A National Mission

How do you build a bipartisan consensus to tackle seemingly unfashionable social problems? Look at Britain. In October 2007 David Cameron, head of the U.K.'s partially revamped Conservative Party, made a speech that boldly concluded, "We can make British poverty history." In March 2008 he attacked a "Labour Party that rests on its historical laurels as the voice of the poor and downtrodden while all the time the poor have got poorer and inequality has gone up." The jibe was unusual coming from a party that, under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had unflinchingly presided over a sharply rising poverty rate. But here was Cameron, ratcheting up pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government, in advance of a crucial annual budget, for more action to end poverty among children.

Britain has a patchy record on poverty reduction. But the last decade has seen the beginning of remarkable political consensus on child poverty. In 1999 then?Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined a plan for "ours to be the generation that ends child poverty forever." He also announced a goal to halve its rate by 2010 and eradicate it completely by 2020. The target became a totem -- galvanizing Blair's Labour Party, uniting anti-poverty campaigners, and winning over political opponents. Politicians quit debating the worthiness of the objective and raged instead over how to meet it.

Ten years later, an embattled Brown has admitted that even the halfway target will not be met. The 2020 goal remains far out of reach. Even at the time it was made, a policy adviser who worked closely with Blair told me, the target was an aspiration at best. Just as President John F. Kennedy launched a quest to put a man on the moon, so Blair's promise mixed rhetorical boldness with only a vague notion of how the task was to be achieved. Indeed, many were surprised it was made at all. Blair, the arch centrist, had learned from Bill Clinton that electability and fiery campaigns against injustice mixed badly. Blair had even deliberately rebranded poverty as "social exclusion," a related but not identical concept.

Yet two decades of often-brutal Thatcherite economic policies had left Britain with the highest child-poverty rate in Europe. New evidence from social-policy academics had drawn attention to the ways disadvantage in childhood lowered opportunity later in life. Just as important, Brown (who at the time was Blair's treasury minister) found a mechanism to do something about it, again borrowed from Clinton: a new system of tax credits for parents and working families. Add to this Blair's need to keep his left flank in step, and Brown and Blair agreed to the 2020 poverty-reduction target.

In 1999, 3.4 million British children, or around a quarter of the total, lived in poverty (officially defined as those in households earning less than 60 percent of median income). At first, the government chipped away nicely at its new goal, helped by a booming labor market but driven in particular by a series of redistributive budgets in the early years of the new millennium. Brown directed billions in benefits to poorer families, bringing in a new Child Tax Credit (paid to poorer mothers) in 2003, along with increases in child benefits (for all parents), and more generous support for the unemployed. As a result, the 2004 quarter-way goal was missed, but only just: 600,000 children were lifted above the poverty line in five years.

Unfortunately, meeting the pledge was like scaling a steepening mountain. Climbing halfway meant reaching a million more children, an increasingly expensive task. Yet the early success made the target more popular. This was a case where policy really did deliver. Blair struggled to raise exam results and reduce hospital waiting lists, but extra tax credits reliably delivered lower poverty rates only a year later. The target also served to unite the formerly disparate British poverty lobby. Its major players, including Oxfam and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, announced in 2001 the formation of the End Child Poverty Coalition, a high-profile effort to keep public attention, and government money, focused on meeting the target.

Unity among pressure groups would have meant little without political leadership. Here Brown can take much credit for orchestrating the annual bureaucratic pushes that funded the early stages of the effort. Politically, it also provided a helpful platform for his own fractious succession struggle with Blair. Competition from the other side helped, too, spurred in particular by the arrival of a new, liberal Tory leader. In 2006 Cameron allowed one of his allies, Oliver Letwin, to announce that the party now backed the "aspiration" behind the 2020 target. Their pledge, while vague on details, meant every major British political party was notionally supportive of the push to reduce child poverty.

This political unity came just at the time when progress began to stall. A slowing economy increased unemployment and curtailed Labour's spending boom. Even while running low on funds, Brown still managed to eke out money in both 2007 and 2008; financial injections that will likely see the U.K.'s child- poverty rate fall slightly this year and next, even in the midst of the recession. Nonetheless, these efforts fell well short of the roughly 4 billion pound sterling poverty campaigners say is needed. The best projections say that by 2010, 2.3 million children will remain poor.

One million children lifted out of poverty in just over a decade nonetheless remains a substantial progressive achievement. But this doesn't stop critics questioning Labour's approach. The focus on tax credits, in particular, meant the party spent political capital on bureaucratic maneuvering and demanded a top-down strategy with a mechanistic focus (among government and campaigners alike) on funneling money toward meeting targets. This neither attacked the deeper causes of social disadvantage, nor built public support for the cause itself. Domestically, the issue carried none of the energy of the international "make poverty history" campaign, and campaigners admit that their hard-won political consensus is rarely reflected in opinion polls.

Last year, when dreadful public finances meant no extra money for the target, there was little public outcry. But this lack of support is also partly rooted in Labour's conflicted attitude toward redistribution, common to many center-left parties over the last decade. The party did, in fact, redistribute money to Britain's poorest, but did so quietly. Instead of making the case for poverty reduction and equality in general terms, Blair and Brown focused only on undeniably deserving causes: children and, to a lesser extent, retirees. The result is a broad-but-thin political consensus, insufficient to achieve its aim and vulnerable to being rolled back in the future.

Meeting the second half of the target is now impossible. It would require a massive new phase of redistribution, more fundamental efforts to root out social inequality in education and the labor market, or both. With Cameron's Conservatives likely to win power in 2010 and Britain's public finances deep in the red, neither is politically plausible.

But Brown had one final trick up his sleeve. Last year he announced plans to place the 2020 child-poverty target in law: mandating future governments to make plans to meet the goal, and report on progress. The pledge benefited from being cost free. It might well be politely ignored. Still, the Conservatives will find it hard to ditch its aspirations entirely. They might downgrade the issue or claim insufficient funds, but it will almost certainly remain on the agenda. And that is something of an achievement in itself.