Poverty Targets Trigger Government Accountability

May 06, 2010

This article first appeared May 6, 2010, in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

In the U.S., 20 percent of all states have established a target to reduce poverty. However, unlike other developed countries, including France, Ireland, Lithuania and Spain, the United States has no national poverty reduction target. Now, European nations are working collaboratively to assess the efficacy of a poverty target set by a member nation. Further, the European Commission has just proposed numerical guidelines for reducing poverty among all member nations.

The French government is a key player in this effort. The nation committed to cutting poverty by one- third between 2007 and 2012. In announcing the target, French President Sarkozy identified reasons that a poverty target can enhance policy development. He said, "I want to see this long neglected social issue become a political issue. I set this target to force us to deliver. It will force us to unearth the mechanisms that spawn poverty and to set up the ones that will eradicate it."

After the poverty target was set, the French government established a method for measuring progress. Specifically, in May 2009 a "Scorecard" was adopted to track 38 indicators. A peer group made up of other European nations has reviewed the French effort and concluded that the Scorecard "is not simply a list of indicators, but an important element in a larger strategy designed to make poverty more visible, to stimulate public debate, to mobilize policy intent and to incentivize effective policy delivery designed to reduce poverty."

In March, the European Commission proposed adoption of a target to reduce relative poverty 25 percent by 2020 (defined as 60 percent of median income) for all member countries. The expectation is that this EU target will be translated into national targets.

In the United States, states that have established targets have an opportunity to use them as tools to gain visibility for key issues, spur public discourse and mobilize policy. Five jurisdictions (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, and the Virgin Islands) are focused on cutting overall poverty, another five (Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, and Vermont) address child poverty, and one state, Illinois, seeks to cut extreme poverty (i.e. those who live below one half the official poverty line or less than approximately $11,000 a year for a family of four). Just having the target, however, does not make it effective. It is a tool that needs to be wielded. Clearly, there is a lot to learn among states and between nations. We hope that at some point in the not too distant future, our federal government will join other nations and start wielding this important tool.

site by Trilogy Interactive