What makes for an effective anti-poverty strategy?

The lack of an anti-poverty strategy did not stop the Welsh Government from taking action during the pandemic to address poverty in Wales. From the provision of money, vouchers or packed lunches during the school holidays to children entitled to free school meals, to allowing eligible families to claim a pupil development grant every year for essentials like a school uniform, it is clear that action does not need to wait for a strategy.

But does that mean that an anti-poverty strategy is never really needed? Our research for the WCPP, which looked at the effectiveness of anti-poverty strategies in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Spain and Scotland, certainly found a widespread suspicion that such strategies are long on words and short on deeds.

Our research also showed, however, that it does not have to be the case. Anti-poverty strategies can be effective so long as it is understood both when they are needed and what they are – as well as what they are not.

No strategy can be effective if it begins life as a catch-all list: an invitation to departments, boards and other actors to identify things they are already doing which, with one eye half closed, could just about be seen as having something to do with poverty. There are two reasons why this ‘strategy-as-list’ approach is ineffective.

The first is that it undermines any sense of prioritisation. It is well-understood that if everything is supposed to be a priority, then in reality nothing is. If it is to be effective, we suggest, an anti-poverty strategy must be ruthless and only contain actions that are deemed to be priorities. In extremis, this can even mean (as the German case study showed) a strategy containing just a single action.

The second is that to confuse the strategy with the list of anti-poverty policies or actions that shelter beneath it is to miss the role the anti-poverty strategy itself might play. Based on our research, this role is to enable and sustain action where those who want action taken on poverty are not usually the ones in a position to take it themselves. In such a situation, there needs to be a network of connections between individuals and organisations whose collective job it is to select, shape and support the actions within the strategy and see them through to their effective implementation.

If this network is to avoid lapsing into a talking shop, it needs to allow for a constructive back and forth. This is where idealistic demands, focused on outcomes, are fashioned into practicable and realistic action plans which, when turned into deeds (outputs), are judged capable of reaching those outcomes. This constructive tension between an idealism that wants more and a realism that goes as far as it can – but not further – is what lies at the heart of an effective strategy. Without it, a strategy is lifeless. Put another way, an effective anti-poverty strategy is a device to ensure that power is exercised at every level in pursuit of a common set of goals.

There are two further related points here. One is that the critical players in an effective strategy are neither those calling for action nor those who will evaluate its success, usually long after the event. Instead, it is the detailed planners and policy makers who, in grappling with the practicalities of a plan, must reconcile the tension between idealism and realism.

The other is that if these planners and designers of policy are wise, they will hold individuals with direct lived experience of poverty and the organisations working with them as their most important allies. The insights of those with an understanding borne of experience simply cannot be over-estimated when it comes to the matter of how exactly things are to be done.

At this point we should make it clear that an anti-poverty strategy plays this role, of tying together those who want action with those who are in a position to take it, irrespective of whether it belongs to a sovereign state and is led personally by the Prime Minister (New Zealand) or whether it belongs to a level of government which, under the constitution, has no legal standing to act on poverty itself (the German state of Baden-Württemberg). In all these cases, effectiveness depends upon persuasion, pressure and resistance, and accommodation.

Only when what is to be done is simply transfer money to groups of people identified through long-established procedures is a strategy unnecessary. Here, and perhaps only here, is agreement at the top – at the cabinet or ministerial level – likely to be sufficient.

By contrast, if the goal is to improve the poor housing or poor health of those living in poverty, an anti-poverty strategy is needed to ensure that the many people and agencies, public and private, who must act in new or different ways do actually do so.