Ireland’s Child Poverty-Short Term Thinking and Long Term Consequences

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The old adage that children should be seen and not heard seems to have been a mantra taken to heart by some members of the political establishment in the run up to the recent general election. As the narrative of the election was dominated by discussions around the country’s fiscal meltdown, children’s issues were reduced to passing sound bites by some and misrepresented by others. This election was always going to be centrally about the country’s finances but ignoring children’s issues is short-sighted in the extreme. The problem of child poverty is one such issue and unfortunately it appears to be neither seen nor heard by parts of our political elite.

On the 21st of December 2010 the Department of Children and Youth Affairs launched its biannual State of the Nation’s Children Report for the third time. The report highlighted increases in child abuse predominantly neglect, increases in childhood obesity, increases in children in need of social housing and a increase in child poverty. The report should have been seen as a damning indictment of years of political inaction on how we nurture children’s development. The report itself received passing mention in the national press without any thorough analysis of the effects of increasing child poverty on a large proportion of the state’s future adults.

The figures within the report pertaining to child poverty indicated that it had increased to 8.7 per cent in 2009. Children living in the southeast were more likely to experience poverty with 18.5 per cent living in consistent poverty compared with 4.1 per cent in the mid-east. Levels of consistent poverty for children in the midlands stood at 13.9 per cent. This meant that the risk of poverty for those children in the midlands was three-times higher than their peers in Dublin.

The increasing levels of child poverty was not a nettle ready to be grasped by the then Minister for Children and Family Affairs Barry Andrews when he adopted the role of optimist by drawing attention to the fact that the number of children dying at birth had decreased and immunisations were up. It illustrates how low the bar was being set for children’s lives that the Minister considered these very basic standards of care a success. Mr. Andrews’ words were made all the more hollow given that just eight days earlier he had come out in defence of government cuts to child welfare stating that measures were being taken to protect the most vulnerable of children. This was plainly disingenuous, as there were no protective measures in the budget to protect children. In fact the cuts that were made to benefits were guaranteed to impact upon the most vulnerable children. Mr Andrews’ assertion also ignored the fact that cuts in other parts of welfare and services were more likely to impact on vulnerable children.

However, the report was simply a snapshot in time of what it was like for children in Ireland in 2010 which did not give us an indication of what awaits these children living in poverty as they move through their lives. This is in part due to the fact that much of Ireland’s media do not make the connection between poor political decisions and child poverty, preferring to present it as a static issue. This is plainly not the case.

A longitudinal study of children’s lives that has been carried out by the American think tank, the Urban Institute provides us with a clear picture of the long-term effects of poverty on children. The Urban Institute’s research was carried out on data gathered on 1,795 people between 1968 and 2005. Their research offers a number of results that should be considered when discussing child poverty in Ireland. They found that children being born into poverty were far more likely to be persistently poor throughout their lives and that children who are persistently poor have poorer adult outcomes. The research also provides insight into some of the factors which create and underpin child poverty. They identify these as parent’s income, family structure and environmental factors (both in and out of the home). What we are now beginning to see in Ireland is children who were out of poverty moving into it either as part of a cycle or for the first time.

The Urban Institute’s research also reflects another trend which has been seen in Ireland, that being that children who spend numerous years in poverty do at times rise above the poverty line during their lives. When this was analysed in the research it found that this was often as a result of programmes and policies which support work and help parents to improve their economic standing. It illustrated that when these supports are removed there is little to assist families and children out of poverty. This process has been seen in Ireland over the past two budgets. This has been justified in the name ‘making tough decisions’ and fiscal responsibility. The truth of the matter is that the decision not to seriously tackle child poverty is an act of gross social irresponsibility which will have fiscal consequences in the future.

One argument that we have heard ad nauseum from conservative commentators is that our benefits are too high and need to be reduced in line with other European countries. This assertion is ludicrous in terms of child poverty and benefits when one considers two issues, firstly how Ireland fares compared to other developed countries in terms of child poverty and two, what level would poverty at when we exclude social transfers and taxes.

UNICEF’s report The Children Left Behind-A Table of Inequality in Child Well-being in the World‘s Rich Countries gave answers to both of these questions. It found that Ireland’s child poverty rate was 13.5% with taxes and social transfers taken into consideration. This placed Ireland 13th out of the 24 countries measured. However, without taxes and social transfers Ireland’s rate of child poverty rose dramatically to 34%, by far the worst rate of child poverty in the 24 countries measured. This would simply mean that if we were to rely on market forces alone Ireland would have the highest rate of child poverty among the world’s richest nation. Most countries rate of child poverty relying on market forces would be between 10-15%.

One positive statistic that did emerge from the report was that Ireland ranked 2nd in terms of educational outcomes for Irish children. However, it will be difficult for this standard to be maintained if our child poverty rate continues to rise and cuts to education are maintained.

