Caroline Cawley knows how easy it can be to find yourself living in poverty. The 40-year old lives with physical and mental health conditions that mean there are periods when she is unable to work and, after losing her job a decade ago, she also found herself without a home. Though with the help of her family she was able to make the move from temporary to settled accommodation after a year, the impact of that period has been long-lasting and she has been living in fear of falling back into that cycle ever since.

“I lost my job and ended up falling into the system,” she recalls. “That whole year was a struggle, having to go through the process of applying for benefits, getting knocked back, not having anywhere to live for a year. I was lucky because I was in a flat and not a B&B, but when you’re in temporary accommodation you don’t even fully unpack because you don’t know when you’re going to get a home, then when you get one you only get two weeks’ notice but applying for a grant to help buy furniture and carpets takes six weeks so you’re left with nothing when you move.”

Cawley was able to borrow money from her family to bridge that gap, but the whole experience exacerbated her health difficulties, which exacerbated her ability to work when she secured a new job, which in turn exacerbated the likelihood of the whole cycle beginning once again.

“My last job was with the council, in procurement on an IT help desk,” she says. “It was a temporary contract with [personnel business] Adecco and wasn’t a secure job. At that time there was a moratorium on hiring at the council and they had lots of people on short-term or rolling contracts on an outsourced basis. I was fairly lucky because I was there for two years but when my absences started to pick up because my health wasn’t great, panic started to set in because I was on a rolling three-month contract and they can just get rid of you. I was signed off for so long that they just said ‘you’re not coming back’ and I’ve been signed off since. My last day at work was New Year’s Day 2015.”

While the entire experience impacted on her health and so her ability to work, Cawley says she is in a sense lucky because she receives Employment and Support Allowance, a legacy benefit paid to people who have a disability or health condition that impacts on how much they are able to work. Had she lost her job a year later, she would have had to apply for Universal Credit, which has pushed many people in a similar situation to her into poverty.

With the pandemic throwing everything into sharper focus, Cawley got together with a group of local citizens to form campaign group End Poverty Edinburgh in 2020, the idea being to put their bad experiences to good use. The aim is to engage with the local authority and other decision-makers on how they can make a difference, and Cawley – who now lives on the city’s Muirhouse estate, one of Scotland’s most deprived areas according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) – has been a vocal critic of the conditions people are forced to live in even when they get a permanent home. The properties on the estate are “crawling with damp and mould,” she says, and with many of her neighbours struggling to pay for heating to ameliorate that even before the cost-of-living crisis kicked in, the need for government intervention is becoming ever-more pressing.

“Most of us are probably only ever one benefit assessment or one paycheck away from falling back into poverty,” she says. “Things are not very secure at the moment.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke many times about how eradicating poverty would be her government’s “mission”. In addition to creating a social security system designed to take responsibility for a raft of benefits out of Westminster’s hands, her Holyrood administration threw its weight behind programmes such as Living Wage and Living Hours to ensure that employers don’t just pay a high enough hourly rate but offer enough hours to make that rate pay a wage that can actually be lived on too. Her crowning glory was the Scottish Child Payment, which sees families on low incomes receive £25 a week to help care for every child under the age  of 16. With the government committing via 2017 legislation to all but eradicate child poverty by 2030, it was seen as a vital step towards achieving its goals.

But on Sturgeon’s final day in office her government published a damning report that showed that over the three years to March 2022, poverty levels had remained unchanged – or, as the report euphemistically put it, had remained “stable”. During a period prior to the cost-of-living crisis really starting to bite and during which Westminster-sanctioned benefit Universal Credit was temporarily increased to take account of the pandemic, a quarter of Scottish children, a fifth of working-age adults and 15 per cent of pensioners were living in relative poverty. Though the proportions have come down from where they were in the 1990s, when a third of children and pensioners were living in poverty, recent interventions have made barely any difference, with poverty rates remaining broadly static for a decade.

For Poverty and Inequality Commission chair Bill Scott, the numbers are particularly troubling because the impact of poverty is so insidious.

“People in poverty will usually have health problems that start earlier and last longer – they will have shorter healthy lives but also shorter lives,” he says. “The gap in life expectancy between more affluent areas and the most deprived areas is growing and that’s because life expectancy is dropping for those in poorer areas but is stable in the most wealthy areas. Poverty impacts on so many aspects of people’s lives. The thing not appreciated is how many children it affects. We talk about one in four but research from [commission deputy chair] Professor Morag Treanor shows that in the first eight to nine years of their life, 49 per cent of Scottish children experience poverty in at least one of those years. That will impact in one way or another on all their lives, whether through stigma or educational attainment – we need to make sure all children in Scotland get the chance to be better earners later in life.”

