Mothers surviving on leftovers, parents losing so much weight their jeans can no longer stay up, children in filthy clothes, parents so shamed they consider suicide. Poverty campaigners reveal the full horror of what’s happening to Scotland’s poorest families and say while the SNP Government far exceeds Westminster when it comes to protecting the vulnerable, so much more must be done. Exclusive by Neil Mackay

“I JUST eat my little one’s leftovers,” one Scottish mother said. Another mother told how she’d lost so much weight - because she was starving herself to ensure her children ate - that she needed to buy new clothes to fit her, but couldn’t afford them. She couldn’t even afford a belt, so had to “tie a bobble” from her hair around the waistband of her jeans to stop them falling down.

The catalogue of misery, degradation and despair just keeps going - on and on and on. Parents even talk of contemplating suicide because they no can longer afford to feed or clothe their children.

“I can only afford to feed my two kids most days,” another Scottish mother says. “I live off Cuppa soups and tell them I’m on a diet to explain why I’m not eating.” She can’t even afford the very basics needed for a dignified life: washing power, washing up liquid and toothpaste. These items are now luxuries. Another parent added: “If my son leaves anything on his plate then I’ll eat that. If not, I just eat toast most days.”

The charity, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) - which campaigns for some of the poorest in society - handed the Herald on Sunday devastating research into the extent of child poverty in our country as winter approaches amid the worst financial crisis in living memory. The full report, entitled ‘Living without a Lifeline’, is released to the public later this week.

Today, one in four Scottish children live in poverty - many are in single parent families. OPFS spoke to 260 single parents across Scotland, uncovering just how dire circumstances have got. Significantly, most single parents are in work - and many single parent families have either a parent or child who’s disabled.

One in five single parents say they can no longer afford clothes. Children are going to school in dirty uniforms. Food and energy costs are crippling. Debt is spiralling. Luxuries like cinema trips are simply beyond financial reach.

The sense of shame is overwhelming. “I feel I’m failing my children because I should be able to afford the very basics at least for them, and I can’t even do that,” one mother said. Another said: “My two children have no clothes that fit, everything is too small. I must go without meals most days, living off what the kids leave.” Her children “share a bath”, but she just gets “washed down most days”.

Even last winter, before the current crisis, parent were keeping their central heating off, using blankets and water bottles to stay warm. Some families can no longer afford a TV. As one parent said, many now “depend on food banks and handouts from family and friends”.

Rents are crippling. Using a car to get to work is financially impossible. One parent said they couldn’t even afford the bus. They “walk six to ten miles a day” to the cheapest supermarket.

Childcare costs drain what little income remains after bills for working parents. School uniforms are out of reach, even with grants. Children are becoming ill-kempt and so suffer bullying. Families can’t afford internet connections so children are unable to do their homework as “it’s all online now”.

Many single parents are in low paid, precarious work - often with unsociable hours - meaning transport and childcare become hurdles to simply keeping a job. School holidays make life even more financially difficult. One woman in full-time employment said: “The choices I make daily are getting harder.” There’s weeks, she said, where “we rely on food donations and surplus food at reduced prices”. Parents faced with raising children on benefits are filled “with dread”.

One mother added: “I’m falling apart and terrified of losing my job.” Another said: “You feel worthless when you struggle to provide for your children.” And a third made clear just how dark their life had become: “I don’t have enough to live on at all. I’m suicidal. I feel my life is not worth living anymore.”


MARION Davis is OPFS director of strategy and policy. Her staff are delivering food parcels and financial support to Scotland’s poorest families at this time of crisis but it’s simply a sticking plaster for a near fatal wound. “The situation is desperate,” she says. Families have run out of “life lines”. Staff “are struggling to find anything further to do to help. It’s stark. Many are at crisis point”. The testimony of families is “devastating”, Davis says. “Something’s gone badly wrong.”

Ask Davis what’s to blame and she says: “It’s obviously Westminster policies.” Low pay and a brutalising social security system, which doesn’t provide enough to survive, are chief among the drivers of poverty. Westminster’s ‘two-child limit’, which restricts benefits to two children, and the benefits cap, which suppresses state support, are the two most damaging policies.

Davis says one mother was so crushed by poverty she spoke of “ending things”. The woman then asked: “Who’s going to look after my children?”

