Political and Social Affairs Division
2 November 2007
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Many European countries(1) have adopted comprehensive anti-poverty strategies. Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK) are often used as examples of countries that have successfully reduced poverty and social exclusion and as potential models for the establishment of a national anti-poverty strategy in Canada.(2)
In 1999, Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the UK, made an historic pledge to end child poverty in a generation. The goal was to reduce child poverty by 25% by 2005, by 50% by 2010 and to eradicate it completely by 2020. To meet these targets and to reduce poverty and social exclusion more generally in the UK, the government has since enacted a number of laws (e.g., Welfare Reform Act 2007, Equality Act 2006, Childcare Act 2006) and implemented a range of initiatives. All parts of government(3) and the community sector are working together to achieve success. The government closely monitors its progress toward reducing poverty and social exclusion and publishes an annual report that sets out its current approach and measures its effectiveness against selected indicators.
The UK government published its first annual report on tackling poverty and social exclusion in September 1999. In this and subsequent annual reports, the government has not offered a specific definition of poverty and social exclusion. However, in reports published by the Social Exclusion Unit, an office set up by the Prime Minister in 1997,(4) a fairly broad definition is offered:
Social exclusion is about more than income poverty. It is a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas face a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, bad health and family breakdown. These problems are linked and mutually reinforcing so that they can create a vicious cycle in people’s lives.
Social exclusion is thus a consequence of what happens when people do not get a fair deal throughout their lives, and this is often linked to the disadvantage they face at birth.(5)
The government’s most recent comprehensive report, released in October 2006, provides information on a range of actions it has taken with its partners to reduce poverty and social exclusion.(6) The government has adopted a multi-pronged approach to address an array of factors contributing to poverty including, among others: a lack of education and training, low labour market participation and poor working conditions, a need for affordable housing, a lack of accessible public transport systems, poor health, involvement in crime, and a need for better access to affordable high-quality child care. The government’s efforts are being focused on groups identified as particularly disadvantaged or at risk of poverty; these include children, lone parents, people with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, people with low skills, people with multiple needs and older workers.
The key objectives of the UK’s strategy to combat poverty and promote social inclusion are to enhance labour market participation of those who can work, to make returning to work advantageous for those currently receiving social benefits, to support and promote financial security for families, to protect the most vulnerable, to improve access to high-quality public services and to mobilize all relevant bodies. The government has introduced changes to its taxation system and social security policies. It has established a national minimum wage,(7) tax credits for low-income earners, tax credits to provide financial support to parents,(8) and measures to provide security and independence to seniors and people with disabilities. The government has also significantly increased its spending on education, employment assistance measures,(9) health and housing.
The UK’s approach to reducing poverty and social exclusion has produced significant results for specific target groups such as children and older people. In 2004-2005, there were approximately 800,000 fewer children and one million fewer pensioners living in low-income households than in 1996-1997.(10) Despite this improvement, the government did not reach its target of a 25% reduction in child poverty, falling somewhat short with a reduction of 23% based on the before housing costs (BHC) measure and 17% based on the after housing costs (AHC) measure.(11) However, it appears to be moving in the right direction. “The proportion of children living in households with relative low income fell between 1998/99 and 2004/05, from 24 per cent to 19 per cent on the before housing costs measure and from 33 per cent to 27 per cent on the after housing costs measure.”(12) The percentage of pensioners living in low-income households declined from 24% (BHC) in 1998-1999 to 19% (BHC) in 2004-2005, and from 27% to 17% (AHC) during the same period.(13)
Over the last decade, the UK has benefited from strong economic and employment growth, which has likely contributed to its success in reducing poverty and social exclusion. The employment rates for lone parents, older workers and people with disabilities have been rising. For example, with the implementation of a New Deal for Disabled People, the employment rate of people with disabilities increased from 38.1% in 1998 to 46.6% in 2006. Access to employment by lone parents seems also to have been facilitated by an increase in child care spaces. Around 617,000 registered child care spaces have been added since 1997, for a total of over 1.25 million places. The goal of the government is for all children aged 3 to 14 to have access to affordable child care by 2010.(14) However, paid work does not redeem everyone from poverty, especially in single-earner households. “Nearly half of working-age adults in poverty live in households where someone is doing paid work.”(15)
Reports on poverty and social exclusion in the UK clearly show that progress has been made but that significant challenges also remain. According to a 2006 report, “there remain pockets of persistent low employment, low skills, poor health and weak overall economic performance.”(16) The proportion of the population at risk of poverty in the UK is still above the average for the European Union. There are still concerns over the employment rate of specific population groups such as people with disabilities, lone parents, older workers, partners of benefit recipients and people from black and other minority ethnic communities. Many people still live in poor-quality accommodations and have difficulty paying their fuel bills.(17)
To tackle deep-seated social exclusion, the government appointed a Minister for Social Exclusion and established a Social Exclusion Task Force in June 2006. The mission of the task force, which is located within the Cabinet Office, “is to extend the opportunities enjoyed by the vast majority of people in the UK today to those whose lives have been characterised by deprivation and exclusion.” The task force works closely with all government departments to ensure that the actions undertaken by the UK government to promote social inclusion meet the needs of the people who are most socially excluded.
