Rhona Cunningham says that when she began working at Fife Gingerbread around 15 years ago child poverty was “not so much of an issue”.
That was back in the noughties, five years before the 2008 global financial crash almost bankrupted the UK, plunging the world’s fifth richest state into a recession, an economic crisis that was followed by a decade of deep cuts to public spending by Tory governments.
“It’s dreadful isn’t it? It’s totally dreadful,” Cunningham says at her office in Glenrothes where she’s talking about the impact of austerity in Fife. “The welfare reform and how that has rolled out has practically devastated some of the most vulnerable communities.”
This is #JustSurviving. A collaboration between The Ferret and HuffPost UK looking at the impact of the government’s austerity policy in Scotland.
Cunningham and colleagues at Fife Gingerbread help people living in some of the poorest parts of Fife. They include former mining communities which have struggled since the pits closed back in the 1980s, towns such as Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly, Leven, Methil and Buckhaven, where the charity provides meals, clothing and emotional support to people on low incomes.
Alleviating child poverty is an urgent priority for the charity. Over the last 12 months it has helped 816 children and 328 adults. The 2019 Fife Gingerbread Christmas appeal – called Heat and Eat – hopes to raise money for meter cards so families can put the heating on over the festive season. Most people seeking help are scraping by to survive, Cunningham says.
“There is no safety net, there is nothing at the back of them. The prospect of having £500 in the bank is like a lottery win. You’ve got whole communities who kind of feel like there’s no hope,” she adds.
Cunningham is Fife Gingerbread’s out-going chief executive and has been involved in the social justice sector for almost 30 years. She has seen parents in tears.
She relates one story that particularly resonated with her. A mum said that her “wee boy” came home from school wearing a pair of shoes with the soles hanging off. “They were finished,” Cunningham says.
“And she (the mother) said to him, ‘Well tomorrow you have to wear your wellies, that’s all there is to it.’ And this was in August, school term had just started. And the next day he got up and he was crying. ‘I don’t want to wear my wellies Mum, I don’t want to do that.’
And luckily it was raining. She said to him: ‘It’s raining, it’s fine. Everybody’s got their wellies on.’ But, imagine the stress that creates. For anybody who has never been in that position, it’s just something you don’t think about.”
The statistics for child poverty in parts of Fife are stark. A report in 2018 by End Child Poverty said that across the region there were 17,667 children – 24.47 per cent – growing up in poverty. In Buckhaven, Methil and Wemyss Villages, the figure was 36.62 per cent of children, while in the Kirkcaldy East council ward it was 38.68 per cent.
Sam Royston, chair of End Child Poverty and director of policy and research at the Children’s Society, said at the time the figures were “scandalous”. Reports out this year paint a similarly grim picture. Data released in June by the End Child Poverty Coalition revealed that 27 per cent of children in the St Andrews ward were living in poverty – the highest in North East Fife, with East Neuk and Landward at 20 per cent.
Every single thing has kind of slowly chipped away at the bricks. They've already drained their resources as much as they can. Basically they don't have anywhere else to go Rhona Cunningham, Fife Gingerbread
Cunningham says child poverty can be measured in various ways but gauging the issue at Fife Gingerbread is straightforward. “For us on the ground, it’s quite simple,” she explains. “It’s about families who have children, who don’t have enough income, and they have far too much expenditure.”
Cunningham talks about the poverty trap. She says people are struggling on zero hours contracts. They are paid the minimum wage. They struggle to pay high rents for homes in the private sector. The cost of food and travel rises but pay doesn’t. Childcare is expensive.
She says the introduction of policies such as universal credit, sanctions and the bedroom tax have caused severe financial problems for families, making them reliant on charities for essentials. “Every single thing has kind of slowly chipped away at the bricks. They’ve already drained their resources as much as they can. Basically they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Another effect of austerity, she says, is that the benefit system has become “increasingly punitive”. She cites universal credit which replaces six benefits with a single monthly payment.
This was rolled out to Fife in 2017, a fundamental change that affected the way Fife Gingerbread supported pregnant teenagers through its teen parent project. Staff went from helping young mothers to be good parents, to counselling teenagers left without money from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for five weeks.
