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New Thinking on Poverty in the UK: Any Lessons for the South?

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Simon Maxwell

On a global scale, absolute poverty is concentrated in the South – but relative poverty and real deprivation also exist in the North. In the UK, over a quarter of people live in low income households, with worse health, lower life-expectancy, lower levels of social participation, and worse life chances than those above the poverty line. Children are disproportionately disadvantaged. Current UK policy takes a cross-cutting approach to multiple deprivation and social exclusion, with over 100 separate programmes, some targeted at individuals at different stages of the life cycle, others targeted at deprived areas. There are some notable features of UK anti-poverty policy:
• The use of a social exclusion vocabulary, which draws attention to the causes of deprivation;
• The adoption of a life-cycle perspective, recognising the needs of individuals of different ages, but also the cumulative nature of deprivation;
• An emphasis on work for those who can, and social security for those who cannot, and targeting the obviously ‘deserving’ poor, particularly children;
• A primary focus on public expenditure and public service reform as the instruments to tackle poverty, with macro policy designed to underpin growth and stability;
• A cautious and largely covert approach to redistribution, avoiding overt redistribution through the tax system; and

• Widespread use of targets to create a culture of public service accountability – both output and input targets being embodied in Public Service Agreements and Service Delivery Agreements between the Treasury and other Government departments.
These features do not constitute a ‘model’ that developing countries should adopt. There is an active debate in the UK about whether the model is working and about what might be missing. There are also lessons that the UK can learn from the poverty debate in the South. However, the resurgence of debate in the UK confirms the potential for a fruitful dialogue across the boundary between developed and developing countries.

Simon Maxwell and Peter Kenway