The government’s most recent action plan on social exclusion, Reaching Out, was launched in September 2006 with the aim of offering opportunities that, if taken, will mitigate the lifelong effects of social exclusion and prevent poverty from persisting from one generation to the next. In a recent progress report on this action plan, it is stated that “[s]ocial exclusion is about more than poverty. It is about having the personal capacity, self confidence and aspiration to make the most of the opportunities, choices and options in life that the majority of people take for granted.” Five key principles will guide the actions of the government: better identification and earlier intervention; systematically identifying “what works”; promoting multi-agency collaboration; attention to personalization, rights and responsibilities; and supporting achievement and managing underperformance. The focus will be on the most socially excluded groups, and solutions will be coordinated across service areas. As well, performance management systems will be enhanced to detect poor outcomes and allow for prompt intervention.(18)
Following on commitments made at the United Nations World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995, Ireland launched its national anti-poverty strategy in 1997 in a climate of substantial economic growth.(19) Devised on the basis of widespread consultations, including input from people living in poverty, the strategy aimed to address all aspects of poverty and social exclusion. The government adopted the following definition of poverty and social exclusion:
People are living in poverty, if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and resources people may be excluded and marginalized from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society.(20)
The Office for Social Inclusion, a government office established in 2003 to oversee the social inclusion agenda, further defined poverty and social exclusion as follows:
Poverty is deprivation due to a lack of resources, both material and non-material, e.g. income, housing, health, education, knowledge and culture. It requires a threshold to measure it.(21)
Social exclusion is being unable to participate in society because of a lack of resources that are customarily available to the general population. It can refer to both individuals, and communities in a broader framework, with linked problems such a low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments and family problems.(22)
The Irish government developed and implemented national action plans against poverty with specific poverty reduction targets and indicators to monitor progress.(23) A number of institutional structures were also created to ensure that all departments involved in relevant policy areas would work together to meet the objective of significantly reducing poverty and social exclusion. The Minister for Social Welfare was given the responsibility of overseeing the strategy. A Cabinet Sub-committee and an Inter-departmental Policy Committee were also established. All departments involved are required to submit annual progress reports to the Inter-departmental Policy Committee. The Combat Poverty Agency(24) was asked to oversee the evaluation of the national anti-poverty strategy and to provide advice to individual government departments and local or regional bodies in the development of anti-poverty strategies.(25)
As in other countries that have implemented anti-poverty strategies, the national anti-poverty strategy in Ireland focuses on those population groups found to be consistently poor or at greatest risk of poverty, including people who are unemployed (particularly over a long term), children; unattached adults; lone parents; and people with disabilities. The initial target set in 1997 was to reduce considerably the number of people who were found to be “consistently poor,”(26) which ranged from 9% to 15% in 1994(27) to under 5% to 10% over the period 1997-2007.(28) As it rapidly became evident that this target would be met early on, the government has revised its target several times since 1997. Its latest target, set out in the government’s most recent action plan for the period 2007-2016, is to reduce consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2010 and to eliminate it entirely by 2016.(29)
Overall, information to date suggests that Ireland’s National Anti-poverty Strategy has been highly successful, even exceeding some of the targets set in 1997. Two key factors in its success have been the growth in the Irish economy, which has led to low levels of unemployment and allowed for additional investments in Ireland’s social protection system, and the resulting increase in key services such as income support, education and training, employment supports, health care, housing and transport. For example, between 1996 and 2007, the number of people participating in the labour market has grown by 523,000, or 34%.(30) “Accessing and retaining employment is regarded as one of the most important routes out of poverty.”(31) Ireland has also made substantial investments in its social protection system. “Between 1997 and 2006, the basic rate of social welfare payment has increased by 99.7 per cent, well ahead of the 34.2 per cent increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the 67.7 per cent increase in gross average industrial earnings. … Overall, improvements in social welfare rates have led to substantially increased spending from €5.7 billion in 1997 to almost €14 billion in 2006.”(32)
