The season of giving is with us again, bringing the familiar sight of abundant shelves of Christmas treats and gifts to help families recreate that idyllic, cosy, candlelit festive celebration. As we draw closer to the end of the year, the foodbank donation baskets become increasingly full through the generosity of shoppers who are mindful of poverty for so many in Scotland. Overflowing dining table feasts or mountains of gifts below decorated trees are simply not possible when you are facing homelessness or cannot afford basic meals and heating.
But foodbanks are not just for Christmas. Charities in Scotland are reporting an increase in demand alongside a decrease in contributions, directly linked to the cost-of-living crisis. At present, over one million people are living in poverty in Scotland, with nearly half in very deep poverty and warnings that we are very likely to miss the statutory child poverty targets without significant intervention.
An ambitious, holistic plan
Children living in poverty face an increased risk of health problems, social exclusion and the consequent negative effects on their education. The Scottish Child Payment alone is not enough in the context of rising inflation; this payment will need to be increased over time and the government must fund the necessary support in childcare, housing, fair work and adequate social security.
In recognition of the complexity of childhood poverty, the Scottish Government established Best Start, Bright Futures, an ambitious, holistic plan for 2022-2026, but one that acknowledges a degree of uncertainty due to rising costs. We need to ask that commitments be re-evaluated continually to ensure that targets are met to bring about the needed change for families facing poverty.
The reality is that the nation faces a housing emergency, with a household becoming homeless every 16 minutes, according to charity, Shelter Scotland. Shelter highlights that waiting lists for affordable homes are reflective of significant decreases in the approvals, starts and completions of social rented houses. A bottleneck of applications is caused in part by the skyrocketing loss of skilled tradespeople post-Brexit and we must see that more is done to enable young people to enter an increasingly ageing industry.
No child should wake up without a home
If we are to end homelessness, the alarming current situation cannot be accepted – no child should wake up without a home on Christmas morning, or any morning. It is a basic human right to be offered appropriate temporary housing. Crisis Scotland states that “Ensuring everyone in Scotland has access to adequate housing should be put at the centre of policy-making at every level of government, responding to a new call to action from more than a dozen organisations working across housing, homelessness, local government and the legal sector.”
To eat or to stay warm?
Earlier this year the Scottish Government found that around 35% of households were living in fuel poverty, meaning an unacceptable number of families and individuals facing that heart-breaking decision over whether to eat or stay warm. Despite an increase in overall awareness of energy-efficiency schemes, only 10% of older households had accessed these which demonstrates a disparity in fuel poverty affecting the elderly.
Katherine Crawford from Age Scotland describes “These results lay bare the shocking impact rising energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis are having on older people. We cannot allow a situation where older people are putting their health at risk by failing to heat their homes adequately.” Local authorities must make it a priority to engage with older residents to ensure that they can access what they are entitled to. Sadly, attached to any kind of poverty remains a sense of stigma or shame when there should be none. Shame should remain with the government’s inability to address the increasing economic inequality in the UK.
We have the energy
According to National Energy Action around 6.3 million households in the UK are experiencing fuel poverty, driven by increasingly rising costs. This represents a UK-wide problem but one that raises serious questions considering Scotland’s renewable energy potential. There is a disconnect between the energy available in Scotland and how this is delivered via a privatised grid that keeps Scotland tied to a UK energy model and its pricing constraints. We have the energy but are failing to deliver.
Poverty in Scotland is complex, with vast political and infrastructural implications. But on a personal level, poverty affects people disproportionately particularly women, children, ethnic minorities and the elderly. We must ensure it remains at the centre of Scottish policy. We need to have the political energy to insist that actions align with current economic realities for the laudable but ambitious targets laid out in Bright Start, Bright Futures to be met.
Contributions to foodbanks, donations of toys, and to charities this Christmas will be a lifeline for those facing financial hardship in addition to the ongoing support they receive throughout the year from those who can afford to help. When we cannot give financially, numerous organisations across Scotland connect volunteers to those in need. When elections come around, we can impact with our vote; it is natural to feel hopelessness or apathy when seeing the harsh reality but as the electorate, we have the right to hold our government to account.