“The workers were frustrated because they couldn’t tell the parents it would be all right, because they didn’t know it was going to be all right,” Rhona says. “They didn’t know if six weeks were going to turn into seven weeks, eight weeks, nine weeks, ten weeks.
“They didn’t know how long they were going to be caught in this hellhole basically. It’s what it was. So we had teens at home with new babies and no money.”
Kim Paton is a mother of three being supported by Fife Gingerbread. She’s lived in Methil for almost 18 years and has a 21 year old daughter, Ashley, who lives away from home, and two sons – Liam, aged 17, and Aidan, who is 10 years old.
Until 2015, Paton had nearly always been employed. She studied at college, worked as a hairdresser and was employed in a nursing home for 10 years, among other positions.
But after her marriage ended in 2015 she suffered health problems and lost a job. She has survived on benefits for nearly four years now. Her monthly income is less than £600. Rising living costs and changes to the benefits system means that life for Paton and her children is stressful.
“It’s a lot harder nowadays. You’ve got your food banks and stuff which is really good but I never ever thought I would have to use things like that, do you know what I mean? It’s like, children are in poverty. A lot of the houses (around here) are living in poverty,” Paton says.
Belt tightening to make ends meet includes her children wearing extra jerseys at home in winter, because she switches off the heating to keep fuel bills down. When shopping, she hunts for discounts and deals. She often cooks pasta dishes for her children because, she says, it’s cheap food that fills them up.
Christmas brings extra financial pressures. Last year Paton felt fortunate when local shops donated presents to her youngest son, Aidan. She also received a £20 voucher for a supermarket, enabling her to buy Christmas dinner. A rare trip to the cinema with Aidan means saving up money regularly for several weeks, she says, her budget is so tight.
Paton feels that poverty stigmatises children. She says it’s visible in that some kids attend school wearing designer clothes and flashing iPhones while others turn up in cheap coats and trainers. She often asks Aidan if he’s being bullied at school.
“Aidan’s a very polite, timid boy and that’s why I have to ask him these questions,” Paton says. “I just like to make sure that he’s not getting picked on or bullied because he’s got cheaper clothes on, cheaper trainers, cheaper coats.”
Holidays are a pipe dream but last year was an exception because the Salvation Army gave the family a free holiday in a caravan at Berwick. “It was brilliant. It was so good just to get away, do you know what I mean?” she says.
“They must have a few different caravans. They allocate certain families, so that families can get a holiday, because at the end of the day, you just get stressed like everybody else and it’s just nice. Instead of being stressed with the kids.”
Constantly struggling financially brings stress, as does dealing with the DWP. Paton says the system has changed and become depersonalised. “I don’t know, you walk in and it’s just like there’s a brick wall in front of you now,” she says.
She is about to move on to universal credit which will mean no income for five weeks, potentially resulting in rent and council tax arrears. A loan from the DWP may be possible but the money needs to be paid back.
“So you’re building up debts as well because your housing benefit gets stopped straight away. Your council tax benefit gets stopped straight away. So you’re panicking about all this money. You’re not getting money to survive, and then all these debts are piling up as well. It’s just horrible. Just the thought of it’s quite scary.”
Susan Price is another mum supported by Fife Gingerbread. She describes her experience of universal credit as “horrendous”. The 45-year-old also lives in Methil and has five children, three of them still at home. Her youngest is aged eight years old.
The family ended up homeless a few years ago and at one point she was housed in a bed and breakfast by Fife Council. For two weeks, Susan shared one bedroom with four of her children who were then aged 17, 14, 11 and two.
Price, who suffers from fibromyalgia, moved onto universal credit last year. Her housing benefit was stopped and losing income for the statutory changeover period meant she racked up £600 in rent arrears. Price also says she had to forego a nursing degree.
“I’m supposed to be in my second year at university just now, doing my nursing,” she explains, speaking in a local cafe. “I had to pass that up because the minute I accepted my SAAS (student) loan I wasn’t entitled to universal credit any more. I would have struggled to keep my house.”
In tears, Price says her financial problems have had an “enormous impact” on her children who often go without basics, never mind luxuries. “Even just silly things like having a movie night and a munchy night with them… sorry… that’s all had to stop, because I just can’t do it.
