Lawmakers in the UK take a stand for children

Poverty & Family Economics

Child holding mother's hand

Last week, the House of Lords, the upper legislative body in the United Kingdom, took a stand for children and families living in poverty.

Specifically, the House of Lords amended welfare reform legislation sent to them from the lower legislative body, the House of Commons. This amendment blocks an effort by British Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies to redefine child poverty by changing the way that the government measures it. Their proposal, known as the Life Chances Act, would replace government income-based measures of child poverty with more ambiguous indicators such as “worklessness” and educational attainment, thereby making it harder for them to be held accountable to reducing the number of children living in poverty.

There is a lot of research about the significance of household income for a child’s well-being and their future outcomes. Anti-poverty organizations in the UK, such as the UK Child Poverty Action Group, have been advocating that measures should not be added rather than replaced in order to fully understand the experience of vulnerable children.

Historically, the unelected House of Lords is not known for opposing legislation passed by the House of Commons. However, this parliamentary session has been quite different, for the upper body of Parliament has rejected almost every piece of legislation sent to them. Most House of Lords members affiliate themselves with left-leaning political parties such as Labour or the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives have a slight majority in the House of Commons.

This is the second time within a few months that the House of Lords blocked efforts they saw as harmful to children and families living in poverty. A few months ago, they rejected proposed cuts to tax credits for working families, instead voting to delay the cuts and forcing the Cameron government to rethink its strategy.

Americans are not strangers to this type of political divisiveness – we are used to partisan and often contentious debates that result in legislative stalemates on controversial issues. However, a significant difference between our two countries is that the plight of children remains at the center of the political debates in the UK.

This is because the UK has had a national child poverty target since 2000. Prime Minister Tony Blair set the goal of cutting child poverty in half within a decade, and through implementation of a series of investments for children and policies to make work pay, the government met this goal by 2010. The target was then codified into law with all-party support in Parliament in the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which directed the British government to track progress towards the target through several measures: relative poverty, combined low-income and material deprivation, persistent poverty and absolute poverty.

By contrast during this time, the U.S. child poverty rate increased by over 20 percent, from 16.2 percent in 2000 to 21.1 percent in 2014.

While the final outcome from these recent debates is yet to be determined, the British government is being held accountable to prioritize children. Due to the target, there is an ongoing national dialogue in the UK around the best ways to lift children and families out of poverty, and has ensured that any debates around the economy and national spending take children into consideration. It remains a powerful tool for those, such as lawmakers in the opposition parties, the media, child advocates, and others who don’t want to the government to backtrack on the progress made on child poverty since the target has been in place.

First Focus Campaign for Children has long been inspired by the British example and strongly advocates for the establishment of a national child poverty target in the United States. Most recently, we worked with members of Congress to secure funding in the fiscal year 2016 federal spending package for a National Academy of Sciences study to analyze child poverty in the United States and provide recommendations to cut the child poverty in half within a decade. Earlier last year, we supported the introduction of the bicameral Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2015 (H.R. 2408/S. 2224), which would set a national target to cut child poverty in half in ten years and establish a Federal Interagency Working Group to create a strategy to meet it.

Let’s force a national dialogue in the United States around children living in poverty. See here to receive updates and learn how you can take action to support a national child poverty target in the United States.

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