The New York Times
By: Nancy Folbre
June 13, 2011
Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Cutting child poverty in half sounds like a magician's trick, or some miracle of rapid economic growth. But Britain has used standard policy tools to reduce its child-poverty rate by more than half since 1994 and has effectively defended this progress against the pressures of the Great Recession.
By contrast, the child poverty rate has trended upward in the United States since 2000, and children have proved economically vulnerable to increased unemployment.
Most other rich countries rate higher on indicators of child well-being than either Britain or the United States. But we have more in common with Britain than most other countries, and rightfully pay closer attention to it.
The contours of British success are detailed in "Britain's War on Poverty," a compelling book by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University. An updated summary has been published online by two nonprofit groups that have long pressed for more attention to these issues: First Focus and the Foundation for Child Development, on whose board I serve. (Professor Waldfogel was also the subject of a recent Book Chat on this blog.)
The ordinary policies in Britain that led to what many Americans would consider extraordinary results were these: an increase in the national minimum wage (currently about $9.70 an hour, compared with our $7.25), tax incentives to encourage single parents to move into paid employment, increased public benefits for parents, provision of universal preschool and regulations making it easier for parents of young children to request flexible work schedules.
Many similar, though less generous policies are already in effect in the United States, at the federal or state level. Indeed, the title of Professor Waldfogel's book evokes President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, while Britain's New Deal for Lone Parents sounds Rooseveltian. The Sure Start program, focusing on social and educational services to young children in low-income families, resembles our Head Start program.
In short, just as the British have built on our examples, we could easily build on theirs. Do we simply lack the political will, or is it harder in the United States to translate this political will into legislative action?
A survey commissioned by First Focus in April suggests that most Americans worry that children fare poorly and oppose cuts in federal spending that could hurt them. But even strongly voiced concerns about poverty are difficult to hear over the cacophony of fierce debate on budget cuts and government spending.
Britain has a longer history of universal programs, such as national health insurance and paid parental leave, that may have created a stronger political commitment to public spending.
Under Tony Blair's leadership, the Labour Party government that came to power in 1997 took a more decisive stand on child poverty than our Democratic Party. Professor Waldfogel suggests that concerns about child poverty have been -- and remain -- stronger across the political spectrum in Britain, with the new coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promising to leave poor children unharmed by planned major cuts in social spending.
Recent cuts in once-universal child benefits (on the grounds that the country can't afford to subsidize high-income parents) reflect some growing tensions. Continuing political debate in Britain suggests that income cutoffs for eligibility raise issues of fairness and may foster political resentment toward low-income families.
Racial and ethnic diversity in Britain has increased considerably in recent years as a result of increased immigration, and Professor Waldfogel notes that poverty among children is highest among those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, just as it is highest in the United States among black and Hispanic children.
Income inequality has increased in Britain in recent years, as it has in the United States. As a result, declines in absolute poverty among children have not been matched by declines in the relative poverty of children's families, defined as a percentage of median family income.
Still, Britain has made distinct and admirable progress. While the future of its efforts to reduce child poverty remains uncertain, Britain's recent history vindicates the hope that we can find both the will and the way to do better here.
First Focus, in conjunction with Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, and the Foundation for Child Development, plans a Congressional briefing on these issues on June 16.