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An evaluation of the impact of social policy in relation to childhood poverty since 1997

| January 20, 2017

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This essay considers the effects of government policy on child poverty since 1997. This date represents both a high and low point of the war against child poverty. On the one hand, poverty and inequality were at their most serious in post-war history, with over one in four children living in relative poverty; on the other hand, it saw child poverty come into focus like never before, leading to the development of some of the most ambitious new targets, the most notable of which was the commitment to completely ‘eradicate’ child poverty within 10-20 years (Hills and Stewart 2005). All policies must go through several stages, called the policy cycle. There are numerous different conceptions of the policy cycle, each with slightly different stages. This essay will concentrate on the four main ones: agenda setting (problem identification), policy formation, policy implementation, and post-policy evaluation. The chronological sequence of the policy cycle given above provides the rough structure for this essay; however, on occasion policies are discussed with reference to all stages of the cycle. This essay begins with a brief background section in order to frame the discussion. It concludes by arguing that on the whole government policy has been relatively successful in combating child poverty across the policy cycle, but that there are several areas of weakness requiring improvement.

The notion that child poverty should be a major area of government policy is relatively modern. Historically, children have tended to fall under the care of the immediate or extended family, or under unusual circumstances someone entrusted with their care from the community or social group of the parents. However, this norm has been revised in recent years, leading to a change in the effective definition of ‘caring’, which has been expanded to include care by social workers, nurses and doctors, nursery assistants, teachers, and others (Eisenstadt 2011).

The very concept of poverty itself has also varied greatly over time. The important cornerstones of modern policy related to mental and psychological wellbeing are fairly recent in origin. By contrast, Victorian campaigners against child poverty focused on bodily, or physical, problems, as embodied in the period by ragged and starving children. By the mid-20th century many other issues were in vogue. For example, child poverty began to include deficits of education caused by socio-economic problems and learning disabilities. It also began to take into account social ills such as exclusion, asylum seeking, and refugee status among children. In 1997, poverty Government policy since the late-1990s has incorporated all these elements (Eisenstadt 2011).

Prior to 1997 childhood has been described by some as a ‘policy free zone’ (Eisenstadt 2011), where goals and objectives were largely hidden from view, being established primarily in office by outside experts. Since then, however, there is a strong consensus that in the early stages of the policy cycle the government has been successful in its approach to child poverty. Agenda setting in particular has been on the rise perhaps since the early- to mid-1990s across many departments and in the core of government. For example, policy debates have been a regular occurrence on many topics regarding child poverty, including cash incomes and services, as well as long-term factors underlying disadvantage and survival chances for children. This represents an impressive degree of cross-policy linkages in the government’s approach.

Moreover, it is argued that this has translated into concrete results in policy terms. As Bradshaw and Bennett (2014: 5) put it: ‘the use of targets has been prolific, with those on poverty and social exclusion some of the most high profile.’ This claim is well-supported by the evidence, and several prominent cases can be cited. Take, for example, the commitment to reduce relative child poverty by 25% by 2004-5 and by 50% by 2010-11, as well as to completely ‘eradicate’ it within twenty years (by 2020) – or more pessimistically to be ‘amongst the best in Europe’ (Bradshaw and Bennett 2014: 6). The latter is among the most enduring of government promises regarding child poverty. Additionally, there is the so-called neighbourhood renewal strategy, which laid out the government’s intention that within 10 to 20 years no one would be seriously disadvantaged by where they live. Bradshaw and Bennett (2014: 7) contend that ‘such targets (for example, in the annual Opportunity for All reports) involve the Government holding itself to account in a way that few predecessors have done.’

