While the European Union promoted 2010 as the “European Year Against Poverty”, several member states presented austerity budgets which will inevitably push more people into destitution. There are already large numbers of children among the poor, and it is obvious that the struggle against child poverty will now face further difficulties.
Child poverty was widespread even before the current economic crisis – in Europe also. One example is the United Kingdom where this issue has been high on the political agenda for several years. In spite of some considerable political efforts, poverty among children has persisted on a large scale.
No less than 2.8 million children in the UK are now estimated to live in poverty. This figure is based on the definition that they depend on a household income which is less than 60 per cent of the median national income.
This means that more than one quarter of all British children live in poverty. The situation is not much better in several other European countries, including those where there is very little discussion about this dramatic shortcoming.
It is important to remember that poverty is not only a matter of income level and purchasing power. UNICEF in its studies has rightly focused on other aspects as well, such as parental unemployment, health and safety, educational well-being, family situation and the risk of violence.
A question of political priority
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.
Childhood poverty is the first step towards deeper gaps and inequalities in society and tends to be passed from generation to generation in a vicious cycle.
Though there are tendencies of child poverty in all European countries, UNICEF studies have shown that there are large differences between them, and 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 be reduced through determined policy measures.
An action plan against child poverty should certainly 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.
General welfare system crucial for poor children
However, it is equally important to ensure that schools, health services, day-care centres and other public welfare institutions function without discrimination and do benefit those most marginalised or otherwise disadvantaged. A policy of privatisation of such services should not be allowed to block access by the poor.
One of the first steps to reducing 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-ups at schools have been very positive.
Protect children in the budgets
Budgets which reduce the underpinning of the school and health care systems are ill-advised and would only plant the seeds of more serious problems in the future. They also constitute a breach of the pledge made to children in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – that we should allocate the maximum extent of our available resources to children and their rights.