What on earth is an anti-poverty strategy anyway?

Posted by Chris Goulden Head of the Poverty team at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

4th Mar 2014

Last week, the government launched their new strategy to tackle child poverty in the UK. Chris Goulden, head of the poverty research team at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, comments on it and asks - what makes a good anti-poverty strategy?

I've been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategies. We seem to love them in UK policy-making and see them as the big answer to complex, long-lived problems. They are an enticing potential response when governments are asked the question "so what are you doing about it?"; the answer being "well, we have a strategy!"

In practice, strategies often fail to deliver. One of the main reasons is that they provide an opportunity for governments to list all of the policies they already have or are about to announce that have anything at all to do with the problem that needs sorting out.

Strategies often fail to deliver - they provide an opportunity for governments to list all the policies they already have.

Then, at the other end of the line, they list a set of ambitious targets alongside somewhat arbitrary end dates by which everything will be fine. We've seen this frequently over the last 15 years on poverty policy across the UK.

The new child poverty strategy consultation from the UK Government does fall into some of these same traps. However, there are some welcome improvements in the documents released last week. There is a comprehensive review of evidence (drawing on much of JRF's back catalogue), as well as the consultation paper itself. The four measures from the Child Poverty Act have been retained, at least for now, and valuable new areas of policy have been opened up around reducing costs and improving living standards - for example, capping water bills and extending the Warm Home Discount.

There is a clear awareness of the role of low earnings and in-work poverty.

There is a clear awareness of the role of low earnings and in-work poverty, even if the policy responses are not yet developed enough to address this problem well. There are also indications that more controversial topics such as addiction and family breakdown are being considered as part of the wider context, rather than being promoted as the main causes (or consequences) of poverty.

We know it is really difficult to assess how much needs to be done, by when and what the interactions are across multiple policy areas, which is one of the reasons why strategies often have a "missing middle" and fail to show how the policies are likely to lead to the desired outcomes.

But governments really need to try harder to set out what they think the impact of their policies is and justify their actions in terms of meeting their wider targets. We ought to be told, for instance, what the contribution of the Work Programme is going to be on child poverty up to 2020 and how policies aiming to improve jobs growth and quality will increase parents' material well-being and independence. 

That would be a strategy worth getting fully behind.

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Blog post written by Chris Goulden

Head of the Poverty team at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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