Davis warns a ‘debt crisis’ is fast approaching. Given the climate of derision whipped up against poor families - the ‘Benefits Street’ narrative - Davis is quick to point out that most single parents are employed, but in low-paying work. Those not in work are often disabled or carers.

When it comes to affordable childcare which will help more parents into work, “we’re far behind Europe”, she says.

The biggest problem, though, is our society’s “massive disparities in wealth - inequality”. Like many campaigners, Davis praises the Scottish government for the steps it’s taken to alleviate child poverty - particularly the Scottish Child Payment for vulnerable families, something which parents in the rest of Britain don’t receive. Currently it’s set at £20 a week for children under six but will rise to £25 a week for all children under-16, if they’re eligible. However, as a society “we need to look further at how wealth is distributed”. That mean’s progressive taxation with the wealthy paying more.

“We need a standard that’s sufficient for human dignity and decency,” she says, “so people can participate in society.” Rather than focusing on the effects of poverty, we should tackle the causes. “We need to look at how we prevent poverty,” Davis adds.

OPFS is opening its family centres for longer now so families “can be warm for a while” as winter approaches. Its Glasgow centre is appealing for hot water bottles and fleeces. Food banks, Davis notes, are increasingly asked for groceries which don’t require cooking so families don’t run up energy bills. “We’re moving into a period of crisis where this depth of poverty hasn’t ever been experienced.”

As there’s limits on how many times families can attend food banks, food pantries are springing up. Food pantries charge small fees - a pound or two - for access to cheap groceries. One woman, however, contacted OPFS to say she “didn’t even have the pound to join”. Davis says OPFS staff are “traumatised” from hearing the testimony of families pushed to the brink.

The bottom line for Davis is that Westminster simply has to get more money to the most desperate families - right away. “Families just don’t have enough money - that’s what this is about.” The support package from the new UK government isn’t targeted correctly and does too little. The UK government needs to shoulder the blame for much of the devastation due to the “impact of austerity”. The poor have been “stigmatised”. Davis noted how government assistance has been described as “handouts”.

“Families must be treated with dignity and respect,” she added. The UK government, Davis says, “see the drivers of poverty as alcohol abuse and drugs. We don’t agree with that.” Poverty is “systemic”, she says - it’s created by political decisions.

While the Scottish government has helped, it should use the powers it does have to do more - not just around income tax, but council tax too. Council tax is “unfair on low income families. They pay much higher proportions of their income than people in higher valued properties”.

The eligibility criteria for free schools meals and school clothing grants needs to be changed as it excludes too many low income families. School meals should be “universal” for all pupils in primary and secondary. “There’s a lot of debt in relation to school meals,” Davis explains. Parents are starting to owe schools “huge amounts” they can’t afford.

The Scottish government’s decision to cut £53m from employability schemes after announcing its package of measures to help poor families, including Child Payment increases, disappointed campaigners, as many one parent families feature women needing training to get better jobs to escape poverty. Many lone parents work in social care or hospitality, and are in their 30s, often returning to work, sometimes following relationship break ups. Carers are regularly just forgotten.

It’s “stark”, Davis says, to see the money spent on the Queen’s funeral “in contrast to what you’ll read in our survey.”


JOHN Dickie heads the Child Poverty Action Group, Scotland’s main organisation campaigning for struggling families. While there’s much more the Scottish government could do to help the poorest in society, the contrast with Westminster is startling. “There’s a real disparity”, Dickie says, between what Edinburgh and London are doing. “That’s a real concern.”

He adds: “We need every level of government working together to end the scandal of child poverty in a rich country. Whilst the Scottish government can and must do more, it’s committed itself to statutory targets to reduce child poverty, produced a delivery plan that sets out the right areas where action is needed, and is investing significantly in the Scottish Child Payment as well as committing itself to more funded childcare and better employment support for parents. This will significantly reduce the numbers of children living in poverty in Scotland.”

However, much more work is needed for the Scottish government to meet its target of reducing the number of children in poverty to less than 18%. Currently one in four children live in poverty.

“We need the UK government to start taking a similar approach,” Dickie says. That means Westminster “investing in social security and removing barriers to work. As a priority it needs to scrap poverty-producing policies like the two child limit and the benefit cap within the UK social security system. The two child limit alone is pushing around 18,000 children into poverty in Scotland. There’s no UK strategy for reducing child poverty. That’s a black hole the new Prime Minister must fill.”

