What is destitution and can we end it in Scotland?

31st October 2023

It has been 215 days since Humza Yousaf took office as First Minister of Scotland, citing his defining mission and the metric by which he sought to be measured as eradicating poverty. It is quite the issue upon which to stake your political career. However, a new report has offered a glimpse at where poverty sits both in Scotland and the United Kingdom which, in turn, tells us about the political leadership at both tiers.

Destitution is on the rise, according to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). Defined as the most bitter form of material hardship, ‘destitution’ is recognised as a lack of access to the basic items required to remain clean, dry, sustained and warm due to a lack of income or affordability. These items include shelter, food, heat, light, clothes, footwear and toiletries. JRF state that lacking at least two of these seven essential items is to be destitute and that this phenomenon has more than doubled in the last five years.

Their findings reveal that, across the UK, 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022, including around one million children, which has risen by 61% since the last report was carried out, pre-pandemic, in 2019. Speaking to Channel 4, Gareth – a single man of 55 years – was a welder fabricator until a spinal injury last year rendered his hands partially immobile. As a skilled tradesperson, he was ashamed to use his local foodbank and said: “Everything I hold dear, since I was signed off, has gone really. This is not living. This is not even surviving.”

The biggest disruption during this period has been to the economy following a global pandemic. Current unemployment figures are a net effect of the macro-economic impact felt by employers and, therefore, employees. Another proportion affected are those in work but, according to JRF, a more significant demographic includes those with a disability or chronic health problem. It feels unethical that a skilled worker, like Gareth, who has invested in the economy through lifelong taxation should be exposed to such hardship due to an injury outside of his control.

These themes are recognised closer to home. Most notably, the report highlights that although destitution has “risen more rapidly” elsewhere, “Scotland’s relative position has improved.” It adds: “This may indicate the protective effect of devolved policies such as the Scottish Child Payment, Scottish Welfare Fund and the mitigation of some cuts to benefits.” The Trussell Trust reflected this view in their ‘Hunger in Scotland’ report earlier this year, whilst also recognising a call to increase Scottish Child Payment from £25 to £40 per week.

Whilst congratulating oneself for being bottom of a table for growing levels of destitution might feel like celebrating only marginally avoiding relegation, it is worth recognising where things are working in an economic context where others are not. The Scottish Welfare Fund and Social Security Scotland are two poverty-alleviating institutions which do not exist elsewhere in the UK and both are co-located weekly in Dundee & Angus Foodbank.

If there is anything we can draw from this report perhaps it is that where a government listens to and implements recommendations made by charities, both can play an equally valid role in eradicating poverty.


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