomic status affect not only the child’s physical and mental health but also physical, social, and psychological development. Therefore, childhood poverty and ACEs go far beyond the physical and mental health outcomes, guiding a child’s whole life course.

The main drivers of child poverty in Glasgow are linked to high deprivation levels and their associated social and health outcomes, lack of decent work and opportunities for the working-age population, in-work poverty, and the number of lone-parent households (Scottish Government, 2019). There are also high rates of alcohol-related deaths among people aged 16 and over compared to other Scottish cities (Shipton et al., 2014). Further, Glasgow has human and child trafficking (Scottish Government, 2020), increasing the adverse social and health outcomes and contributing to poverty in some communities.

These are the situations where the social protection and social policies step in and have a remarkable role. Through social protection, people and families are secured from vulnerabilities, opening the door for a dignified exit from poverty and stopping the vicious cycle of poverty (Garcia & Gruat, 2003). These social protection approaches require dedicated political will.

Welfare reforms by the UK Government

Arguably, the Scottish Government had not held all of its powers to address poverty. This could be partly because Scotland actually has two governments – the UK Government and the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government has devolved powers on, for instance, education, equal opportunities, justice, housing, health and social services, and taxation forms (UK Government, 2021). However, the decisions on several welfare reforms taken by the UK Parliament at Westminster affect Scotland and its citizens’ social and economic well-being. New reforms by the UK Government include, for instance, the Universal Credit (UC), which replaced Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support (IS), Housing Benefit (HB), Child Tax Credit (CTC), and Working Tax Credit (WTC) (Drake, 2017). The overall impact of UC is its reduction in income from benefits around £625 per year (Brewer et al., 2017). Besides, there was a significant cut in the children’s disable support, which is now part of the UC.

Another new rule, the “Two Child Limit”, which restricted the child element of UC and Child Tax Credits (CTC) to two children, has several adverse outcomes. The “Two Child Limit” reduced the benefits up to £2,780 per year for each child who does not qualify for the benefit (UK Parliament, 2019). This welfare reform will also affect families’ socioeconomic factors and women’s pregnancies and decision-making. Thus, women’s terminations of pregnancy started to rose after the reform, reaching the second highest peak in 2019 since 2008 (Public Health Scotland, 2020). The act puts women more vulnerable position; women are stated to be feeling forced into a corner to decide whether to have a financial hardship or ending the wanted pregnancy (Butler, 2020).

Alternative acts by the Scottish Government

The Scottish Government has set several targets and aims to reduce child poverty. In 2017, the Child Poverty Act was applied (Scottish Parliament, 2021a). The act set statutory targets that were to help focus on the efforts to tackle and ultimately eradicate child poverty, help monitor the progress, and be in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (Scottish Parliament, 2021a). In fact, the UNCRC contains Article 12 stating that children’s views should be taken into account in decisions concerning their lives (Scottish Government, 2016).

The Scottish Government has also funded a Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC) project in Greater Glasgow (Understanding Glasgow, 2016). The project aimed to develop new approaches to provide money and welfare advice to households expecting children or households with children at risk of poverty or those experiencing poverty. Besides, the Getting It Right For Every Child approach has been used across Scotland since 2006. Currently, it is part of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which aims to put the UNCRC into a Scottish statute.

Moreover, the Glasgow City Council aimed to ensure income from employment by offering employment and training opportunities for young, unemployed, or under-skilled adults and those seeking a career change (Glasgow City Council, 2017). Besides, the Council will support qualified low-income families and one-parent families with School Clothing Grant and Education Maintenance Allowance and aims to implement a children’s family support strategy that mitigates against the impact of poverty and ACEs (Glasgow City Council, 2017). Also, the Scottish Government became the first in the world to enshrine the universal provision of period products in law through the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 (Scottish Parliament, 2021b). Additionally, Scotland offers free higher education for Scottish Nationals and accessible high-quality healthcare for all living in Scotland.

However, some have criticised the Scottish Government for developing tokenistic policies and falling short in policy implementation (Corlett, 2019; Donaldson et al., 2018). Hence, the Scottish Government and Parliament have set goals on child poverty but seem to fail in achieving them. Thus, child poverty has been on a slight upward trend, and without significant policy changes, child poverty is likely to head in the wrong direction (Corlett, 2019). In fact, the Scottish Social Renewal Advisory Board has highlighted a need to close the gap between promise and practice (Scottish Government, 2021). Therefore, consistent social protection policies, more concrete actions against childhood poverty, specific policies to prevent child trafficking, and measurements to evaluate the processes are required to eradicate child poverty.

The Scottish Government should consider more robust measures to improve socially and economically disadvantaged children’s social and health outcomes. There seems to be a disconnect between policy creation and dissemination, and this could be caused by policymakers not considering implementation or monitoring and evaluation when designing the policies. Furthermore, those that are charged with the adaptation and implementation of the policies after it has been enshrined in law should be involved in the end-to-end policy creation process. This method could prevent sub-optimal adaptation of policies into programmes and practice: saving time and money and supporting the feasible and appropriate implementation and reporting of policies that could lead to stronger social protection for children living in Glasgow.



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Photo by Lison Zhao/Unsplash