Poverty and coronavirus in Edinburgh: solutions in shared humanity

Sceptical Scot by Zoe Ferguson
19th May 2020

Edinburgh, the wealthiest city in Scotland, is amongst the hardest hit economically by the coronavirus crisis in the UK. While the risks of deepening inequality are undoubtedly increasing, our shared human response to this crisis perhaps allows us to see the emergence of new solutions more clearly.

The picture of poverty in Edinburgh is distinctive – and alarming. In this wealthiest of cities (second only to London in the UK), an estimated 80,000 people live in poverty, including almost 1 in 4 children. The gap between rich and poor is wider in Edinburgh than anywhere else in Scotland. The city has enormous housing wealth alongside an affordable housing crisis, reflected in the long average stay in temporary accommodation. Someone living in New Town West can expect to live 21 years longer than an individual living in Niddrie House.

The inequality gap exacerbates the position for people in poverty – Edinburgh does better than the national average for school pupils living in the least deprived areas and worse for those living in the most deprived.  The majority of people in poverty live in households where at least one person is in employment, and people live in poverty in even the most affluent areas of this city.

Impact scale

In the last few weeks we have heard that for those already struggling to get by on a low income there are significant additional pressures to life in lockdown and the current crisis has exacerbated many of the injustices we have identified over the last fifteen months.  In addition, the lockdown has revealed just how precarious large parts of our economy are, with people on low incomes being pulled into further hardship and a new surge of unemployed people at risk of being swept into poverty.  Some statistics illustrate the scale of impact:

  • Scottish unemployment expected to more than double, which could mean an additional 13,000 people unemployed in Edinburgh during 2020
  • 23% of UK businesses have paused or ceased trading, while 29% are ‘not sure’ their business has the financial resources to survive this crisis
  • 1,200 Scottish Welfare Fund applications per week in Edinburgh since lockdown began – 3 times the typical average
  • Universal Credit claims at peak were up by eight to nine times the volume immediately pre-crisis, while the number of advance payments peaked at five to six times the pre-crisis number
  • More than half of all households believe they will struggle to meet their financial commitments during this crisis and 1 in 5 have already used credit to pay for food and other expenses
  • Workers who are low earners, women, parents, and young people are most likely to be exposed to loss of income and increased health risk during this crisis
  • People on low incomes are 2.4 times more likely to work in shutdown sectors than higher earners and nearly half of all people on zero-hours contracts work in shutdown sectors

Immediate experience

While those comfortably off save money staying at home, the cost of living has risen significantly for those in poverty as they are unable to shop around for bargains due to limitations on travel and their heating needs to be on for longer periods.

Many of those who have lost their job have never claimed out-of-work benefits, do not know where to get help, and are struggling with the delay in receiving Universal Credit payments. Organisations working to support people recognise this as a significant individual and collective trauma for the city. Their feedback indicates that too many employers are not taking up the UK Government’s job retention scheme (now being extended to end-October)Some have insufficient resilience to manage short-term cash-flow challenges posed by the crisis, but we have also heard testimony that some employers have simply assumed that it will be easier just to lay people off and recruit again when business picks up.  Loneliness and isolation, loss of independence, impact of furlough, reduced working hours and unemployment, the stigma of claiming benefits and using foodbanks and managing conflict in relationships all contribute to the significant distress witnessed by organisations providing support in our communities.

Emerging solutions

It is, as yet, unclear how the UK and Scottish Governments will provide continuing support beyond the lockdown. In Edinburgh, there are particular concerns about the ability to meet need as vacancy data  shows the city amongst the hardest hit in the UK in loss of work alongside a reported £53m hole in the local government budget. In a city already marked by inequality, the stakes could not be higher in making decisions which create a just transition towards a city that is effective in ending poverty.

While the risks of deepening inequality are undoubtedly increasing, we are perhaps also seeing the emergence of new solutions more clearly.  We could not have imagined the way this Coronavirus outbreak would impact us. Watching and reading reports from other countries ahead of us in the spread of the virus gave us only scant insight into how it would actually feel. What is overwhelming is the shared emotional response, both to direct personal impacts and our empathy with others who have been affected in the most devastating ways. As we emerge from this crisis we must hold on to that emotional response and place it at the heart of our efforts to rebuild.

In the last 15 months we all too often heard that people living in poverty felt much of the city does not belong to them, that citizens of Edinburgh in general are unaware of poverty, don’t understand their circumstances and don’t care.  In the last month, we have seen a massive increase in understanding of shared hardship and poverty, often through first-hand experience, a deepening respect and gratitude to the largely low-paid key workers enabling the city to operate and, above all, solidarity with our fellow citizens.

Where an increase in the standard rate of Universal Credit is right for now, why would it not be right for the future? And when we can eliminate rough sleeping in a matter of days, what else might be possible? In an earlier piece here, Katherine Trebeck notes the importance and beauty of community ties and informal support as one of three pillars to create a wellbeing economy.  For us too, it seems all the clearer now, following the experience of the last month, that solutions to end poverty will only be built together, in connections and relationships and in shared humanity.

A social movement for change

We propose building a movement of people with experience of poverty and their allies, drawn from public and third sector services and business and also those citizens who have shown solidarity in such force in recent weeks.  Our working title is EndPovertyEdinburgh. We should invest in it to develop our shared understanding of living in poverty, the solutions most likely to succeed and contributing to culture change. It should plug into decision-making and hold the city to account, monitor progress, shine a light on how far we are making progress and celebrate the change(s) we can make together.

Let’s hold on and build on what we have learned.

  • Edinburgh Poverty Commission is an independent group working together to define the steps we need to take to end poverty in the capital. Ahead of our final report in the Autumn, we have been listening to people and organisations in the city over the past few weeks to hear at first hand the profound impacts of the Covid-19 emergency on people living in poverty, now and in the future. Its interim report, published today, (link) tries to do justice to what we have heard.