The Experience of the UK Child Poverty Target

In 1999 Tony Blair announced a goal of eliminating child poverty in Britain within a generation. Kate Bell examines the country's progress.

Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally in Trafalgar Square in central London. The British government has set 2010 as a target date to halve child poverty. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)
Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally in Trafalgar Square in central London. The British government has set 2010 as a target date to halve child poverty. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)

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In 1999, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a target to eliminate child poverty within a generation. Nearly 10 years later, a raft of policy initiatives have been introduced, and significant progress has been achieved on cutting poverty. The political discourse has moved from one where poverty was barely acknowledged to one in which tackling child poverty is a widely accepted goal. Challenges remain if the government is to hit even its interim target of halving child poverty by 2010, but the United Kingdom’s experience shows that setting an ambitious goal can inspire radical action.

The British government’s strategy to tackle poverty rested on three main prongs:

  • Increasing income for families: The government substantially increased levels of finan- cial support for children, with a particular focus on a child’s first year of life.
  • Promoting employment: The government has taken measures to encourage, but not compel, parents into the workforce, including increased financial incentives through the National Minimum Wage and a tax credit for low-income workers, employment pro- grams to help single parents returns to work, expanded child care, and help for families in balancing work and family life.
  • Improving services for families: The government has introduced policies to narrow gaps in educational attainment, promote the participation of young people in education or training, improve housing, and encourage financial inclusion.

The United Kingdom uses a measure of relative poverty, which counts as poor those living in a household whose income is below 60 percent of median income before housing costs. On this measure, child poverty fell between 1998–99 and 2006–07 by 3.8 percentage points, from 26.1 percent (or 3.4 million children) in 1998 to 22.3 percent (or 2.9 million children) in 2006. Unrounded figures show that almost 600,000 fewer children are now living in relative poverty. Child poverty on this measure needs to fall to 1.7 million by 2010–11 in order to meet the interim target of cutting child poverty in half.

Success has also been achieved on a measure of “absolute” child poverty, which counts all those living in households whose income is below 60 percent of 1998–99 median income. Absolute child poverty has been halved, falling from 26.1 percent (3.4 million children) in 1998 to 13.1 percent (or 1.7 million children) in 2006, meaning that 1.7 million fewer children are now living in absolute poverty.

Equally impressive has been the changed political consensus on the importance of tackling child poverty. When the goal was first announced, opposition parties were skeptical and the Labour government was reluctant to talk about the goal; now child poverty is at the center of political discourse.

Yet substantial challenges remain. Looking at the U.K. experience suggests that:

  • The child poverty target has been pivotal in focusing policy attention.
  • The politics of poverty can move—but this requires leadership.
  • Increases in employment do not require tough sanctions.
  • Financial support helps both working and workless families.
  • Policy delivery matters and change takes time.
  • Depth and incidence of poverty are both important.
  • Attention must be paid to job retention and in-work poverty.

The U.K. has not discovered a silver bullet to end childhood hardship, and there is a long way to go before the promise to eliminate child poverty within a generation can be realized. But the target has shown that in setting a clear goal progress can be made, and hundreds of thousands of children are better off as a result.

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