During a Challenge Poverty Week event in 2021, I remember reflecting that rarely – if ever – had the value of local government been more apparent than during the first wave of Covid-19. Its ability to reach and support those who need it most. To understand the local context, assets and challenges. To draw links between individuals and organisations that might be able to help each other. It was awe-inspiring.
Unbelievably – with little time to reflect or take stock – local government is again being called upon to respond to a public health crisis. That of rising child poverty and spiralling household costs.
Despite government intervention and the energy price guarantee, low-income families are expected to be an average of £783 worse off this year than they were last year. Many are teetering on the brink of crisis.
The panic and anxiety this is causing for parents with low incomes – and the effect on the health and wellbeing of their children – is unthinkable.
So how should local government respond? What lessons from the pandemic response can we apply now to do the best for our children and young people?
1. Cash is best
One lesson that both local and national partners learned pretty quickly is that a ‘cash first’ approach to helping those in financial crisis is not only more dignified, it is also more efficient and flexible. While vouchers, food or clothing might be necessary in some situations (where there is debt or coercive control for example), in most cases parents know exactly what they need the money for. Whether that’s food that meets their dietary requirements, money for a school trip or cash to cover outstanding energy bills, parents are best placed to understand their own family’s needs. You can learn a bit more about different approaches local authorities are taking to cash first – whether that is direct payments, more generous local benefits or income maximisation advice.
2. We need to get to know our communities better
If we want to support low-income families, we need to know who they are and where they are. This was a big issue during the pandemic and is still a problem for councils trying to make sure all those in need are in receipt of bridging payments and additional cost of living payments. While we might be able to identify some children through free school meals entitlement, other groups are harder to reach. Those with children too young for nursery, for example, or those who have fallen out of the education system. While many local areas came up with creative solutions to reach those families, it is an expensive and time-consuming business. We need to find ways to share household information in a useful and, above all, respectful way.
The improvement service is supporting data sharing pilots between Social Security Scotland and local authorities and supporting more pragmatic approaches to GDPR. We’ll keep you updated with progress through our newsletter.
3. Prevention is still better than cure
Local authorities and their partners have little choice but to deliver crisis support at the moment. Children are hungry and parents are increasingly desperate. It is depressingly vital work. But we cannot lose sight of the long-term vision and legal commitment to eradicating child poverty in Scotland.
In the first instance, a ‘preventative’ approach might involve ensuring every crisis intervention is accompanied by an offer of longer-term support, whether that is income maximisation advice, help to manage debt or support to find work. This should help reduce the number of households that are constantly teetering on the edge of a financial crisis.
In the longer term, it means having a strategic and long-term vision for poverty reduction at a local level. Eradicating child poverty will require high-quality jobs for parents. It will require affordable childcare that can be accessed on affordable transport, in close proximity to affordable housing. Through their Local Child Poverty Action Reports, local authorities across Scotland have shown a willingness to engage in this agenda and they should be congratulated for that. But there is no time to rest on our laurels. The children of Scotland are depending on us to continue building local economies, local services and local places that meet their – and their parents’ – needs.
4. Innovation is possible
The switch to remote working and online meetings brought about by Covid would have seemed impossible in March 2020, but it happened. And now we need to respond to the economic crisis with an equally transformative and decisive approach. In particular, we need to find ways to put families and children at the heart of our services and design what we do around them. Whether it’s avoiding a financial crisis or recovering from its impact, families shouldn’t have to navigate complicated, bureaucratic systems when they need help. Those systems should be intuitive, responsive and automated where possible. They should save money by reducing duplication, waste and disengagement. Only then – when we have a person-centred, human rights-based, whole systems approach – can we reach and support those at the highest risk of falling into poverty, leaving no one behind.
Hanna McCulloch is National Coordinator for Local Child Poverty Action Reports at the Improvement Service. This article originally appeared in 2022 on the Improvement Service’s insights.