A view from Scotland’s Independent Poverty Advisor
By Naomi Eisenstadt [First Minister’s independent adviser on poverty and inequality].
I have now been Scotland’s official Independent Advisor (er?) on Poverty and Inequality for 4 days. My first request is a clear decision on how to spell advisor, as it keeps changing. But debates on spelling are unlikely to reduce the numbers of people in poverty in Scotland, so I will leave that debate for now. I have been surprised at the media interest, and encouraged by the warmth of the reception for the post. While some people expect me to have all the answers already, most of the questions I have had were genuinely interested in what I think could be achieved, and what I think needs to be done.
Taking the second question first, I don’t know what needs to be done. Having worked on similar projects before, albeit on a smaller scale, the first task is to understand the nature of the problem, then to assess a range of possible solutions, and then to make recommendations. I use the word solutions with caution, as I don’t think poverty is a problem that can be solved. Using relative poverty measures, there will always be some people with less than others. I do think we can aim to have fewer families and individuals living in unacceptable conditions and that much can be done to equip the next generation with the skills and capacity to get jobs that pay well. More can also be done to create the conditions for well paid employment through investment and job creation.
Many people have asked why I took on the task. I felt very flattered to be asked, and I believe that at any level of society, global, national, local government and neighbourhood, things can be done to make the lives of citizens better. I was encouraged by the level of political will in Scotland to tackle issues of poverty and inequality. Without political will, it is possible to make small changes, but really difficult to have measurable impact.
I also see the role as an opportunity to challenge a prevailing view that poverty is more to do with people’s behaviour than actual money. A poverty definition that includes drug and alcohol abuse and family breakdown, but does not mention family income seems to entirely miss the point. Many people with drug or alcohol problems are not poor. Many divorced families are not poor. Many poor people do not abuse drugs or drink too much. The confusion of a list of risk factors with actual determinism is disrespectful to poor people and can disadvantage better off people by failing to recognise that they may need help. The risk of family breakdown may be higher among families in poverty, but it does not mean that all families in poverty suffer breakdown. Perhaps the risk is higher due to the stress of not having enough income. Poverty for me is first and foremost about money, and the choices that money brings to people. The UK Government has been encouraging families with young children to take up parenting programs. If I am living on a low income estate, my first priority may be to attend to the more urgent requirements of everyday life.
I was asked by a journalist if I am optimistic and convinced. The answer is yes to optimism and no to convinced. I would not take on such a post if I did not think it could have a positive impact but I can’t at this stage be absolutely sure. Will radical proposals be needed, and if so, will they be welcomed? My aim is to be a critical friend to the Scottish Government, both friend and critic.