Growing child poverty a 'badge of shame' for Europe
by Jean Lambert
How bad are we prepared to let things get before we take the action necessary to protect all of our children from a life of poverty - asks MEP
Tens of millions of children in the European Union - one of the world's richest regions - are living in poverty, spending their crucial early years without the basic items necessary for a healthy and fulfilling childhood. This is the conclusion of the latest report from international charity UNICEF, which shines a light on the shocking extent of child poverty and deprivation across EU member states.
Report Card 10 - the latest in a series of UNICEF papers that monitor progress towards the United Nations Millennium Develop Goals – compares and ranks countries' performances in tackling child poverty; measured separately through rates of child deprivation and relative income poverty, both important for social inclusion. The aim of the report is to paint as accurate a picture as possible as to what is happening to some of society's most vulnerable members in these times of increasing austerity measures and brutal public spending cuts.
At the European Parliament last week - I hosted the launch of the paper, which confirms what many of us concerned about child welfare have known for so long – namely that child poverty in industrialised, relatively wealthy countries is not inevitable but, rather, influenced by government policy. The report also goes to prove that some countries, despite their similar income levels, are doing much better than others at protecting those children who are living in desperate circumstances.
For example, UNICEF finds that Denmark and Sweden have much lower levels of child deprivation than Germany or Belgium despite all four countries having similar levels of economic development. Similarly, the report notes the United Kingdom's success in reducing child poverty in the early years of the recession by increasing household incomes - through tax credits and improving public services for children - but warns that the the coalition government's programme of spending cuts will swiftly undermine this progress.
The highest levels of deprivation are to be found in some of the newest and poorest members of the EU, with more than 70 per cent of children classified as deprived in Romania and more than 50 per cent in Bulgaria. Yet, among the 15 rich countries, only the Scandinavian countries have deprivation rates below 3 per cent; with Austria, Belgium and Germany at 8 per cent and France and Italy rising above the 10 per cent mark. Hardly a cause for celebration. In the world's wealthiest nations, the proportion of children lacking these basic items such as three nutritious meals a day, a quiet place to do homework and educational books at home should be nothing more than 'zero'.
It is fair to say that the upward trend in child poverty rates over recent years is in large part the result of the global economic downturn, but that does not mean it is inevitable. However we measure child poverty levels, it is clear that committed government action can make a big difference. Indeed - countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland have proven that it is within the power of every industrialised country to put in place realistic policies and targets for reducing child poverty and deprivation.
The report also throws down a gauntlet: how great a depth of poverty are we prepared to see before we take the action necessary to protect all of our children from a life of poverty? Why are we prepared to see some specific groups of children living in greater poverty than others? The European Commission has a role to play in helping member states shield disadvantaged children from the burden of the economic climate, yet a coherent approach to child poverty seems to have disappeared from the policy agenda if the Europe 2020 strategy and its implementation are anything to go by. Later this year, the commission is scheduled to produce recommendations on child wellbeing and UNICEF argues that this should include targets for specific reductions in child poverty by the end of this decade.
If we are to break the cycle of child deprivation in the EU, we also need robust monitoring systems in place which accurately inform decision-makers of the scale of the problem. And UNICEF notes that the financial crisis has demonstrated the inadequacy of the most recent data on child poverty, resulting in very few countries having up-to-date detailed information on the impact the crisis is having on low-income families. But without this, there is a slim chance of putting in place policies that use limited resources in cost-effective ways to protect children from the effects of poverty.
The true scope of child poverty as unveiled by UNICEF is a real badge of shame for Europe. In one of the richest regions in the world, we cannot and should not have children living in such desperate circumstances. A commitment to protecting children from poverty has to be more than just warm words. In these times of economic hardship, we need to act fast before we see the life chances of even more children reduced and damaged.
Jean Lambert is a Green Party MEP for London, in the United Kingdom
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