U.S. Can Learn from Britain’s Battle Against Child Poverty

March 25, 2010 @ 4:00 am

For Immediate Release

March 25, 2010

New York, NY – A new book written by Jane Waldfogel, Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs at the Columbia University School of Social Work, shows that Britain has been largely successful in its efforts to reduce child poverty and that the United States can learn from its example.

In Britain’s War on Poverty Waldfogel, who is also a visitingprofessor at the London School of Economic’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), analyzes the policies behind Britain’s success, the track record to date, and how it compares with the approach of the U.S.

In 1999 one in four British children lived in poverty – the third highest child poverty rate among industrialized countries – yet five years later, the child poverty rate in the U.K. had halved in absolute terms. How did the British government achieve this and why were their policies more successful than those of the U.S.? Furthermore, how can Britain get back on track with its aim to eradicate child poverty in the next ten years? And what can the U.S. learn from their reforms?

Using the British government’s standard relative measure, 500,000 children were lifted out of poverty in Britain between 1999 and 2007, a reduction of 15%. However, in absolute terms, 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty in just five years, with the proportion of children in poverty falling from 26% to 14%. The most recent data (from 2007) show child poverty in absolute terms at 13%, half the rate 10 years earlier. This is a much steeper fall in the percent of children in poverty than was seen in the U.S. under its welfare reforms.

Professor Waldfogel argues that the New Labour government’s reforms such as the New Deal, Working Tax Credits and expansions in programs for young children all contributed to the significant drop in child poverty. The three-pronged approach of promoting work, increasing financial support for families, and investing in the health and development of children differed significantly from the work-oriented U.S. welfare reforms, which did not specifically target children.

“Whichever way you look at it, Britain has made great strides in tackling child poverty and the U.S. would do well to take note of their achievements. Their success shows that dramatic reductions in poverty are possible if the government makes a serious commitment and invests substantial resources,” said Professor Waldfogel. “Although progress stalled after 2004, and the government fell short of its goal to halve relative child poverty by 2009, the British record over the past decade compares favorably both to the U.S. and to the rest of Europe.”

Professor Waldfogel suggests that for the U.S. to be more successful it should emulate the British model and address child poverty directly, along with underlying income inequality.

Professor Waldfogel also offers suggestions for how the British anti-poverty effort can make further headway in reducing child poverty:

“To make further progress, the British government must address a number of key challenges, including raising working-family incomes and helping more single parents move into work,” she says. “The aspiration to make further reductions in child poverty is now widely shared across the political spectrum in the U.K. If this aspiration is translated into concrete steps perhaps the goal of ending child poverty in the next decade can be attained.”

Britain’s War on Poverty is published by the Russell Sage Foundation in New York. An introduction and summary of Britain’s War on Poverty is available here.

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