Challenging Poverty Through Public Services

As part of our series of Challenge Poverty Week blogs, STUC Policy Officer, Francis Stuart, discusses the role of public services in fighting poverty and inequality.

Sometimes, in Scotland we can pretend we are a beacon of progressive equality. But as recent studies show, poverty and inequality are rising from already historically high levels. Looking back over the last 25 years (a period in which parties of varying stripes and colours have held power in Holyrood and Westminster) we can see that income gains have been captured by those at the top.

IncomeGainsByDecileAuthors analysis based on Scottish Government data

As I’ve written previously, addressing this economic inequality will require strong political movements and institutions willing to fight for transformative change. That means more powerful, active trade unions as well as more independent community groups and anti-poverty organisations.

But what demands should these movements coalesce around?

Recently, anti-poverty campaigners have successfully lobbied for new cash benefits, in the form of a ‘family income supplement’ to help address child poverty. In a market economy, putting money in people’s pockets is undoubtedly important, and the new supplement will help reduce poverty, particularly among lone mothers.

However, moving forward, there is a risk that greater social security benefits comes to be seen as the de-facto response. The point of this blog is ultimately to say that we shouldn’t forget the role of public services.

While the Nordic welfare states, often held up as beacons of equality, do have generous social security systems, their primary means of redistribution is through public services.

Historically in the UK, the development of council housing, the NHS, and nationalised industries and services was a primary method through which inequality was addressed.

And still today, public services are more valuable than cash benefits to all decile groups in the UK, including those at the bottom of the income distribution. They are also more likely to maintain public support.

Investing in the wages of public service workers also has a direct impact on poverty and inequality. Large numbers of public service workers, particularly women, are low paid and living in poverty. Investing in health and care, education and council services can help address poverty and inequality; boost the wages of low-paid female workers and create a more caring society. Investing in publicly owned green infrastructure could also help transform our economy in a more equal manner while providing solutions to the climate emergency which we know the market won’t fix.

It is worth acknowledging that the debate between universal basic services vs a universal basic income is in many ways a proxy for some of these issues. In reality, tackling poverty and inequality will probably require both.

However, as a collective endeavour, public services can be an extremely efficient way of providing resources to enable people to participate in society. They should therefore be viewed as a crucial weapon in the fight against poverty and inequality.

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