PAUL FARMER / Poverty can be Eradicated Billboard

November 16, 2018; New York Times

While the Trump administration and Theresa May argue over trade policies, they do agree on an approach to fighting poverty.

Over the decades, Great Britain has approached the needs of those at the bottom of the economic ladder with a consistent vision that mirrors that of President Trump and other US conservative policymakers. In the UK, government funding has been reduced in order to spur self-support, encourage work, and decrease reliance on outside assistance. As public and nonprofit leaders in the US keep up their often-heated debate about what our policy should be, the case study of the UK’s experience should prove instructive.

After years of reduced public funding, and with increased reliance on the nonprofit sector to patch a frayed safety net, what are the results? According to Philip Alston, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, for Britain’s poor, things are bad and heading in the wrong direction. Following a 12-day visit, Alston concluded that poverty has gotten worse and current policy is failing.

In the United Kingdom, 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50 percent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford essentials. After years of progress, poverty is rising again…in the fifth-richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity.


Government policies have inflicted great misery unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are locked into a cycle of poverty from which many will have great difficulty escaping.

The New York Times summarized some changes in the UK in just the past 8 years:

  • “Since 2010, the Conservative government has announced…nearly $40 billion…in cuts to welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services.”
  • “Although overall poverty levels have remained fairly constant under the Conservative government, most measures show that poverty has risen among children and working families.”
  • “The use of food banks almost doubled between 2013 and 2017. Families that receive benefits are now over $2,600 worse off every year, according to an analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group, an advocacy group.”

With funding reduced for local governments, those services for which they had been responsible have had to be sharply reduced, with people in poverty feeling the harshest impact. The burden for softening that impact has fallen on Britain’s nonprofit sector which, as NPQ has previously reported, has struggled to fill the resource gap. “The number of nonprofit organizations working alongside government has decreased sharply as their funding declines…a thousand children’s centers have closed, leaving families trying to navigate a complex system without a map.”

According to Alston, “I was told time and again about important public services being pared down, the loss of institutions that would have previously protected vulnerable people, social care services that are at a breaking point, and local government and devolved administrations stretched far too thin.…The voluntary sector has done an admirable job of picking up the slack for those government functions, but that work does not relieve the government of its obligations.”

One focus of Britain’s efforts that is being replicated by conservatives in the US is an increased use of technology to streamline systems and cut overhead costs. Eligibility for government supports depends on the ability to continuously document eligibility requirements using online systems. Alston found this approach creates “an online barrier between people with poor digital literacy and their legal entitlements…the ‘test and learn’ approach to the rollout treats claimants like guinea pigs and can wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives.” This mirrors what the Washington Post found when it looked at Medicaid reforms in Arkansas, which similarly demanded ongoing electronic certification and put people’s health at risk.

The British government, naturally, disagrees with Alston’s findings. According to an emailed response to the Times, the UK Department of Work and Pensions says, “With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.”

Poverty in Britain remains very real. Those within the nonprofit sector see the impact of austerity-based public policies up close and personal on those who fall between the cracks. They struggle for funding as the need for help rises. Great Britain’s experience can help American policymakers—the ones who can break out of their political silos—prevent human pain and suffering. The question is whether there are enough who are ready.—Martin Levine