By Shona Stephen

WE in the new Poverty and Inequality Commission face significant challenges against a backdrop of increasing financial inequality and economic uncertainty.

We have been asked to advise Scottish ministers on matters relating to poverty or inequality in Scotland, including the impact of their policies and use of resources in achieving their reduction goals.

A household is considered to be in poverty if their income is less than 60 per cent of the average. According to official statistics one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty, one in five working age people do likewise. Around 45 per cent of lone parents live below the poverty line along with nearly a quarter of families with a disabled adult.

High levels of inequality compound these poverty levels. Latest figures show that the wealthiest one per cent of private households own more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent. Men in the most deprived areas of Scotland are expected to live 26 fewer years in good health than those in the least deprived areas and expected to die 13 years earlier.

For me, the most painful statistics are those that tell us that a child born into poverty is much more likely to remain in poverty and their children too. They are more likely to be homeless, have poor physical and mental health, a low sense of well-being and underachieve at school. This in turn means that as adults they will be more likely to have employment difficulties.

Children living in poverty are more likely to have a sense of hopelessness about their future than their more affluent peers. This is an unacceptable cycle of deprivation and limited life chances that we need to do more to try and break.

It is possible to change things and we have seen some improvements. Fifteen years ago 25 per cent of pensioners in Scotland were living in poverty, compared to 13 per cent now and child poverty fell by 13 per cent over the first decade of this century. But with changes to the benefits systems and constant pressure on public services we are seeing these gains being reversed.

The fact that child poverty exists at all in this country, let alone at the levels we are seeing, is shocking. It is real anger I feel when I see children going without the opportunities that their school friends take for granted; who are unable to fulfil their potential just because their family is poor.

The Scottish Government recognises the scale of the problems we face, and has put clear targets in place to address them, and it is essential that they are held to account and are seen to follow through with their promises. It is also important that all organisations which can help towards seeing these targets achieved make the effort to do so. Reducing poverty should be an ambition for us all.

I am bringing my 34 years of experience of working with, and learning from, individuals and communities who have been marginalised through poverty, which deeply influences my understanding of how poverty impacts on people’s lives. I will continue to stress the importance of building on the strengths and abilities communities and individuals have to change their futures for the better. Policy needs to be shaped by those it is designed to help.

We have the commitment of the Scottish Government; we have the dedication of the Commission members. Together with wider civic society, we must work together to banish the scandal of people struggling to live adequately in 21st Scotland.

Shona Stephen is chief executive of Queens Cross Housing Association and Commissioner in the Scottish Government’s Poverty and Inequalities Commission.