When poverty is viewed as static it becomes increasingly difficult for us to face the reality of child poverty or appreciate long-term consequences. Recently when speaking to a group on child poverty, one woman became quite irate when I quoted some of the rates noted above. “Look, people get Child benefit and what they choose to do with it is up to them” she said.  She was in part quite right, as it is too simplistic to view welfare as a magic solution which will end child poverty but as demonstrated in UNICEF’s research the elimination of child benefit would have a serious impact on child poverty. It can also be argued that the changing of child benefit rates without a considered approach will have serious consequences for children just below or just above the poverty line. As seen in numerous studies including the one mentioned above various other factors contribute to sustaining child poverty such as poor early education, unsatisfactory nursery care, poor parenting skills. There is a need for government and their advisers to take a more nuanced view of child poverty-it cannot be cured by the “give-away” budgets of Celtic Tiger Fianna Fail neither will it be ended by ill-considered cuts to child benefit and demonising those on welfare as may well be the approach of Fine Gael.

Rather what is needed is government to begin to view child poverty as a dynamic-structural problem with respect to its complex and entrenched nature. There is a need to consider what government can provide at a systemic level through the proper provision of early intervention and support to move children away from poverty. Unfortunately, we were given some indication of what view the new government may take on issues like poverty when Leo Varadkar spoke recently on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne. He dismissed the empirically proven nature of structural inequality preferring to offer a pseudo-medical explanation of inequality arguing that serious illness reduces people’s ability to work and thus places them in a more vulnerable position. This is an incredibly out-dated view and much of the research that exists now would suggest that health is massively affected by social determinants and not the other way around. In any case, the idea that inequality is justified as a reflection of differences in merit cannot reasonably be applied to children. To take this view is to argue that children have some responsibility for the circumstances they are born into or the opportunities/decisions of their parents. It is also to dismiss the fact that growing up in poverty with the associated lack of  opportunities does not have a perpetual effect from one generation to the other. If this is the accepted wisdom guiding Fine Gael’s social policy we are likely to see continuing increase in child poverty and a widening in the gap between those children in poverty and those not.

Fine Gael have made a number of proposals in regards to child poverty in the run up to the general election. Those of specific interest are the setting up of an Expert Group on Child Poverty and Protection to seek to re-structure child benefit with targeted and universal components. The main target of these proposals are about further cutting back on child benefits rather than taking serious steps to alleviate child poverty.

The Labour Party’s pre-election promises in relation to children’s issues were far more heartening and they appear to have taken account of the cyclical nature of poverty. Among their manifesto pledges were leaving child benefit payments untouched and a new area-based approach to tackling child poverty and further provisions for early education. However, here too there are caveats-the principal one being ‘when resources allow’. When one considers these proposals coming from the junior party in coalition the fear would be that big brother Fine Gael will say ‘the resources don’t allow’.

Unfortunately, this may cause an impasse which will be dealt with through extensive reporting and working groups-already signaled in Fine Gael’s plan. The value of yet more reports being carried out on the area of child poverty in Ireland is questionable. At this point we have the benefit of quality national and international research on what sustains child poverty. At national level we also benefit from having quality agencies providing a wealth of information, advocacy and support in the lives of children living in poverty. It is also likely that any future groups established will be directed to look at the careful targeting of services and welfare. While this has some merit, the concern is that it will lead to reducing benefits and neglecting children living in poverty though not in “poverty hotspots”.

Like many problems child poverty seems to suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’ in Ireland-much discussion and consideration amounting to at best small ineffectual policies and at worst as a guise to further remove protections from venerable children.

So what is needed now to address child poverty? There should be no further reductions in child welfare payments as any reduction has potential to move more children into poverty. In circumstances where the government are determined to re-evaluate the universality of child benefits they should be required to carry out a societal stress test to evaluate the long-term social effects of the removal of child welfare payments. There needs to be a focus on early intervention targeted on an individual needs basis rather than on a geographical basis. Further, the welfare of children should be removed from the Health Service Executive and given to a new Department of Social Care and Protection which would have overall responsibility for programme delivery focused on protecting children. Finally, and perhaps, most importantly these developments should happen as part of a long-term cross-party initiative based on best international practice rather than on narrow political beliefs.

Children living in poverty in Ireland deserve far better than becoming pawns for a conservative government eager to try out its short-sighted right-wing policies. Any discussion of limiting services and cutting welfare is not compassionate conservatism; it is ruthlessly regressive and short-sighted. It ignores what research tells us about the impact of living in poverty has on children. It ignores the fact that the poor children of today become the poor adults of tomorrow and ironically, from a conservative viewpoint, it ignores the long-term costs of supporting those living in poverty.

Richard Wilkinson eloquently sums up the need for societies to plan adequately for the future in his book, The Impact of Inequality when he says;

…we have to think ahead on the grand scale, grasping the essential dynamics of the forces that are driving our society forward, asking not only where they are taking us but where we want to go, what we can do to avoid the worst outcomes, and how we can steer our societies toward happier outcomes.”

Darren Broomfield is a social worker and academic with an interest in social policy and criminal justice.