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Action on child poverty needed to match Governments’ stated ambitions

The Joint Declaration by the Ministers of the EPSCO Council* ‘Overcoming poverty and social exclusion – mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on families – working together to develop prospects for strong children’ published in December 2020 aims to support a long-term European strategy to reduce child and family poverty as well as social exclusion. 

The Joint Declaration notes that child poverty levels are likely to escalate as the full economic impact of Covid-19 becomes apparent.  It states that the current pandemic “exposes the lack of national policies to tackle poverty, particularly child poverty, and draws attention to the need for a multi-dimensional approach.”  Social Justice Ireland welcomes the fact the Ireland is one of the signatories to the Joint Declaration.  In particular we welcome the “call for a particular focus on children and families at risk of poverty and social exclusion and for the related family policy efforts to be maintained and strengthened by adopting a multi-dimensional approach to tackling child poverty”.  However, in order for Ireland to make progress on the issues of child poverty and family poverty then action is required. 

The Joint Declaration references the forthcoming Recommendation for a Child Guarantee as a means of providing a new political prominence to the issue and the necessary momentum for EU Member States to commit to tackling child poverty.  While a Child Guarantee will indeed give the issue prominence, a decade of failure to meet our own national poverty targets should provide incentive enough at a political level to address this issue.  Living in poverty is a reality for almost one in five children in Ireland.  For the past decade (even in the very good times) approximately 1 in 5 children (circa 200,000) have been living in poverty.  This has been failure of public policy.   In a country as wealthy as ours, with our levels of economic growth we can, and should do better. 

We welcome the statement in the Joint Declaration that “access to free healthcare, free education, affordable early childhood education and care, decent housing and adequate nutrition is essential for children at risk of poverty or social exclusion.”  Ensuring families have adequate income and that they have access to the aforementioned services are the multidimensional elements of any strategy to deal with child and family poverty.   Child poverty solutions must be focussed on families and ensuring that families have adequate incomes and access to quality services in particular childcare, housing, and healthcare.  

However, despite the stated objective of the Joint Declaration to a multi-dimensional approach to tackling child poverty, it is disappointing that the main focus is on access to the labour market for parents.  The Joint Declaration states that “it is crucial that the European Child Guarantee recognises the close correlation between parents participating in the labour market – in many cases single parents – and the economic stability of the families. Protection against family poverty is best guaranteed by parents being in employment”.  This dilutes the focus on the multidimensional approach to poverty and the crucial role that services play in addressing child poverty.  It is also at odds with the initial findings of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on conclusion of his mission to the European Union.  The UN Special Rapporteur noted that “policies such as limiting social assistance in amounts or timeframes in order to “incentivize” work will not help those who cannot find work as a result of irreconcilable care responsibilities, limited work experience, low educational levels, or longstanding health problems – all of those for whom the risk of poverty is much higher. In fact, unemployment rates have decreased in all Member States since they peaked in 2013, which suggests an uneven distribution of the benefits arising from labor market improvements. In other words: poverty will not be ended with employment policies alone, but indeed with strong redistributive measures.”

Child poverty is essentially an issue of families struggling to survive on low incomes.  Children cannot be lifted out of poverty unless their families are lifted out of poverty.  Children depend on adults for their upbringing and support. Irrespective of how policy interventions are structured, it is through adults that any attempts to reduce the number of children in poverty must be directed.  Child poverty solutions must be focussed on families and ensuring that families have adequate incomes and access to quality services in particular childcare, housing, and healthcare.

The Joint Declaration also calls for a best practice exchange and for a continuous dialogue within Member States and the EU Commission – by including civil society – on measures to tackle child poverty effectively.  Social Justice Ireland welcomes this call, a dialogue on child poverty must include all stakeholders and the focus must be on the multidimensional approach to addressing child and family poverty, including what policies work in other countries.  At a national level such a dialogue could help to establish a minimum floor of services and income that no child or family should fall below.  This would be an important first step in a serious political and policy commitment to eliminating child and family poverty.  Without resources and serious policy and political commitment new poverty targets are likely once again to be missed.  

The Government is committed to delivering a new social contract as part of the Programme for Government.  Implementing the following policies would help to make this ambition a reality.

  • Ensure adequate income through the lifecycle, including adequate payments for children
  • Ensure families have access to quality services, in particular childcare, early childhood education and care, healthcare and housing.
  • Introduce State-led childcare.  Affordable childcare and child-friendly employment arrangements are key requirements for greater labour market participation among young mothers
  • Set ambitious headline national poverty targets and in addition set ambitious subsidiary poverty targets for vulnerable groups such as children, lone parents, jobless households, those in social rented accommodation.
  • Carry out in-depth social impact assessments prior to implementing proposed policy initiatives that impact on the income and public services on which many low-income households depend. This should include the poverty-proofing of all public policy initiatives.
  • Establish a minimum social floor of income and services below which no person or household should fall. 

*EPSCO - Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council configuration
The EPSCO Council works to increase employment levels and improve living and working conditions, ensuring a high level of human health and consumer protection in the EU.
https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/configurations/epsco/