After decades of improvement, Scotland’s health is worsening - with the gap in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest growing. Poverty is one of the main causes of this inequality in health.

 “Poverty takes away the tools to build the blocks for the future - your ‘life chances’. It steals away the opportunity to have a life unmarked by sickness, a decent education, a secure home and a long retirement.”

(Oppenheim and Harker, 1996)

We know that living in poverty is damaging for our health at all ages and stages of life. Social, economic and environmental factors in our lives make up around 50% of the building blocks of our health and wellbeing. Poverty limits access to these important building blocks of health therefore where we live, the income we have, and the conditions in which we live and work really matter. The lack of control, worry and uncertainty that poverty creates can be stressful, and damaging to our mental and physical health (see the Health Foundation website for more information).

Evidence tells us that intervening early to ensure every child has the best start in life is one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of preventing poor health. With around one in four children (23%) in Scotland living in relative poverty, the moral and economic case for reducing child poverty is strong. It will only be achieved by the collective efforts of all of society.

We welcome the clear focus of both the Scottish Government and local government on tackling child poverty, recently confirmed as a shared priority in the Verity House Agreement. Determined action is needed at scale right across Scotland to deliver on this priority.

This Challenge Poverty Week, I want to focus on our contribution and our work with partners to tackle child poverty by addressing the three key drivers of child poverty: income from employment, income from social security and the cost of living.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) is working with Community Planning Partnerships to support their efforts to reduce child poverty.  Working with local stakeholders, PHS is supporting local areas to better understand their local system using data and intelligence to identify priority areas for action.  A toolkit to support this work will be available next year.

PHS has a key role as an employer and in supporting NHS boards as anchor institutions, to provide those disadvantaged in the labour market with improved access to good, fair and sustainable employment, to increase income.

Increasing income from social security can help to mitigate against the impact of poverty.  We are working with NHS Health Boards to ensure families are supported to claim the benefits they are entitled to, through accessing financial inclusion referral pathways within the NHS.  We are also applying our data and evidence skills to help assess the effectiveness of current social security support for families to help to plan interventions which will support adequate income for families in the long term.

As households across Scotland continue to experience high costs of living and are making difficult choices on whether to heat their homes or eat, we are committed to working closely with partners at local and national level to reduce household costs.

Increasing the knowledge and understanding of all frontline workers on the drivers of poverty, the impacts on children and families, and the action they can take, is key to ensuring every contact with low-income families counts. We are launching a refreshed Child Poverty Learning Hub this week and are keen to hear from partners on how best we can ensure effective learning is available for staff.

As individuals continue to experience poverty, it is more important than ever that we understand how their health and wellbeing is being affected and increasingly focus our efforts on prevention.   We know that when we tackle poverty our health and wellbeing improves as a result, ultimately helping reduce pressure on public services.

We are committed to working together to address the factors that drive poverty, to improve lives for everyone in Scotland. We want to connect with and learn from our partners on this vital issue. We will do all we can to support efforts to tackle poverty across Scotland, wherever the work is taking place.   

PHS’s vision is for a Scotland where everyone thrives. We must tackle poverty together in order to realise this vision.

Last updated: 04 October 2023