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 social welfare.
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 health services.
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 of poverty.
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.