As you might be able to tell from yesterday’s post on the new poverty data, we at Voices for Children were appalled by the new numbers. We put out a press release and a few people took notice, but in our biased (albeit highly researched) opinion, there should be a lot more public outrage about these numbers.
I tried to think about why it’s not highly newsworthy that almost one in five of our state’s kids are living below the poverty line. In this day of plummeting stocks, long-term unemployment, foreclosures, and bank failures, do we all just feel a little helpless to do anything about it?
I can certainly relate to that feeling, but at some point, we have to get past the notion that economic conditions are like the weather and our only option is to ride out the storm. We CAN do something about child poverty. To prove it, we’re going to take a look “across the pond” to see what they’ve been up to in the United Kingdom over the past decade.
In 1999, there were 3.4 million children — or about a quarter of the child population — living in poverty in the UK. Rather than look at these numbers, shrug, and go on about his day, then Prime Minister Tony Blair instead made the remarkably bold pledge to end child poverty by 2020. Then, he did something even more remarkable and actually tried to live up to that pledge.
There were basically three parts to Britain’s ambitious anti-poverty initiative:
- The first set of reforms were targeted at promoting work and making work pay. They established a new and primarily voluntary welfare-to-work program, a first-ever national minimum wage, implemented tax reductions for low-income workers and their employers, and established a new tax credit for working families.
- The second part was targeted to all families with children and raised means-tested income support benefits for those with young children, added a new child tax credit, and raised the value of what’s called the universal child benefit — which the UK gave to all families with children at that time.
- Finally, the initiative included additional investments in children primarily focused on early childhood. These included more paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave, universal pre-school for three and four year olds, expanded access to childcare assistance for working families, and additional improvements and investments in public education. More information on all of this is available here, but I think what’s really important it what happened to child poverty rates ten years later.
Ten years later, child poverty rates in the UK were cut in half.
We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months about how some of the lessons might be applicable to Nebraska and the US, but I think the most important lesson we can learn from Britain is this: we can do something about child poverty. We just need leaders who want to.