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We are failing too many people

Posted by Jamie Livingstone Head of Oxfam Scotland

25th Mar 2014

Whether someone is in work or unable to work, they should have access to a decent income that lets them live with dignity.

No-one should need to seek free food - including Marc. Despite being fully qualified in his profession, and having twenty years experience, he had been out of work for two years when he turned for help from his local Foodshare. He had been actively seeking work through his local job centre but Marc's situation was made all the more difficult when he was sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions. The decision left him unable to afford to eat and, out of desperation, he turned to the Foodshare. "I don't feel bad about coming here" he said, adding: "I feel angry that I've been put in this situation." And so he should.

More than 870,000 Scots are living in poverty and more and more of them have little choice but to seek emergency food support. Their current income is not enough to cover even their basic needs. Welfare reforms, stagnant wages, rising utility bills, higher living costs and job insecurity are all causing people to fall below the breadline.

Despite the UK economy returning to growth, this poverty crisis is getting worse for many people. The surge is foodbank use has put this in stark focus. In January, our partner organisation, the West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, reported a more than 50% increase in visitors from the previous month. The volunteer led service reveals the solidarity inherent in so many of our communities but such outlets can never be seen as the long-term solution.

Our existing economic model is simply failing too many people, and not just those without jobs. Many people in jobs are also struggling on incomes that fail to cover their basic needs. To make work pay we need a long-term plan to move from the national minimum wage to a living wage. And we must also recognise that cuts to social safety nets have gone too far. The impact on our most vulnerable people has been huge and yet more cuts are looming.

Whether someone is in work or unable to work, they should have access to a decent income that lets them live with dignity. To get there we must shift our economic compass. Politicians currently rely too heavily on rising gross domestic product figures as an indicator of success. In reality, GDP tells us little, if anything, about the quality or distribution of growth. Too many communities in Scotland fail to benefit from rising economic growth. That's why we want politicians to examine wider measures when assessing the impact of their policies.

We must also recognise and challenge the shocking scale of income inequality in our society. In Britain today, the five richest families in the UK have more money than the 12.6 million poorest people combined. That means just five households have more wealth than 20% of the entire UK population. This is a sign of economic failure not success. It is a result of political choices that can be reversed.

The UK Government should start re-balancing the books by raising revenues from those who can most afford it by shifting its focus from yet more welfare cuts to the companies and individuals who avoid paying their fair share of tax. Disappointingly, the Chancellor George Osborne's latest budget announcements won't close the gap between the richest and poorest in the country. The increase in personal tax allowances will actually do little for the working poor - who will see the majority of any gains taken away as benefits are clawed back - and they will make higher earners even better off.

Meanwhile, here in Scotland we need a Poverty Commissioner to provide a platform for those in poverty to challenge and influence the government on issues affecting them - and to make sure new policies reduce poverty rather than benefit the few.

And you can help. Oxfam is working with other charities across Scotland to highlight the scale and causes of poverty in our rich country. By sharing and discussing this video you can show your support and you can also keep up to date with the progess of Scotland's Outlook here.

Blog post written by Jamie Livingstone

Head of Oxfam Scotland

More by Jamie Livingstone