What on earth is an anti-poverty strategy anyway?

There’s more to solving a problem than simply creating a strategy, writes Chris Goulden.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategies. We seem to love them in UK policy-making and see them as the big answer to complex, long-lived problems. And they are an enticing potential response when governments are asked the question “so what are you doing about it?” – the answer being, “well, we have a strategy!”.

In practice, strategies often fail to deliver. One of the main reasons is that they provide an opportunity for governments to list all of the policies they already have or are about to announce that have anything at all to do with the problem that needs sorting out. And then, at the other end of the line, they list a set of ambitious targets alongside somewhat arbitrary end dates by which everything will be fine. We’ve seen this frequently over the last 15 years on poverty policy across the UK.

The new child poverty strategy consultation from the UK government does fall into some of these same traps. However, there are some welcome improvements in the documents released today. There is a comprehensive review of evidence (drawing on much of JRF’s back catalogue) as well as the consultation paper itself.

The measures from the Child Poverty Act have been retained, at least for now, and valuable new areas of policy have been opened up around reducing costs and improving living standards. There is a clear awareness of the role of low earnings and in-work poverty even if the policy responses are not yet developed enough to address this problem sufficiently. There are also indications that more controversial topics such as addiction and family breakdown are being considered as part of the wider context rather than being promoted as the main causes (or consequences) of poverty.

One of the reasons why strategies often have a “missing middle”, showing how the policies are likely to lead to the desired outcomes, is that it’s really difficult to assess how much needs to be done, by when and what the interactions are across multiple policy areas. But governments really need to try harder to set out what they think the impact of their policies are and justify their actions in terms of meeting their wider targets. Then that would be a strategy worth getting fully behind.