Seeing is Believing: Notes from a UK Study Visit on Child Poverty (Part 1, London)By Megan Curran
October 31, 2011
We have written many times about the UK’s success in reducing child poverty over the last decade – have written so much, in fact, and from such a distance, that it was time to see for ourselves exactly how this was done and what the future holds for the most highly publicized national target to reduce poverty.
To this end, First Focus, in partnership with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, recently completed a study visit to the UK with 10 American delegates – a group with expertise spanning federal, state, and local policy; direct service provision; higher education; and philanthropy. And as luck would have it, our timing could not have been better.
Just over 10 years now after the UK target to eradicate child poverty within a generation was originally set, there is a real debate under way as to how British children will fare over the next decade. As both critics and supporters have noted, the UK government’s ‘austerity measures’ are well under way, and once-vague spending cuts are becoming a reality. The week of our visit also coincided with UK Parliament debate on welfare reform legislation that would completely overhaul the country’s public assistance and job training programs. And mid-way through our trip, a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies announced that current policy choices will result in 400,000 to 500,000 more British children in poverty by 2015 – throwing any efforts to meet the target entirely off course. Yet at the same time, local areas and regions around the country continue to work hard to meet local needs and have developed impressive strategies to make the target their own.
So what exactly did we see? The trip was divided into two parts – with the first half in London, to understand the national policy and political context of the target and its evolution, and the second half in Liverpool and the surrounding city region, to see firsthand a city region with real challenges facing its child population organizing around a strategy to improve the future.
Our first day in London was spent with the UK Government Child Poverty Unit – a collaboration of the Department of Education, the Department of Work and Pensions, and Treasury (more on this Unit and their work in a later blog). This day-long session provided an invaluable overview of the target’s creation, measurement, and ongoing evolution into strategy and action in the areas of income supports, child care, early years, education, and more. But knowing that policy never operates in a vacuum, we were also fortunate enough to be able to meet with two key political leaders: the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative Party), who is responsible for sheparding the welfare reform bill through Parliament, and the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, Kate Green MP (Labour Party), who is now a Member of Parliament after spending years as an outside organizer of the advocacy campaign to create the child poverty target. Both figures, perhaps unsurprisingly, offered two different analyses of what direction the future of the target should take.
Next, it was off to the London Borough of Islington, which with a combination of multi-million dollar homes alongside a 44 percent child poverty rate, is a microcosm of the income inequality currently being debated from Wall Street to Oakland, and beyond. Yet despite Islington’s challenges, they have maintained good educational outcomes for their local children; have built an inspiring and innovative public service delivery system (more on this to come); and have actualized the target in terms of what it really means for their community (ex. developing a local target to move 57 people into living wage jobs per week, every week).
We wrapped up London with a session with our study visit partner, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, who shared research expertise and methods for tracking the target’s progress. Most importantly, they shared their Child Poverty Toolkit, which is a tool that allows local areas to see how they are doing (and how they compare to outcomes and trends at the regional and national levels) in the areas of importance outlined in the national Child Poverty Strategy, including income, health, educational attainment, access to services, risky behavior, and more.
The wealth of information and insight gained on this trip is entirely too much to do justice to within one article. But from the questions raised around the best way to measure poverty – to the value of a national target for national policymaking as well as local program implementation – and what economic development means in practice for children, these emerging themes and more beg the question of how we can improve policy and opportunities for children and families here in the US, where any of the income, education, and budget challenges facing the UK arguably exist here on an even greater scale.
Over the next few weeks, we will be developing a series of blogs to draw out many of these themes further, as well as releasing a collaborative reflections paper from the study group on the most important takeaway messages for the US.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this introductory piece with the highlights from Liverpool. We look forward to continuing the conversation.
On new research by the UK on implementing welfare reform in the context of an existing national child poverty target;
On the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion’s Child Poverty Toolkit to measure gains and losses at the local level;
On a set of indicators measuring the state of poverty in the US and strategies to tackle it, by our friends at Half in Ten.