According to data contained in the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions for 2005,(33) the percentage of people 65 and over living in consistent poverty was 3.7% in 2005, down from 5.8% in 2003. The proportion of lone-parent households living in consistent poverty decreased from 33.6% in 2003 to 27.2% in 2005; the proportion for people with disabilities living in consistent poverty declined from 22.4% to 17.4% over the same period. The percentage of children under 16 years of age living in consistent poverty also decreased from 12.4% in 2003 to 10.6% in 2005. It should be noted that the survey also showed that there is a significant difference in the proportion of Irish nationals and non-Irish nationals living in consistent poverty. In 2005, 13.1% of non-Irish nationals(34) were in such a situation compared to 6.6% of Irish nationals.(35) According to the Minister of Social and Family Affairs, the survey results confirm that policies targeted at the most vulnerable groups are helping people to escape poverty. “In less than a decade more than 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, have been lifted out of hardship and deprivation.”(36)
Building on the success of the National Anti-poverty Strategy since 1997 and the recognition that despite unprecedented economic performance and an overall improvement in living standards some people continue to be socially excluded, Ireland’s most recent action plan sets out a comprehensive program of action with a greater emphasis on interventions for unemployed people as a means of tackling social exclusion.(37) The focus of the government’s efforts will be on ensuring that children reach their true potential, supporting the labour market integration of people of working age and people with disabilities, enabling older people to maintain a high standard of living and improving the lives of people living in disadvantaged communities. (38)
Priority areas have been identified for each target group. For children, these are education and income support; for people of working age and people with disabilities, they are employment and participation, and income support; for older people, they are community care and income support; and, for communities, they are housing, health and integration of migrants.(39) A number of measures will be implemented to improve coordination and delivery at the local and national level, including a Local Government Social Inclusion Steering Group that will support linkages between various actors at both levels and submit reports to the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion chaired by the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister).(40)
Ireland and the UK developed their anti-poverty strategies in the late 1990s. They have adopted multi-pronged approaches to tackle poverty and social exclusion with clearly defined goals, specific benchmarks and indicators, and precise timelines. Ireland’s initial target was to significantly reduce the overall rate of consistent poverty over a decade, whereas the UK’s target was to reduce and eventually eliminate child poverty within a generation. However, it should be noted that, despite a notable emphasis on child poverty, the UK’s strategy tackles poverty and social exclusion more generally as well. Key objectives in both countries are to increase the labour market participation of those who are able to work and to enhance income security for those with severe work limitations. To meet these objectives, both governments have taken action across a number of areas: early learning and child care, affordable housing, health, income supports, high-quality education and training, and employment, among others.
The poverty reduction strategies in the UK and Ireland are supplemented by multi-year action plans with dedicated human and financial resources. The various policies and programs implemented under these action plans target specific populations who currently live in poverty or at risk of poverty, such as children, lone parents, seniors, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, people living in disadvantaged communities, and people who do limited paid work or who are unemployed.
To oversee the implementation of their action plans and to monitor their progress, both countries have established institutional structures with clear mandates and accountability frameworks. Measures are also in place to ensure that activities of different government entities, programs and policies aimed at reducing poverty and social exclusion are well coordinated and work together to achieve the goals set out in each country’s action plan. The governments of the UK and Ireland also value the input of people who live in poverty as well as input from communities and the voluntary sector. Consultation mechanisms have been set up to give a voice to people living in poverty or at risk of poverty and to guarantee that their needs are clearly identified and addressed in their poverty reduction strategies.
To date, Ireland and the UK have made significant progress in reducing poverty and social exclusion. Ireland has been very successful, and has even exceeded some of the targets it had set in its National Anti-poverty Strategy in 1997. Its current target is to eliminate persistent poverty by 2016. The UK fell slightly short of the target it set in 1999 to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2005, but has now turned the tide: most key indicators of poverty and social exclusion are continuing to move in the right direction. The UK government recently renewed its commitment to eradicate child poverty and unveiled plans for a new Child Poverty Unit that will help the government reach its goal.
The success enjoyed in both countries can be attributed in part to strong economic and employment growth, improved tax benefits and income support, and an array of programs and policies to facilitate labour market participation. Significant progress has been made, but important challenges remain. Both countries are now turning their attention to those who have not been able to take advantage of the actions undertaken so far, and are taking measures to tackle deep-seated social exclusion and break the cycle of poverty.