During the recent SNP leadership campaign, candidate Kate Forbes took up Sturgeon’s mantra on poverty, saying eradicating it would be her “overriding mission” if she won the race. Her opponent Humza Yousaf – the ultimate victor – soon followed suit. Days after Forbes used a campaign stop in the Raploch area of Stirling – another of the country’s most deprived areas according to SIMD data – to highlight how “disgraceful” it is that a quarter of Scottish children “go to bed hungry, cold or lonely every night”, Yousaf published a manifesto on how he would use “the full powers of independence […] to eradicate child poverty in Scotland once and for all”. Though Yousaf has made it clear that he believes Scotland needs full control over benefits and employment laws to achieve that, in his first day in office he showed that he was willing to tinker around the edges in the meantime, announcing that the government’s Fuel Insecurity Fund would increase from £20m to £30m in the coming year.

Despite his claims that without independence his hands are tied, like Sturgeon, Yousaf is relying heavily on the Scottish Child Payment as evidence that the Scottish Government is serious about tackling poverty. In his first outing at First Minister’s Questions he, too, repeated the Sturgeon mantra that lifting people out of deprivation would be the “defining mission” of his government and pointed to the child payment as “the most ambitious child poverty reduction measure in the UK”. Professor John McKendrick, co-director of the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University, says that while it is reasonable for the Scottish Government to argue that there is only so much it can do without “full control over the main levers of taxation and welfare”, it is not reasonable for it to suggest it is doing all it possibly can.

“There hasn’t been a big shift in the numbers and it’s reasonable to say that has been because of the extenuating circumstances in the last few years – the pandemic and the cost of living have made a big difference,” he says. “The Scottish Child Payment has increased [it was £10 a week when it was introduced in February 2021] and the number of children in poverty hasn’t shifted, but many more people would be in poverty if they hadn’t taken that step and those in poverty would be even deeper in poverty. There has to be some acknowledgement of what has been done, but much more needs to be done.”

For Scott, joined-up policies are required that look at everything from investing in affordable housing and transport networks to finding ways to ensure the billions of pounds sitting in unclaimed benefits reach the people who are entitled to them. Poverty Alliance director Peter Kelly agrees. He says that while the child payment is undoubtedly welcome, the Scottish Government’s continued emphasis on it as a poverty-ending measure in and of itself is unhelpful while there is a lot more that can be done in Scotland now. The fact that Sturgeon’s government had a minister for social security while Yousaf’s does not – post-holder Ben Macpherson declined an unspecified ministerial role offered by Yousaf and has left the administration – is, Kelly says, a cause for concern in that regard.   

“It’s a complex system that keeps people in poverty so it needs numerous changes – there isn’t one thing that can do it,” he says. “The Scottish Child Payment has often been presented as this thing that will change everything. I would love for there to be a lever we can pull that changes everything but unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.

“We need to maintain progress on Scottish social security and look at other options to introduce new benefits. If you keep to the child poverty theme, we know there are priority groups that are most affected – children of young parents, those in black and minority ethnic households, households where there’s a child with a disability. The social security system could be used to target resources at those priority groups. What was disappointing in the breakdown of Cabinet roles is that we haven’t seen social security in there. That’s a concern. There’s still a lot to be done.”

For Cawley, the evidence of the complexity of poverty is clear when End Poverty Edinburgh meets, with members unable to take on work because they cannot cover childcare and travel costs and unable to meet housing, heating and eating costs because they cannot take on enough work. It is a vicious cycle that, she says, can be broken.

“Eradicating poverty needs to hit the fundamentals – food, heating, clothing and housing,” she says. “I’m very big on the housing side. There needs to be real investment in social housing, especially in Edinburgh, which has such a big waiting list. We’re a capital city but it’s getting to the point where people can’t hire staff because the staff can’t afford to live here. Housing has such an impact on every aspect of your life. Your home is your anchor. If you’re in a B&B you don’t have security and it does impact on your physical health. We need housing that is good quality and genuinely affordable.

“As long as the government starts investing in housing and making sure employers are signed up for the Living Wage and Living Hours, then I think there’s a chance that things will get better.”