As analysis takes place of the Tory Government’s austerity agenda, the evidence mounts that it is the most vulnerable in our communities who are hit hardest; children, disabled people, single parents and the working poor. Only this week it has been highlighted that the shameful tory cuts in tax credits will see nearly 350,000 children worse off as a result of George Osborne’s budget. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) show that 197,200 families in Scotland with a total of 346,000 children have been hit by the changes to tax credits. This comes hot on the heels of the Institute of Fiscal Studies report “Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2015” shows that “the proportion of children in poverty living in a working family rose from 54% in 2009–10 to 63% by 2013–14.”
Poverty matters and it is getting worse which will have a generational impact on those who grow up in poverty. In April 2013 I raised in a debate in the Chamber the on-going health problems from living in poverty and being subjected to hunger and stress. I quoted from a New Scientist editorial which examined the true cost of cuts and the austerity agenda “the immediate consequences of austerity may give way to more enduring and insidious effects on health. It is plausible that protracted economic hardship will lead to increases in heart attacks, strokes and depression. Stress hormones are known to trigger or exacerbate these conditions, and it is hard to argue that those worrying about the security of their jobs, homes, families and finances are not experiencing high levels of stress.”
The assumption made by many in analysing poverty impact is that when austerity ends and the belt tightening goes away those health problems will go away too, but such is the impact of hunger and stress inflicted by poverty people affected by those problems will have life long, and life limiting effects. Sometimes there is even a genetic influence on babies before they are born, while they are in the womb, because of stress hormones in their mothers living in poverty.
Poverty matters because our health service pays the price of the health impact and inequality that poverty brings. Scotland has one of the lowest life expectancy levels in the European Union. In Greater Glasgow, life expectancy at birth is 71.6 years for men, nearly seven years below the national average of 78.2 years, and 78 years for women, over four years below the national average of 82.3. But that is only partially the story, the Guardian reported in 2006 that the average lifespan of a person living in the Calton area as 53.9 years against a then city average of 69 years and the Scottish average of 78. Poorer areas have lower life expectancy.
With also this historic evidence of the impact of poverty on health and wellbeing it is incredulous that the health and societal cost of austerity is rarely reported alongside the budget figures for savings and cuts. I am most concerned about the impact of sanctions on households with children as we know hunger and stress have profound impacts on their development and I was heartened to hear about the substantive work that the Scottish Government and Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil are undertaking in this area when I asked at the Welfare Reform committee:
“Personally, I think that it is morally reprehensible that we are sanctioning anyone who has a child to look after. Are you, and the Scottish Government, considering doing any substantive work on the more general cost to society of welfare reform, given the effects of services not being able to carry out early intervention work with young people and the effect that poverty will have in the long term in Scotland?”
Poverty matters, the long term effect of poverty matters, the effects on children living in poverty matters. We need to fully integrate this knowledge into policy decision making to ensure that the full societal impact of poverty is understood, tackled and prevented in the future. We can’t keep repeating the failures of the past or continue on the path of increasing inequality and poverty in our society.