“It’s absolutely horrendous having your daughter, or any kid of yours, coming up to you and going, ‘Are you going to afford this Mum?’ You know, your kids shouldn’t have to do that. And at times my kids have to wait six, seven, weeks for just shoes. You know, bare necessities.”
And at times my kids have to wait six, seven, weeks for just shoes. You know, bare necessities. Susan Price
She rails at politicians. She claims “they don’t have a clue” how policies impact people’s lives. “They need to come and live like we do, and not just for a day or two,” Price says.
“They need to come and live like we do for a good six months. On the money we get. And not have the bank account there just to be able to go, ‘Oh yeah, here you go and get it.’ We don’t have that, do you know what I mean?
“It’s fine for them to sit and drop this bill in, that bill, and the next bill in to the House of Commons, or wherever and say, ‘This is how people have to live. We think they can live on X amount a week.’ How can they think that? They’ve not had to do it.”
There has been scathing criticism of the UK government’s austerity policy. In May the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Phillip Alston, said ideological cuts to public services since 2010 by the UK government have led to “tragic consequences”.
His report said that close to 40 per cent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021, adding that the DWP had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.”
The UK government responded then by saying Alston’s report was “barely believable”. The DWP told The Ferret that more than £95bn each year is spent on working age benefits and it claimed that children growing up in working households are five times less likely to be in relative poverty.
In contrast, Alston praised the Scottish Government. During a visit to Edinburgh in September, he said that Scotland is on “a very different trajectory” to the rest of the UK regarding social security. He said that the spirit of the welfare state was “alive and humming” north of the border.
In 2017, the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Bill introduced income based child poverty targets – making Scotland the only nation in the UK to have these enshrined in law. As part of a drive to reduce child poverty, the Scottish Government announced this year it will introduce a new Scottish Child Payment, a plan to give money to low-income families with children aged six and under, starting in early 2021.
A report in October by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, however, urged the Scottish Government to do more, arguing this plan alone will not be enough to reach its target of reducing child poverty to 10 per cent by 2030.
In response to those concerns, the Scottish Government said: “Our range of measures to support families also includes almost doubling funded Early Learning and Childcare for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds to 1,140 hours by August 2020, delivering employability support through Fair Start Scotland and promoting payment of the real Living Wage through our work to build a Living Wage nation.
“In 2018-19, we invested over £1.4 billion on support targeted at low income households – including £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government welfare cuts, estimated to reduce social security spending in Scotland by £3.7 billion by 2021.”
Cunningham says she would prefer to focus on helping people such as Price and Paton and not get into the “political game of blaming”.
She says: “I’m not particularly interested in that but there is at Westminster an agenda and it is kind of pushed up through the ranks in Scotland. But the communities who have the least have been hit the hardest. There’s no two ways about it.”
Fife Gingerbread has also been affected by cuts. In January, Cunningham – who is due to retire next month – went public about its financial crisis and said that the charity needed £600,000 to keep operating at its current level. External funding had ended.
At the time, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was urged to intervene after being warned the charity would be unable to serve two thirds of the 200 families it supports. “There was a fairly tricky time, and it still is a tricky time, it’s not over,” she says.
“This is the world we live in. So it is a bit ironic that at times, when the need is greater than ever, when poverty levels are way higher than they’ve ever been and show no signs whatsoever of reducing, that the services that support the most vulnerable, are the most vulnerable.”
The Austerity Era
Almost ten years ago the Conservative government introduced a policy of austerity – a sustained reduction in public spending, welfare reform and tax rises – in response to the 2008 economic crash. Between 2010 and 2019 cuts of more than £30 billion have been made to welfare, housing and social services, according to the United Nations. Cuts have been made to budgets from policing to health.
Poverty has risen dramatically over the decade. Almost one in five people in Scotland now live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty. The use of food banks doubles when Universal Credit is rolled out, homelessness increased, crime rates are up, as well as hospital waiting lists.
The UK government says austerity is now over. It expects to lift the freeze on working age benefits in April 2020 in line with inflation and says public spending increased this year by 4.1 per cent.
A spokesperson said: “The UK government spends over £95 billion a year on welfare, and we have simplified the benefits system through universal credit – making it easier for people to access support, including care leavers. Under personal independence payments, a higher proportion of disabled claimants are receiving the top rate of support.”