ADDRESSING poverty was an urgent issue in Scotland before the pandemic. The crisis of the last 14 months will have made it worse. People who were facing financial insecurity before Covid-19 are facing higher levels of debt now, while some more affluent families have seen their savings grow during the pandemic.

Covid-19 has disproportionately affected our most deprived communities. This is both directly via illness and death, and indirectly via economic and social harms. Developments in the last few weeks provide new evidence and also some food for thought on next steps.

Recent research from Loughborough University for the End Child Poverty coalition found that child poverty had risen in every local authority in Scotland since 2015. Pandemic relief payments for low income households are already planned and the Scottish child payment for families with younger children began to be rolled out from late February this year. But many organisations have been calling for much more ambitious action for years. As we look ahead to the post Covid ‘build back better’ agenda, it is worth asking what else can be done.

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Last week the Welsh government announced that as part of its efforts to address poverty a trial of universal basic income (UBI) would be launched. UBIs have attracted increased interest in a number of countries during the Covid-19 crisis because of a rise in unemployment and food poverty in particular.

The Welsh government have been interested in introducing a UBI scheme for a while. Their First Minister Mark Drakeford was a social policy researcher before he became a politician and has a long-standing interest in welfare and social security. So what is a UBI, how would it work and should we consider this in Scotland?

A UBI involves a regular payment given to all adults to ensure that no one goes without an income. It is an unconditional payment, and is the same irrespective of salary, employment, housing costs, marital/cohabiting status or family size. It’s not means tested, so is paid alongside other benefits or if earnings changed.

Other countries have trialled UBIs. Finland has run the largest trial to date that reported results just a few weeks ago. It involved 2,000 unemployed adults aged 25 to 58 who were provided with a regular payment of around £500 per month for two years. They were followed up alongside a control group of similar individuals not provided with the payment. Those who received the UBI reported lower levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness. They also had increased confidence, happiness and had greater trust in other people and institutions. But the trial did not find that people provided with a basic income were significantly more likely to get jobs.

Details on the proposed pilot in Wales are still being ironed out. It is likely to focus initially on particular groups in society, including young people leaving the care system. There are some hurdles to Wales moving ahead with this – as social security is not devolved, they will need cooperation from the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions. A motion has been tabled in the House of Commons calling for UK government support to allow the trial to take place.

A UBI has been considered in Scotland, and a panel set up to explore its feasibility reported last June. It concluded that a pilot would be welcome but too complex to deliver at the moment. Determining the best way to fund a UBI would be challenging – a separate report from the Fraser of Allander Institute suggested that the cost in Scotland could be between £27 and £58 billion depending on the amount people would receive.

An alternative – and, in the short term, more achievable – approach to guaranteeing secure and adequate incomes is a minimum income guarantee. This is different from a UBI in that it is a targeted payment that would benefit those most in need, rather than just providing the same payment to everyone. In other words there would be a minimum income ‘floor’ below which no one would be allowed to fall.

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It avoids some of the inequalities that a UBI can create. For example a basic income payment would mean a married couple with children would receive two payments (one each) but a lone parent with the same number of children would receive just one. Also as the Fraser of Allander report sets out, the costs of covering a UBI scheme might result in hard choices about other areas of public spending and vital services needed by poorer families. A minimum income guarantee would take into account different circumstances and needs and work as an organising principle within the social security system.

The evidence to support how a minimum income guarantee would work in Scotland was set out in a report from the Institute for Public Policy research in March of this year and is supported by the Poverty Alliance. Their policy and campaigns manager, Neil Cowan, told me that the SNP, Labour and the Greens all committed to the idea of such a guarantee in their 2021 election manifestos. The challenge now is to begin to take the steps that will make it a reality.

It’s very obvious to anyone working in public health like me that health and wealth are inextricably linked. I’m hoping we can move soon from a focus on Covid-19 to addressing the underlying issues that have protected some from the pandemic and exposed others. Tackling poverty and inequalities needs to be at the top of that list.

Linda Bauld is Chair of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh. Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.