This suggests that at the level of agenda setting there has been considerable success in combating child poverty, but there are also many omissions in the way the government has approached important issues. For example, child poverty might arguably have suffered as a result of the conspicuously small number of targets for overall poverty reduction, as the two are strongly interrelated. It is also questionable whether the targets and agenda setting initiatives have translated to policy formation (Bradshaw and Bennett 2014; Lupton et al. 2013; Hill and Stewart 2005). Before proceeding to discuss this issue, a note of caution should be issued about the usefulness of policy in the first place. Lupton et al. (2013: 17) highlight some of the issues inherent in policy commitments: They note, for example, that goals are in actuality mere promises, or claims, which are unenforceable in both practice and theory.  Moreover, it is likely under many circumstances that these will be driven by ideological agendas, which will shape change according to which party is in power, ‘and be more or less shaped by the legacy inherited, the particular problems of the moment, or fiscal pressures. They may be more or less explicit and discernible. Unstated goals, some of which later become apparent from internal documentary evidence and politicians or civil servants’ Lupton et al. (2013: 17). Indeed, it is for this reason that scholars working in this field tend to evaluate what Lupton et al. (2013) call ‘realised policy’ rather than policy in a broader sense (Bradshaw and Bennett 2014).

There is evidence that this concern – that is, ostensible policy not translating into realised policy – has characterised much of the government’s approach to child poverty, rending it unsuccessful to a degree. For instance, it was only in 2012 that the (Social Mobility and) Child Poverty Commission was appointed. This meant that the body could not be consulted prior to the publication of the Child Poverty Strategy for 2011-14. This contravened the government’s statutory commitment and can be seen as evidence that policy has not necessarily been realised, to use Lupton et al.’s (2013) terminology. Importantly, this had concrete implications for the Child Poverty Strategy for 2011-14, which was widely criticised from not laying out in enough detail that actual means by which policy objectives would be achieved (Bradshaw and Bennett 2014).

There are other reasons to believe that agenda setting so far has lacked specificity regarding how it will deal with child poverty. This conclusion emerges through a close examination of the policy statements of government publication and the results following from these policies. For example, the Department for Education posts a statement on its website reading: ‘Poverty, as measured by a household’s income relative to the national average, is often a symptom of deeper, more complex problems. Many of these problems are passed on from one generation to the next.’ As Bradshaw and Bennett (2014) note, the ‘background’ section state that one of its primary aims is reducing poverty in all its forms’, and references social injustice, but does little to directly address the issue of child poverty. The website for the Department for work and Pensions does likewise, noting the existence of a child poverty strategy and the Positive for Youth Report (2011) but failing to specify what this entails in terms of policy (Bradshaw and Bennett 2014; Forest and Parton 2009). This shows that to a certain extent there has been a disconnect between the early stages of the policy cycle (agenda and target setting) and the later one (policy formation).

It can also be argued that the government’s approach to dealing with child poverty has been inadequate at the level of policy formation. There has tended to be a great deal of emphasis on the idea of encouraging unemployed parents to work in order that they may better support their children. While this is commendable in several obvious respects, it also has shortcomings. Bucci (cited in Forest and Parton 2009), for example, emphasises the importance of internal factors in children’s lives and downplays the external factors that are usually emphasised by officials and practitioners of policy. This suggests, therefore, the inclusion of many more people in the work force might actually worsen poverty of a social and emotional kind by depriving children of their parents for extended periods.

Another strategy employed to end child poverty has come in the form of the Sure Start Centres, the stated aim of which is to ‘improve the outcomes for all children’ (Department of Education 2008). However, the attention paid to child poverty specifically was conspicuously lacking. For example, the first brief concentrated on the objective of ‘helping prevent family breakdown and promoting readiness for schools’, which only has an indirect relationship to child poverty and arguably should not have been prioritised over alternatives, such as the provision of financial support. In addition to the educational component, the Sure Start programme is largely geared around encouraging more parents to work. The government places the promotion of employment and education at the centre of its child poverty policy, as revealed in its description of Sure Start as ‘a cornerstone of the Government’s drive to tackle child poverty and social exclusion’ (Department of Education 2008)

