ALL this week, in a town high up in the Swiss Alps, the politicians, economists and lobbyists attending the World Economic Forum will be discussing one of the world’s greatest problems: the gap between the rich and the poor. The theme of this year’s forum is “creating a shared future in a fractured world”, but, with the wealth of the world’s billionaires reportedly rising by 13 per cent between 2006 and 2015, how close is that vision really?

To coincide with the forum, Oxfam has just published a report that seeks to expose the extent of the gap and its effects in Scotland. The gap between the rich and the poor is not a faraway crisis, says the charity; it is right here in Scotland and it is getting worse. Oxfam’s report says the top one per cent in Scotland own more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent put together; it is a crisis of inequality, says the charity, and it is out of control.

Naturally, some caution is needed with the statistics – there is still a lot of information missing from the way we try to record wealth – but the grim effects of the poverty gap have been obvious in Scotland for years, as has the UK and Scottish Governments’ lack of progress in tackling it. Ordinarily, we would expect that when an economy is growing, even slowly, wages would rise too, but the financial crisis of ten years ago, followed by austerity and Brexit, have changed the rules: not only are wages stagnating, being in a job is not a guarantee of avoiding poverty.

Loading article content

In responding to the crisis, the Scottish Government is prone to pointing out that Scotland has the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, and research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation would appear to bear that out. But what do comparisons to the rest of the UK matter when Scotland’s record is so bad? One in five Scots live in poverty. More than 210,000 children are living in relative poverty, together with 200,000 pensioners. What are we to say to those people? “At least your poverty is not as bad as England’s”?

Some positive steps have been taken in Scotland: the establishment of the Poverty and Inequality Commission for instance, although it is still to be tested. The appointment of poverty tsar Naomi Eisenstadt was also a step forward, although many of her most important recommendations are nowhere near being implemented. The promises on poverty are in place; the action, less so.

Of course, not all the powers needed to take action rest in Scotland, and it is obvious the UK Government has no real appetite to act against the rich who dodge tax. But there are so many steps the Scottish Government could take but hasn’t. Why, for instance, has it still not properly reformed council tax so that it is genuinely progressive? Why is it continuing to cut college funding when it is colleges that are most likely to help students from poorer backgrounds? And why is it still wedded to the idea of universal benefits when they could be targeted at the poorest in society?

There are many other areas where the Government has failed to act. It is in schools that many inequalities take root, and yet in Scotland there has been a failure to improve teaching standards across the board or root out bad teachers. Until schools are better at allowing every pupil to flourish, poor performance in class will continue which leads to poor qualifications and low-paid jobs and so the cycle continues.

Ultimately, action on poverty also means putting the issue at the heart of government. If governments considered the impact on the poor of everything they did, not only would many policies be different, we might see some progress in reducing the gap between the richest and poorest. The politicians and wonks in Davos will spend this week talking about how to create a shared future; it can begin by every government looking at every policy and asking: how does this affect the worst off?