He added: “In short, the approach the Scottish government is taking needs to be replicated across the UK. Here in Scotland it needs to be strengthened and adequately resourced to ensure success.”

Low-income families have been “left brutally exposed” to the current crisis due to austerity, social security cuts and low pay. “At the same time, work has become increasingly precarious. It’s hard to imagine how it could be any more challenging. Increasingly, families who were maybe getting by before are tipping over the edge.”

Even when support workers give all the help they can to low income families - “whether in or out of work” - Dickie says: “There’s still not enough to make ends meet and enable parents to give children a decent start in life.”

Clearly, children are under stress too as “they pick up on when parents are struggling”. Some children “don’t tell parents about school trips and miss out rather than put additional burdens onto their parents. So children are protecting their parents from the impact of not having enough money, and parents are going to extraordinary lengths to protect their children - like going without food. All the joy and pleasure of family life is taken away. The impact is profound.”

Children are missing school because they haven’t clean clothes. Dickie, who’s campaigned to end child poverty for 18 years, says what’s happening now is “heartbreaking”.

If children don’t have clean clothes to attend class, then school “starts to feel less and less a place where you fit in”. Children’s education suffers, they might attend school less, and that has long term effects for society, creating more poverty in the future. This causes “extraordinary damage” - meaning children raised in poverty “are at greater risk of being the poor parents of the future”.

However, “there’s no reason why this generation of children, even if their parents are struggling on low incomes, should be condemned to a life of poverty themselves”. Politicians can break the cycle.

“A quarter of Scottish children are in poverty. Over two-thirds of those children are in families where an adult is working. This is predominantly a problem where parents are working.” If we managed to crack problems like inequality for disabled people and low-pay for women - who make up the vast bulk of one parent families - “we’d go a long way to cracking child poverty”. Fixing childcare is key. “We don’t have the infrastructure that exists in other countries.”

Dickie says Scotland is “lucky” the Edinburgh government at least recognises that the causes of child poverty are “structural” - down to low pay and low social security benefits. “That’s what creates child poverty.” The popular view that drugs and alcohol lie behind poverty “is easier” to accept than addressing the real causes. Addiction can blight any family regardless of income, he says, but if you’re poor nothing cushions the damage.

The fact that so many families in poverty are in work “exposes the myth” that poverty is down to people choosing not to work. Around £39 billion has been taken from social security since the early 2010s - it must be restored, Dickie says. A real living wage - £9.90 hourly - has to be put in place so people have “a socially acceptable standard of living”.

While policies such as Scotland’s Child Payment - which isn’t available in the rest of Britain - “are a big step on the road to tackling child poverty”, much more needs done in Scotland. The government says it will roll out free school meals to all P6 and P7s, however “that commitment was in last year’s programme for government and never happened”.

For Dickie, like nearly all poverty campaigners, “progressive taxation must be on the table. The Scottish government needs to look at the range of tax powers it does have and how they can be used to ensure it has resources to fund what’s needed to prevent child poverty”. There’s plenty of wealth in Scotland, he notes. “There’s no need to leave anyone behind.” If we want to protect people “we need to pay for that collectively, that requires the use of tax powers and being more ambitious in how we use those tax powers”.

Even if the Scottish government reaches its pre-crisis target of reducing child poverty to 18% by 2024 “that’s still one in five children left in poverty. That’s just not good enough”.

Nevertheless, “Scotland’s government is pretty serious about this. There’s a child poverty action plan. That’s quite a different situation than at UK level. What jars at UK level is we don’t even have a child poverty strategy - there’s no serious debate about how to tackle child poverty.”

As for the future, “it’s hard to be optimistic when so many families are struggling to get by. The absolute priority at a UK and Scottish level needs to be making sure ordinary families get through the coming months. We’re clearly failing as a society if we’re leaving so many children behind. How can that possibly be right? We’ve allowed a situation to come about where food banks are part of the landscape. Most people know this is morally wrong.

“There’s reasons why so many of our children are being left in families with no resources - and that’s conscious political choices that we’ve either supported or allowed to happen. Collectively as a society, we need to be pressing politicians to do the things we know are right.”

With so many families depending on charity to eat, “it feels like we’re going backwards. Something’s gone horribly wrong. It’s not hopeless. Nothing is inevitable - but we’re not only seeing increasing numbers of children in poverty, but increasing numbers of children in deep poverty. Terrifying is the word to use, particularly this winter.”