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Poverty targets needed both in the UK and abroad

Written by Paula Lucci

Explainer

Last week the UK government announced it would scrap the legally binding child poverty target set originally by Tony Blair, which seeks to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

That target is based on a relative measure of poverty – children living in households whose incomes fall below the 60% median income of the population are considered poor. Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, argued that relative material disadvantage is not a good measure of child poverty and that metrics should instead focus on the root causes of poverty

However, the plan to discard the child poverty target seems odd in the face of Britain’s recent efforts on poverty target-setting on the international stage.

Two years ago Prime Minister David Cameron, alongside the leaders of Indonesia and Liberia, co-chaired the UN High Level Panel of Experts on the Post-2015 Agenda with the aim of setting goals and targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Panel’s report included targets on income-based poverty (using the $1.25 a day poverty line for extreme poverty and national poverty lines for income-based poverty targets), alongside commitments in many other dimensions, such as health and education.

It seems that, for the UK, targets based on material wellbeing are ok in the context of an international agenda but not an appropriate measure when it comes to domestic implementation of poverty targets.

This gulf between domestic and international agendas could have a series of implications both at home and abroad.

First, unlike the MDGs, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are going to be universal, applying to rich, middle income and poor countries alike. For a country like the UK to lower the ambition of its own poverty-related target just before the international community agrees on the SDG agenda this September risks giving the wrong signals to other countries at a crucial time. Worse, it could even provide cover for others to reduce the ambition of their own targets.

Second, the Prime Minister himself has spent a great deal of time, effort and political capital in the torturous negotiations around the post-2015 development agenda, highlighting the real opportunity to end extreme poverty in our generation. Dropping legally binding poverty targets at home could undermine the UK's credibility on these matters in the future, and open his government up to criticisms of double standards: 'do as I say, but not as I do'. 

Finally, and potentially most importantly for those in Britain, poverty targets indicate political commitment and remind us that action is needed to ensure that 'no one is left behind'. Scrapping the binding child poverty target could represent bad news for those disadvantaged children who live in poor households in the UK. 

Adding other dimensions of poverty to that of material well-being (rather than simply getting rid of the latter) could help to better capture the complexity of poverty. But it is hard to ignore that plans to replace material well-being with other measures were made after statistics using the income-based measure continued to show that the UK is still not on track to meet its child poverty target.

Further, the alternatives measures quoted – e.g. children's educational attainment and worklessness – seem to miss a part of the root cause of the problem: ‘the working poor’, those who are working hard but still do not earn enough to be free from poverty. 

Of course it is not unusual for politicians to pursue different agendas domestically and internationally. But in a year so crucial for securing meaningful commitments to the SDGs, countries need to raise their game at home as well as on the international stage if we are going to be able to implement such an ambitious universal agenda.