By Jared Bernstein and Mark Greenberg
Monday, April 3, 2006
For anyone interested in reducing child poverty, there was heartening bad news out of Britain last month. In 1999 the Blair government introduced an initiative to end child poverty by 2020, with an initial goal of cutting it by one-quarter by April of last year. Recently the government reported that it missed that target: The number of children in poverty dropped by "only" about 17 percent -- some 700,000 kids over the past five years.
If only we could have such problems in this country.
Since 2000 the number of American children living in poverty has risen 12 percent -- to 13 million. The initial growth was due to the economic downturn. But since then, despite the ongoing expansion, the poverty rate for children on this side of the pond keeps rising, largely because the benefits of the recovery have flowed so disproportionately to families at the top of the income scale.
But in the United Kingdom, the policy-driven focus on reducing child poverty has helped to ensure that economic growth is reaching those at the bottom of the income scale. Yes, they've missed an interim target, and some parts of the plan need rethinking, but they're making progress while we're backsliding.
This all started back in 1999, when Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech in which he set the goal of eliminating child poverty by 2020. As we learned on a recent trip there to see how things were unfolding, the officials at the relevant agencies don't claim to know all the answers. But with a directive to end poverty in 20 years, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Members of Parliament and the Blair government built, and continue to build, a comprehensive system designed to boost the incomes of working parents, mainly through subsidies to low-wage earners. They raised the minimum wage and have continued to push it up regularly.
They're in the midst of implementing a 10-year national child-care strategy designed to help parents get access to affordable, high-quality child care (to make it easier for them to hold down a job), and they instituted programs to develop healthy and school-ready preschoolers, teens and young adults.
They launched a cabinet-level government agency, the Social Exclusion Unit, to deal with the combination of problems that interact to keep families poor: a lack of marketable skills, chronic unemployment, poor housing in high-crime areas and so on.
As revealed in the recent reports, there have been problems. One critic pointed out that with 11 agency departments responsible for the initiative, efforts have been too diffuse. Getting the right tax credits to the right workers hasn't always gone smoothly, and some parts of the program, such as access to reliable child care, need expanding.
But what's amazing about all this is that elected officials in a major advanced economy decided to try to do something about a trend they viewed as unjust and ultimately harmful to the prospects of their society.
As we learned in our meetings with those whose job it is to hit these goals, opponents initially warned that investing significant national resources in ending child poverty was incompatible with global competition. We asked one politician about this. His response: "How can the U.K. compete globally if a third of our children grow up poor?"
What if you don't end child poverty by the targeted date of 2020, we asked. The question didn't really interest them. The target, they argued, focused the minds of the politicians, the agencies and the public. Without it, they would never have gotten as far as they have. In fact, upon release of the news about missing the target, John Hutton, a Blair cabinet secretary, promised to "redouble" the government's efforts to hit the target.
The more you learn about this initiative, the more you realize just how far off track we've gotten. It's hard to imagine that anyone in high office in this country would get near an idea like this right now. Yet it's exactly the kind of idea that might revitalize government as a positive force for making a lasting difference in the lives of our most vulnerable citizens.
Is it even conceivable that we could adapt such a target here? Absolutely. In fact, a spate of recent news stories has pointed out that a major national party whose name begins with D is in desperate need of a big, unifying idea. What's bloody wrong with this one?
Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and author of the forthcoming book "All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy." Mark Greenberg is executive director of the Task Force on Poverty for the Center for American Progress.