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Story Publication logo October 22, 2019

In Scotland, Families With Sick Kids Receive Financial Prescriptions

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When half the kids are in poverty, our fractured towns can offer no future. This project explore the...

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GLASGOW, Scotland — The day of the school Christmas show, Dina Kadhum’s 10-year-old daughter came home from school vomiting. It wasn’t a case of nerves, but rather a rare cancer that would soon dominate every aspect of the lives of the family of five.

“I spent all my time with my daughter,” said Ms. Kadhum on Monday. She could focus on nothing else and shelved her work as a translator, which was the family’s main income.

At Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children, she was referred to Lorraine Wallace, a money advisor who worked the complex United Kingdom benefit system and found the family 1,300 British pounds per month in aid.

Ms. Wallace is part of an unusual, privately funded money advice service that does much more than find money for parents of sick kids. She and her colleagues, employees of a nonprofit called Money Matters, also craft budgets, negotiate with creditors and landlords, work out arrangements with employers, and sometimes even line up lawyers for bankruptcy filings if a family’s finances falter due to a child’s illness.

“We fight for people all the time,” she said. She applies a typically Scottish martial attitude to each family’s challenges: “It’s my fight.”

In Scotland, a nation of 5.4 million people within the United Kingdom, the National Health Service provides medical care at taxpayer expense, and parents don’t get a bill. But when the Royal Hospital for Children, Glasgow, asked parents about their concerns, “Money came out the top,” said Jane Beresford, manager of employment and health at the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. “When your child takes suddenly unwell, it can mean taking time off from employment” or paying for child care, and incurring expenses for transportation and even housing modifications.

“Things can spiral out of control very quickly,” she said. “Flip a switch, and one moment in passing, their world can be turned upside down.”

Since 2012, nurses have been trained to ask patients’ parents, “Do you have any money worries?” If the answer is yes, the nurse steers the parent or parents to the Money Advice Service, located within the hospital.

Sometimes the hospital immediately puts quick cash in the family’s hands and supplies them with toiletries, underwear, clothing and any other immediate needs.

Then comes months of intensive work on the family’s finances.

The nonprofit Glasgow Hospital Children’s Charity funds the effort, which now costs 96,000 British pounds per year — roughly $120,000 — which covers the salaries of two full time money advisors and a triage worker.

And what’s the return on that investment? Around 34-to-1. In a recent 12-month period, the advisors served 472 families, getting them 3.33 million pounds in new benefits — an average of more than 7,000 pounds ($8,750) per family.

The roots of Scotland’s attack on child poverty go back 20 years.

In 1999, the parliament of the United Kingdom pledged to virtually eliminate child poverty — and early results were promising. “They cut poverty in half in 10 years, which is a pretty remarkable thing to do,” said Jane Waldfogel, author of “Britain’s War on Poverty” and a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York.

Claire Johnstone, of Easterhouse, a suburb in Glasgow, Scotland, holds her 5-month-old son, William, as she joins other mothers at Cafe Stork, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2019, at Parkhead Congregational Church in Glasgow. Image by Michael M. Santiago. United Kingdom, 2019.
Claire Johnstone, of Easterhouse, a suburb in Glasgow, Scotland, holds her 5-month-old son, William, as she joins other mothers at Cafe Stork, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2019, at Parkhead Congregational Church in Glasgow. Image by Michael M. Santiago. United Kingdom, 2019.

But by 2016, the UK parliament cut some of the programs aimed at supporting poor families, and abandoned the numerical targets for reducing child poverty.

That didn’t sell well in Scotland. Part of the United Kingdom since 1707, Scotland in 1999 took back control over its domestic affairs. In 2017, the Scottish Parliament passed a law setting 2030 as its deadline for cutting child poverty in half.

The government has put money behind the commitment, starting payments of 600 pounds ($750) on the birth of a first child and 300 pounds ($375) on every subsequent birth; 100 pounds ($125) per low-income child for school clothes; plus launching new allowances for families with disabled kids, and programs for helping parents into employment.

Still in the works are a doubling of public support for early childhood education and a 10 pound ($12.50) per child per week payment for low-income families.

Scotland isn’t just throwing money at the problem.

The law requires planning and reporting by national and local government, and by health officials. Nonprofit organizations like Money Matters make up the fourth wheel.

Perhaps nowhere is the effort more needed or more vigorous than in and around Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city with a population of 600,000 in a region of 1.6 million. Within the former steel and shipbuilding city, around 1 in 3 children live in poverty — roughly the same proportion as the city of Pittsburgh. In some neighborhoods, half of the kids are in poverty — a ratio also seen in much of the Mon Valley and parts of Fayette County.

The Parkhead neighborhood is to Glasgow what Homestead is to Pittsburgh.

Once a pastoral weaving village, it became in 1837 the home of the Parkhead Forge, which at its peak employed 20,000. The forge closed in the late 1970s, since replaced by a shopping center.

Seven-month-old Eliad Abrha hides his face as he plays with his mother Hanna Abrha, center, and Mary Stewart, NHS health specialist, at Cafe Stork, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2019, at Parkhead Congregational Church in Glasgow. Image by Michael M. Santiago. United Kingdom, 2019.
Seven-month-old Eliad Abrha hides his face as he plays with his mother Hanna Abrha, center, and Mary Stewart, NHS health specialist, at Cafe Stork, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2019, at Parkhead Congregational Church in Glasgow. Image by Michael M. Santiago. United Kingdom, 2019.

Two blocks from that symbol of economic change is the Parkhead Congregational Church, where, on Mondays, expectant and new mothers and other caregivers meet at Cafe Stork. On one level, they’re just “having a bite to eat, sitting for lunch at a big table,” said Janet Tobin, the National Health Service’s health improvement manager for North East Glasgow. But that leads to the sharing of ideas and emotions — not to mention baby clothes and equipment. In a time of declining participation in traditional community organizations, it also gives the partipants an opportunity to build networks that can carry them through the postpartum period.

Joanne Egan, 39, knew that depression and suicide run in her family, so when she became a single mother to her Conor, she knew she’d need help. Her mind “can sometimes spiral a wee bit.”

When Conor turned 8 weeks old, she started coming to Cafe Stork.

“All of the women here have been so welcoming and open,” Ms. Egan said, while getting a break from Conor, now 6 months old. As a bank employee, she gives the other women financial advice, in addition to clothes that no longer fit Conor.

This week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Growing up through the Cracks team is in Glasgow and the surrounding area, reporting daily on the effort to raise kids out of poverty. In November, we’ll report in depth on the Glasgow model.

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