Child poverty

Children of the Recession: There are 130,000 more poor children in Ireland than there were five years ago

Opinion: Poland has reduced child poverty by 30 per cent between 2008 and 2012, while child poverty in Ireland has increased by 10.6 per cent

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Peter Power

Wed, Oct 29, 2014, 00:01

This week, Unicef published the most comprehensive study of the effects of the financial crisis on children in the OECD.

The statistics are stark. Unicef’s report, Children of the Recession, shows that in the last five years, Irish families with children have lost the equivalent of 10 years of income progress. Out of 41 OECD countries, Ireland is ranked 37th out of 41 countries on relative increases in child poverty. In real terms, there are 130,000 more poor children in Ireland than there were five years ago.

Six years after the global financial and economic crisis, a generation of children and young people are growing up in a new Ireland where their opportunities have been set back considerably by the recession.

Poverty is always a tragedy, but child poverty is especially devastating. Children living in poverty are more likely to become impoverished adults and have poor children, creating and sustaining intergenerational cycles of poverty. Society pays a high price for child poverty, including reduced productivity, lower social cohesion and the costs of responding to chronic poverty. It is impossible to measure the untapped potential of a poor child. Protecting one’s childhood is essential both for the well-being of those who are children today and for the well-being of the societies of tomorrow.

Unicef’s report clearly demonstrates that policy choices, and not just prevailing economic circumstances, contribute to child poverty across the OECD. In 18 countries surveyed, child poverty has decreased, sometimes markedly. Poland, for example, has reduced child poverty by a remarkable 30 per cent between 2008 and 2012. While child poverty in Ireland has increased by 10.6 per cent during this period, it increased only 2.5 per cent among older people. In 28 out of 31 OECD countries, the child poverty rate has increased more rapidly (or decreased more slowly) for children than for older people. It’s clear that when social protection measures are put in place to safeguard a vulnerable group, they have been effective.

There are also concerns for older children and young people. The report shows that 16.1 per cent of young people in Ireland aged 15 to 24 are not in education, employment or training, which is higher than many other OECD countries. This is an effective measure of social exclusion, highlighting those who have not made a successful transition from school to work. Being outside work or training has considerable long-term consequences, both for the young person individually and for the broader society.

When asked about their experiences of the recession, people in Ireland reported not surprisingly that their standard of wellbeing had decreased since 2008. People report higher levels of stress, increased struggles in providing food for their families and a lower satisfaction with life. The quality and quantity of time that parents spend with their children is affected by lower incomes and contextual stress. This can have an adverse effect on family relationships and affect children during critical periods of intellectual and emotional development. Tellingly, fewer people than in previous Unicef reports agreed that Ireland is a country where children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day.

This Government can be proud of the steps to strengthen children’s rights and also in relation to child protection. Unicef strongly supported the enshrining of children’s rights into the Constitution. The Government can be commended for setting a child poverty target in the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People and for adopting a cross-departmental approach to achieving this goal.

This target now requires an implementation plan with clear objectives, actions and agreed timelines.

Six years into the recession, the impact on children and families is evident. It may be years before many households get back to prerecession levels of well-being and income.

Unicef recommends that Ireland should consider drawing “red lines” – indicators of child poverty and well-being – that, if crossed, would automatically trigger public intervention. Unicef recommends that children’s rights impact assessments be adopted to protect children’s interests on budgetary matters. Protecting children is about more than increasing child benefit, important though that is. Unicef-supported research demonstrates clearly that what’s good for families is good for children. Furthermore, a preventative focus on vulnerable children should be adopted, including migrant children, children with disabilities and the children of lone parents.

Ireland is among the youngest nations in Europe, with 25 per cent of our population being under 18. This is a significant competitive advantage for Ireland Inc. We must protect this national asset. Our children and young people are our most precious resource on Ireland’s road to recovery. We need to continue promoting a culture of listening to children and young people to ensure that we design policy that listens to their unique needs. They need to be meaningfully included in the decisions that affect them. By investing in children, we can enable them to reach their full potential.

Fifty years from now, we will look back at this period as a critical juncture in history. The global financial crisis may be remembered for the generation of vulnerable children it left behind, or as a critical opportunity to build a more inclusive and equitable society.

Peter Power is executive director of Unicef Ireland