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The Brits Have Us Beat on Child Poverty

Published:  August 2, 2010
Publication Image

Photo courtesy of flickr user

Iker Merodio

under Creative Commons license.

In the past 10 years, the United States and the United Kingdom have been through a lot of the same economic troubles. But somehow in this past decade, Britain has made major inroads in reducing child poverty while the U.S. has stagnated. In fact, if projections for the next year hold true, the percentage of poor children in the U.S. will be higher than at any time in the past 20 years.  

Prompted by a new book by public policy scholar Jane Waldfogel, Britain’s War on Poverty, I wrote a post today for the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog describing some of her findings.


But to me, the best way to show these disparities is to plot them on a line graph. Here’s what I’ve come up with (with thanks to Waldfogel for pointing me to the U.K. data sources):

These numbers are based on poverty rates for children under 18. And please note that the U.S. and the U.K. differ in some ways on their definitions of poverty, so purists may say this isn't a perfectly fair comparison. It is, however, about as close a comparison as one can make with published data. For example, the numbers above are based on what is called “absolute” poverty, not “relative” poverty, which is more commonly used in Britain. Absolute poverty refers to the percentage of children in families with income levels under a set amount. (In the U.S., the federal poverty threshold is $22,050 per year for a family of four; in U.K., it is under 60 percent of the median income of Brits in 1998-99*.) Relative poverty refers to the percentage of children in families with income levels that are lower by some measure than median income levels in the country.   
A line graph with longer range, reaching back to 1989 but only extending to 2008, is available within Waldfogel’s book (see chapter 6) and was published in a recent article in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management by Waldfogel and Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Waldfogel's book, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, tells the story of how, in 1999, the British government decided to make a serious commitment to reducing child poverty. With a comprehensive set of reforms to domestic policy programs, such as a working families tax credit, a “baby tax credit,” increases in the minimum wage, and the roll-out of universal preschool , the country has cut its child poverty rate by more than half, from 26 percent in 1998  to 12 percent in 2009.
As Waldfogel writes: “There is much for the United States to learn from these wide-ranging efforts.” We couldn’t agree more.
For more information on the data used for the graph above, see the Kids Count database, the 2010 Child Well-Being Index and the child poverty section of the site for the National Center for Children in Poverty. The U.K. statistics are from page 81 of a recent British report by the Department of Work and Pensions.

* In 1999, 60 percent of median income for a two-parent family with two children was 233 British pounds per week. Converting to dollars, that's about $369 per week or $19,000 in annual income in 1999. (Using 2008 data, the equivalent in today's dollars is $21,216.) Many thanks to Waldfogel for tracking down this data for me.


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