In May 1997, Britain’s Labor Party won an election that ended nearly two decades of Conservative Party rule. The new liberal government, promising radical reform, took over a booming economy. But it also inherited an increase in poverty that had been rising steeply since the 1970s.
The numbers were dramatic: 25 percent of British families lived below the poverty line. Though ascendant economically, the U.K. found itself ranked third-worst among developed nations.
“Britain was really embarrassed they were down at the bottom,” said social scientist Jane Waldfogel ’76, M.Ed. ’79, Ph.D. ’94, a Radcliffe Fellow this year who is writing a book on the U.K. war on poverty. (The actual bottom of the rank belonged to the United States.)
So in March 1999, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair made a bold pledge — to slash poverty rates by half in 10 years, and to eliminate family poverty all together by 2019.
After the first decade, how is Great Britain doing? And does its modern-day war on poverty offer any lessons for the United States?
Progress is dramatic, though not on target, with poverty down by a third, not by a half, said Waldfogel. And yes, there are lessons for U.S. policymakers.
Her 10-year report card on the U.K. anti-poverty effort came in a Feb. 25 lecture at Radcliffe Gymnasium, where about 70 listeners were on hand.
Waldfogel, who also has an appointment at the London School of Economics, said the 1999 pledge offered three social policy commitments: promote work, raise incomes for families with children, and promote child welfare.
The first two, she said, were a lot like U.S. policies adopted after welfare reform in 1992.
The U.K. established the first national minimum wage, though it started at higher levels than U.S. wage guarantees.
Parliament also established child tax credits for families, and reduced payroll taxes for low-income workers. “The deal was — if you worked, you should not be poor,” said Waldfogel.
The U.K. also increased welfare grants for parents who were not working, but who had children under 10. (In another difference from U.S. policy, single mothers were not required to work.)
The third facet of the U.K. pledge — promoting child welfare — differs widely from its U.S. counterparts, said Waldfogel, the author of the 2006 book “What Children Need,” which outlines, she said in the lecture, a similar “really idealistic set of investments.”
Paid maternity leave for new mothers went from six months to nine months. New fathers got two weeks off. And new parents got the right to request reduced work hours, or flextime. In the first year, said Waldfogel, 90 percent of 1 million such requests were granted right away — and most of the rest soon after.
Among the parents of new babies, she said, “there was this huge pent-up demand for part-time and flexible hours.”
The U.K. policy doubled education spending within the decade. It reduced class size in elementary schools, where teachers must now also spend an hour a day on numeracy and another hour on literacy. School hours were extended, and students are now required to stay in school until age 18 — up from age 16.
New policies in the U.K. also funded universal preschool, and started Sure Start, a social and academic program for poor children and their families.
“The idea of these reforms was to reduce poverty” by targeting families in the bottom income level, said Waldfogel.
The poor earned more; incomes of the lowest 10th rose by 17 percent. And absolute poverty, based on a fixed poverty line, fell by 50 percent.
But relative poverty, the official U.K measure, measures against how close a poor family is to the median income. By 2010, that’s expected to fall only by a third — not the full 50 percent U.K. planners wished for.
Welfare reform measures in the United States sent rates of family poverty down, said Waldfogel, but not as sharply as the U.K. model. At the same time, “indicators of child well-being” gave the U.K. higher marks, she said.
Mental health improved for British adolescents, and reading and math scores went up. British families used the extra income in better ways than their U.S. counterparts, too — buying more footwear, books, toys, and fresh produce for children. By contrast, U.S. parents rising out of poverty spent more on adult clothing. “They’re working,” said Waldfogel, “and have expenses.”
The U.K. has in the past 10 years “made a substantial dent in child poverty,” she said, and there are lessons in that for the United States.
U.S. welfare reform has already embraced one of the three U.K. policies: promote work. But it could adopt the other two by increasing income for poor families and promoting child welfare (perhaps starting with universal preschool).
Another lesson? Put a date on the anti-poverty challenge, said Waldfogel. “Maybe there’s something for us to learn about the value of setting targets.”