This is supported by a number of groups, including the Institute for Public Policy Research, which argued that ‘social inclusion is best promoted though enhanced employment opportunity’ and that ‘‘poverty and deprivation in children’s families and in their neighbourhoods is associated with their performance at school’ (Oppenheim, 1998: 113, 139). There is also support for this policy direction from the European Commission (2014), which argued that the most important priorities for reducing child poverty are to ‘improve access to affordable early childhood education and care services’ and to ‘support parents’ access to the labour market and make sure that work ‘pays’ for them’ (European Commission 2014). It might reasonably be claimed, therefore, that while the policy formulation as regards child poverty is indirect, its efficacy in ameliorating child poverty is supported in the literature. This gives credibility to the Sure Start programme, which represents not just successful policy formulation but also the successful implementation of policy initiatives (Lupton 2013). The noticeable educational improvements among children and young people reflect the efficacy of these policies, and it has been argued that they show the success of child poverty reduction measures. For example, results in national tests at 11 and 16 indicated great improvements and few people were leaving school with no qualifications by 2010 (Lupton 2013). Socio-economic gaps were reduced across all indicators – incrementally at age 11 and then more distinctly at age 16. Larger number remained at school after the age of 16 and more went to higher education. Socio-economic gaps in HE access also closed slightly despite concerns to the contrary (Lupton 2013).

On the other hand, it has also been argued (e.g., by the European Commission) that the UK has so far not done enough on these fronts in order to combat child poverty. This suggests that while policy formulation might therefore be on the right track, the implementation has not yet gone far enough (European Commission 2014).

On the whole, policy formulation has generally been lauded. Education Maintenance Allowances, for example, have complemented the Sure Start programme discussed above. More important have been the tax and benefit reforms, which Hills and Steward (2005) argue have ‘reduced child poverty quickly enough to give the Government a good chance of hitting its 2004-05 targets.’ This is a dated analysis, but it indicates that in the decade after 1997 policy was relatively successful. The importance of changes in incomes for parents and their children, moreover, is borne out by the Families and Children Survey, as well as other interviews conducted in low-income areas (Hills and Stewart 2005). Nevertheless, while there has been a fall in relative child poverty between 1996-7 and 2002-3, and falls in deprivation and child-related spending by parents, the UK is still some way behind the EU average (Hills and Stewart 2005; also see European Commission 2014)

There has been considerable research into the effect of Labour’s efforts to alleviate child poverty, primarily because they have been in office for much of the period and have been the main drivers behind such initiatives. The Labour government’s record has been positive on many fronts. Health is closely related to poverty, and in these terms the life expectancy of children rose, with infant mortality declining and illness declining, between 1997 and 2010 (Vizard and Obolenskaya 2013). This is supported by Stewart (2013), who has noted that for young children in particular outcomes as a result of Labour’s policies improved markedly, with higher employment rates for lone parents and fewer mothers drinking and smoking during pregnancies (the tangible impact of this is reflected in a fall in low birth weights among infants); moreover, the improvements here were concentrated among the lower socio-economic groups, which suggests relative poverty declined (Stewart 2013).

For older children and young people, results in national tests at 11and 16 showed substantial improvements and hardly anyone was leaving school with no qualifications by 2010. Socio-economic gaps closed on all indicators –gradually at age 11 and more dramatically at age 16. Greater proportions stayed on at school after 16 and went to higher education, and socio-economic gaps in HE access closed slightly despite concerns to the contrary (Lupton and Obolenskaya 2013).

Some particular shortcomings of policy have been highlighted by the research, however. For example, research into child poverty arising from neglect and abuse has revealed policy failure at all levels of the policy cycle. The neglect, abuse and eventual death of Victoria Climbe in 2000 is a good example of a policy failure in the period under consideration (Forest and Parton 2009; Laming 2003). Older children have often been classified as ‘hard to help’ and failed by agencies, while long-term neglect cases have on occasion not been properly contextualised in terms of past events in children’s lives. Additionally, there has tended to be an overreliance on universal or adult social service for physically injured children rather than the more appropriate children social care. As Brandon (2008) notes, these are reflective of policy failures in this particular area at the levels of formation, implementation, and post-policy evaluation.

