“Europe is not free from child poverty – concrete action is needed”
[09/07/07] Poverty among children and young people was one of
Gordon Brown’s priorities when he formed his new government. This is to be
welcomed. It is important to give new strength to the fight against child
poverty, not only in the United Kingdom, but all over Europe. Clearly, the first
step is to recognize that this is a profound problem, affecting a great number
of individuals and with negative consequences far into the future.
According to reports from UNICEF, statistics from South-Eastern Europe and the
former Soviet countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States show that 25 %
of children still live in absolute poverty. These children have not benefited
from economic recovery to the same extent as other groups in society.
In the richer parts of Europe, child poverty also exists. Few children are
living in extreme poverty, but the percentage of children in households with
incomes below half of the national median is still above 15 % in countries such
as UK, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
These figures give an indication of the scope of the problem. Unfortunately, a
more precise measurement is not possible as data on relevant aspects has not
been possible to obtain. Even if the basic statistics about incomes and social
benefits are reliable, it is difficult to assess their full impact on living
standards. Also, poverty is not only about purchase power - other indicators are
necessary to measure quality of life.
That is why the UNICEF studies into poverty in Europe have focused on issues
such as unemployment, health and safety, educational well-being, the family and
the risk of violence.
The picture emerging from these studies is that children who grow up in poverty
are much more vulnerable than others. They are more likely to be in poor health,
to underachieve in school, to get into trouble with the police, to fail to
develop vocational skills, to be unemployed or badly paid and to be dependent on
This does not mean that all poor children are failing in their development.
However, they risk being disadvantaged..
Child poverty is usually connected to poverty among those adults who care for
them. It should, however, be understood that poverty has a more profound impact
on children. It affects them not only in their immediate present, but also in
the long term. Moreover, children themselves can do little to improve their
situation. As a consequence, they greatly depend on public policy to grow out of
poverty. This is particularly true when it comes to access to education and
The UNICEF studies also show that there are large differences on child poverty
between European countries, also between those with a similar economic situation
in general. This seems to underline that the problem to a large extent relates
to political priorities – child poverty can and should be reduced through
determined policy measures.
An action plan against child poverty should of course seek to define vulnerable
groups and risk situations. Single parent families and children with special
needs may belong to this category. We know that children in rural areas,
children of migrants and Roma communities have been deeply affected by poverty.
Direct subsidies to these risk categories are necessary and, indeed, the
rationale for much of the social and family benefits. Such support has to be
appropriately targeted and sufficient to lift children – and their parents – out
However, it is equally important to ensure that the schools, the health
services, the day-care centres and other public welfare institutions function
without discrimination and do benefit those most marginalised or otherwise
disadvantaged. A policy of privatization of such services should not be allowed
to bloc access by the poor.
One of the first steps to reduce child poverty is to guarantee free access to
education. Even when schools are free of tuition fees, education sometimes has
hidden costs such as uniforms or books which have to be bought. In some
countries, parents have even to pay for the heating in the school. Education
policies should particularly target school drop-out rates and youth unemployment
by providing appropriate training and employment-related education.
Access to basic health services often remains impossible for many children
living in poverty. Due to a lack of health insurance by their parents, proper
registration with the national system or sufficient resources, children are
excluded from health care. Experiences of free of charge medical and dental
check-up at schools have been very positive.
One attitude has to be rejected strongly: that poverty is the fault of the poor.
This “argument” is ill-conceived, as far as adults are concerned, and also
totally invalid in relation to children. Some people have so far been denied
basic welfare – for different reasons, mostly beyond their own influence.
We need to acknowledge that reality of poverty is deprivation of a broad
spectrum of human rights. Anti-poverty policies should promote access to human
rights, including the right to education, training and employment, decent
housing, social services and health care.
UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 7 (.pdf format)
“Ending child poverty within Europe?”
(Eurochild report, .pdf format)
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