Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just published a report called ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2014’. It makes sobering reading. ‘In terms of money, average incomes are lower now than they were five and ten years ago. ‘
One of the most striking differences in these figures is on age. Basically far fewer pensioners are now living in low-income households than were ten years ago. Indeed the rate is half what it was a decade ago – it has particularly improved for those in their 60s and 70s. This is welcome. On the other hand, poverty among working-age adults is near the highest on record. And it is the 16-19 year olds who have the highest poverty rate.
Reading this commentary makes me angry about how the economy is delivering badly for so many people, particularly when we know that the wealthy few continue to get richer and richer.
But it also annoys me on a personal level. Why are governments, both north and south of the border, acting as if the over 60s as a group require special financial support?
On the day I read the JRF report I received a letter from the Pensions Service giving me information on my £100 Winter Fuel Payment. I have deferred my pension and I am still earning and am not poor or needy on any definition.
I’m planning to give the money to charity but nonetheless the question remains why am I getting this subsidy?
I feel the same about free bus passes which are a rite of passage now for those turning 60. I haven’t claimed mine because I still don’t understand why I’m being offered a ‘National Entitlement card’ when I am still earning.
In Scotland a startling 24% of the population possess a bus pass – yes 1,262,261 people in 2013. Some are visually impaired or disabled but the vast majority have them because they are over 60. Bus passes cost £181 million in 2013 and, as the population ages, that cost is set to continue to rise. Audit Scotland estimate it will cost between £216 and £537 million by 2025.
I have little doubt that free bus passes have encouraged many older people to get out of the house and be socially active – particularly in rural areas. All of that is to the good. But many of the 60+ age group can afford to pay the fares themselves either because they are still working or because they have fairly generous pensions. And quite simply when you look at the JRF figures you see quite clearly that targeting financial support in the form of heating allowances or bus passes to everyone over 60 simply doesn’t make sense given that those who are 60 plus have the lowest poverty of all the age bands. Of course, there are people in this age group who are poor and struggling and they should get support but surely we need to start targeting that support better. At the very least the Scottish Government should raise the bus pass age from 60 to 65. This would be much more realistic given that the retirement age is no longer 60 for women. Alternatively bus passes should only be given on age grounds to those who are claiming their state pension.
When I was at the Rural Parliament a few weeks ago I met a teenager called Oliver from the Borders. He spoke eloquently about how so many young people in rural areas are unable to live a full life because they can’t afford bus fares. He argued passionately that if they were given bus passes they would be able to contribute more to society as well as avoid all the mental health problems associated with isolation. Wouldn’t it be better and fairer to use the money saved on bus passes for those in their 60s for bus passes for teenagers, particularly in rural areas?
I fear automatic support for the 60+ age group, irrespective of their financial circumstances, will increasingly fuel hostility between the generations. Why should poor working age adults and young people see their taxes used to support people who are much wealthier than they are?
Of course, I’m familiar with the argument that we get these benefits when we are older as it reflects the fact that we have paid our taxes for years. But I’m not convinced. Many people of my generation have truly been blessed – free education, grants and now reasonable pensions. We’re also likely to get a great deal back in older years in health services and care. What’s wrong with raising the age that you start getting these benefits given that people are living much longer? What are the chances that those who are young now will get this full range of benefits when they are in their 60s?
On grounds of intergenerational equity we have to start recognizing that folk in their 60s (or 70s) are not the neediest groups and target support much more effectively on those who are most vulnerable, no matter what age they are.
This would also help reduce the dangerous, undermining stereotype that folk in their 60s are old, vulnerable and need help. Many of us are still earning, active and able to pay for public transport and heating. Sadly that is increasingly not true of many younger folk in our midst.