At the final level of the policy cycle, evaluation, there has been some criticism of policy. In particular, March and Fisher (2005: 4) highlight ‘strong arguments for the development of the evidence base, and for shifting social services towards an evidence-based approach, instead of its historic reliance on an ‘authority-based’ approach. These arguments run similarly to those suggesting that healthcare needs more of an evidence-based approach (for example, the 1997 report for the DH on R&D in primary care) (Forest and Parton 2009). In this respect, it could be argued that policy has been less effective than it might have been because the research driving it has been conducted in the wrong way. It might even be said that improvements in this area required looking to the past: As Marsh and Fisher (2005: 5) put it: ‘Despite this lack of strategy, social work research has occasionally made a significant impact’. They point to the example of the childcare research programme that was shaped by the DH during the 1980s. This led to a cogent set of policies on many critical issues and helped to make policy more focused on relevance and practical matters.. Nevertheless, this ‘did not address the question of the infrastructure for research relevant to social care’ (Marsh and Fisher 2005: 5).

In a sense, these failures of policy at the final stage bring the argument full circle back to the level of agenda setting and policy formation. Marsh and Fisher (2005) and Morrin et al. (2011) see the issue as a lack of a strategic framework, which impedes agenda setting from the outset and prevents re-evaluative improvement at the end. The fact that no publicly funded research body is in place makes this more difficult, ‘and the plethora of relevant bodies has not so far offered a unified voice that could command widespread support. Unclear academic roots complicate the process’ (Marsh and Fisher 2005: 15). It might be argued that this comes down to the problem that social care does not exist as an independent academic discipline (Morrin et al. 2011; Forest and Parton 2009).

In conclusion, it can be said that the impact of government policy on child poverty has been mixed. On the one hand, many important and varied issues, ranging from education to financial hardship and psychological trauma, have been brought under the government remit. This represents a success in terms of agenda setting. A large number of influential programmes have taken form across the spectrum, and these have been implemented with reasonable success in many cases, as indicated by the fact that child poverty has declined since 1997 by nearly 10 percent (Forest and Parton 2009). To a certain degree, it is too early to tell whether evaluation has been successful. There have, of course, been various shortcomings such as the inability of policy to adequately protect abused children. Detractors have also claimed that policy, despite being relatively successful, has not been based on evidence. In the end, the record of government policy is generally good, although there is clearly scope for improvement going forwards.


Bradshaw, J. and Bennett, F. (2014) Investing in Children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage: A Study of National Policies: The United Kingdom, European Commission [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Brandon, M. (2008) Analysing child deaths and serious injury through abuse and neglect, Centre for Research on Children and Families [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Cleaver, H. and Walker, S. (2004) Assessing Children’s Needs and Circumstances: The Impact of the Assessment Framework, London: Jessica Kingsley

Department for Education (2008) Sure Start Children’s Centres – good for your child and good for you [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Department of Health (1997) R&D in primary care, London: The Stationery Office

European Commission (2014) Investing in children [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Eisenstadt, N. (2011), Providing a Sure Start: How Government Discovered Early Childhood. Bristol: Policy Press

Forest, N. and Parton, N. (2009) Understanding children’s social care: politics, policy and practice London: SAGE

Hills, J. and Stewart, K. (2005) POLICIES TOWARDS POVERTY, INEQUALITY AND EXCLUSION SINCE 1997, Joseph Rowntree Foundation [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

HM Government (2006) Working Together to Safeguard Children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

HM Government (2004) Every Child Matters: Change for Children Programme. Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills [Retrieved 22/03/2014]

Laming, H. (2003) The Victoria Climbie Inquiry [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Lupton, R., Burchardt, T, Hills, J. Stewart, K. and Vizard, P. (2013) A Framework for Analysing the Effects of Social Policy, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Lupton, R. (2013) Labour’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010, Centre for Analysis and Social Exclusion [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Marsh, P. and Fisher, M. (2005) Developing the evidence base for social work and social care practice, Social Care Institute for Excellence [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Morrin, M., Johnson, S., Heron, L. and Roberts, E. (2011) CONCEPTUAL IMPACT OF ESRC RESEARCH: CASE STUDY OF UK CHILD POVERTY POLICY, Final Report to Economic and Social Research Council [Retrieved 22/06/2014]

Stewart, K. (2013) Labour’s Record on the Under-Fives: Policy Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010. Social Policy in a Cold Climate Working Paper. London: CASE

Vizard, P. and Obolenskaya, P. (2013) Labour’s Record on Health: Policy Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010. Social Policy in a Cold Climate Working Paper WP02. London: CASE

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