Learning from Great Britain’s Efforts to End Child Poverty

SP2 Logo Tagline 1 Final BlackResults from Great Britain’s experiments in successfully reducing child poverty provide a blueprint for the U.S. to do the same, according to Columbia University researcher Jane Waldfogel. But waning enthusiasm for this initiative in England threatens its success.

The rise and (potential) fall of Britain’s commitment to end child poverty by 2020 provides key lessons for U.S. policymakers as Congress considers new child welfare legislation this year.

How Britain Cut Child Poverty in Half

Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a sweeping child welfare reform agenda in 1999. In a public address at the University of Bristol that surprised even his closest advisors, he vowed to end child poverty by 2020. “I will set out our historic aim that ours is the first generation to end child poverty forever,” Blair said, “and it will take a generation. It is a 20-year mission but I believe it can be done.”

The government worked quickly to implement Blair’s vision. In particular, then-chancellor Gordon Brown presided over much of the implementation, ensuring that significant funds were put toward the child welfare goal, and putting specific targets in place. Between 1999 and 2003, the government spent an extra .9 percent of their total economic output to eliminate child poverty, about £9 billion.

In particular, the government incentivized work for parents by raising the minimum wage and increasing it more frequently, providing and increasing tax credits, increasing cash benefits for families, and investing in education including universal preschool.

Before Great Britain’s child welfare reforms, the child poverty rate was about 26 percent, or about 3.4 million children, comparable with the U.S.’s child poverty rate. By 2008, Great Britain’s child poverty had been halved to 14 percent, pulling 1.6 million children out of poverty and handily beating the U.S.’s child poverty rate of 19 percent.

As we approach the year 2020, Britain appears to be reneging on Blair’s promise.

Despite the overwhelming success of Great Britain’s anti-child-poverty campaign, it may fall victim to austerity measures and reductions. The new Conservative government has already scaled back benefits for many families in order to reduce the national debt. The Guardian recently reported that planned benefit cuts will hit an estimated 330,000 children, at a total cost to low-income families of £300 million per year.

“2013-2014 was the first year when we saw a big hit when it came to the child poverty rate,” said Cara Baldari, senior policy director for family economics and legal counsel at First Focus. “Their progress has flatlined, and they’re having a fight about not backtracking any further.”

Could the U.S. Make Similar Progress?

The road to adopting an ambitious child welfare reform agenda in the U.S. may be a long one.

“There are political and economic reasons why we’re not doing this work here,” said Deborah Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

For one, it would require a significant expansion of the social safety net which tests the limits of political feasibility. Great Britain cut its successful programs in the name of balancing the budget, and U.S. legislators may not be willing to expand spending on child welfare until the soaring federal deficit is decreased.

Election cycles also hinder attempts at reforms that are wide in scope. “Legislators legislate in election cycles, but in addressing big-picture issues we may not see the results until our children have our jobs,” Schilling said.

A number of U.S. cities and states have adopted child poverty eradication goals, but neither Congress nor President Obama is considering comprehensive reforms at this time. The Family First Act of 2016, the bill that Congress is currently considering, does not approach the scope of Britain’s program. As The Chronicle of Social Change reported in December, it focuses on changing funding mechanisms that support child welfare, and does not encompass comprehensive reform.

While these incremental reforms are important and supported by many child welfare advocates, they are not on the same scale as Britain’s overarching reforms.

Screenshot 2016-02-29 16.51.10Sam Waxman is a master’s student in social policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Prior to coming to Penn, she coordinated job training programs for low-income individuals in Washington, D.C., and was a consultant to philanthropists implementing innovative public sector initiatives.

This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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