Consistent Child Poverty Is a Problem — Let's Set a Target for its Elimination
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Go to the dentist, or buy new children’s clothes? How will I stretch the weekly budget to make sure everyone is fed? How come other kids have opportunities I don’t have? What happens if I get sick? I can’t say no to that shift, I’ll won’t have enough money for food by the end of the week. But, who will mind the kids? I can’t sleep. What did I do wrong?
These are the kind of questions and dilemmas that people in or at risk of poverty face daily.
The Problem Poverty, wealth inequality, and risk of poverty are persistent problems in Ireland, one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
In alignment with the European Anti-Poverty Network’s definition of relative poverty, Ireland’s National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007–2016 offered the following definition of poverty.
People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living that is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities that are considered the norm for other people in society.
Many people are in consistent poverty, which occurs when income is below the relative/at risk of poverty threshold and who cannot afford at least two of the eleven deprivation indicators. The at risk of poverty threshold, which is 60% of the national median income, was an income of €12,521 (€239.95 per week) in 2017. The 11 deprivation indicators (EAPN, 2020) are:
Two pairs of strong shoes
A warm waterproof overcoat
New clothes (not second hand)
Eat meat, chicken, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day
Have a roast joint or its equivalent once a week
Had to go without heating during the last year through lack of money
Keep the home adequately warm
Buy presents for family or friends at least once a year
Replace any worn out furniture
Have family or friends for a drink or meal once a month
Have a morning, afternoon or evening out in the last fortnight for entertainment.
The Stats Based on 2017 data, 15.7% of Ireland’s population were living below the poverty line (Social Justice Ireland, 2019). 7.7% of children (under 18) were in consistent poverty, while 15.9% were at risk of poverty (European Anti-Poverty Network, 2020). Almost a quarter of those in poverty, 23.9%, were children (aged 16 or under). This represents about 230,000 children, a situation described by Social Justice Ireland as "alarming".
The percentage of people in Ireland at risk of poverty or social exclusion in varies across different types of households (see table 1 from Eurostat, 2018). For households comprising one adult and dependent children, the percentage is 65.9% (as of 2017). This is the worst rate in the entire European Union. Up to a quarter of households comprising two adults and three or more children are at risk of poverty, with rates of between 15 and 17.5% for those with one or two children.
There are 2,620 children are homeless and relying on emergency homeless accommodation, which does not include children and families placed in ‘own door’ accommodation (Focus Ireland, 2020). As of August 2019, there were 1,647 children in the international protection system, known as direct provision (Irish Refugee Council, 2019), and PSC Ireland has outlined their difficult living conditions and called for change.
The ESRI (2020) have warned of the likelihood of a sharp increase in child poverty as a result of the present pandemic.
The Effects of Poverty Child poverty can leave terrible legacy. Poverty presents barriers to proper nutrition, to health and well-being, to participation in education, and participation across the spectrum of activities in society.
Children born into poor households are more likely to have lower birthweight, which is associated with a range of adverse health effects, and are more likely to die in the first year of life. They are more likely to be obese at age 4–5, to have chronic illness, to die in accidents, experience mental ill-health, have tooth decay, and perform poorly in education (The Lancet, 2019, Wickham et al., 2016).
Child poverty has been linked to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviour, higher levels of substance misuse and higher levels of externalising behaviours (American Psychological Association, 2010, Evans, 2016). It has been explicitly linked to increased psychological and physiological stress levels, and stress is a long-established, strong predictor of physical and psychological disease incidence and chronic illness.
Children in consistent poverty are more likely to experience delayed cognitive development via direct and indirect mechanisms. Direct mechanisms include inadequate nutrition, housing, and healthcare. Indirect contributors include stress, curtailed parent-child interaction and facilitation of intellectual stimulation (e.g. with toys, activities), changes in parenting behaviour related to parental stress, and familial instability (Aber et al., 1997). Difficulties with socio-emotional are also more likely to emerge, with insecure attachment, poor goal orientation, low self-esteem, lower social competence, and less behavioural consistency.
Child poverty has also been linked to the stereotype threat phenomenon, where mere knowledge of one’s categorisation into a stigmatised or marginalised group shapes thinking and affects cognitive performance (Durante & Fiske, 2017).
Apart from immediate effects, or effects in childhood itself, child poverty can have lasting effects on health and well-being throughout adulthood. Children who experience poverty have a higher risk of adult mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and alcohol-related illness. There is also evidence that for many, psychological and cognitive effects of child poverty persist into adulthood (e.g. Evans, 2016). Longer time spent in poverty produces starker effects; children in consistent poverty are at higher risk for a range of adverse outcomes (e.g. Aber et al., 1997, Holmes & Kiernan, 2013).
The European Commission (2004) have acknowledged the extensive deleterious effects of poverty::
"Because of their poverty [people] may experience multiple disadvantages through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted".
The Causes of Poverty The causes of poverty are multiple, at times complex, and largely related to how our societies and economies are organised. In countries like Ireland, contributory factors include unemployment, low-paid work, precarious employment and low job security, lack of access to education or skills, availability of and access to essential services (e.g. healthcare, housing), demographics (members of minority groups and women tend to have higher risk), health conditions, disability, living in a remote community with little access to services, larger family size, welfare system factors, and others. More equal societies tend to have lower rates of poverty.
The influence of a number of these factors is likely to be compounded by the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic and the implementation of measures to manage public health, including the effects of ‘lockdowns’. There are also the direct and indirect consequences of partial, temporary, or permanent unemployment, changes in living arrangements, changing familial and care responsibilities, educational participation, and health concerns.
The Solutions The Government of the day adopted a target for poverty reduction “to reduce consistent poverty to 4% by 2016 and to 2 per cent or less by 2020, from the 2010 baseline rate of 6.2 per cent”. This, as evidenced by a consistent poverty rate of 8.8% in childhood, has yet to be achieved.
There are individual fiscal policies that are likely to play or continue to play an important role in poverty alleviation, such as progressive taxation, raising minimum income/living wage, and progressive wealth redistribution. In Ireland in 2013, a number of years after the 2008/9 financial crisis, the EAPN reported that without social transfers, 49.8% of the population would have been at risk of poverty.
Social Justice Ireland (2019) have stated:
“Child poverty is essentially an issue of low income families and its prevalence highlights the scale of such households across the state. Child poverty solutions hinge on issues such as adequate adult welfare rates and decent rates of pay and conditions for working parents. Child benefit also remains a key route to tackling child poverty. It is of particular value to those families on the lowest incomes. Similarly, it is a very effective component in any strategy to improve equality and childcare.”
There is undoubtedly a need for solutions that go beyond putting money in people’s pockets. The importance of timely, universal access to essential public services cannot be underestimated, whether these services are health, education, social services, transport, or welfare/social protection. Barriers to service access will serve only to compound the inherent difficulties of living in or at risk of poverty. Ireland is the only country in the EU to have been recommended to provide increased social and affordable housing stock by the EU Commission (2020, Country Specific Recommendations).
Non-fiscal measures are an important part of any comprehensive plan, such as protection of employment, protection of workers in precarious employment, protection of vulnerable groups, welfare/social protection provisions that support people and prevent poverty traps, and a range of urgent actions to protect people from the pandemic fallout (including for example protection of housing, nutrition, access to public services). Implementation of austerity measures is likely only to instigate impoverishment on a wide scale, embed multi-generational poverty, and push societies and economies further down a path of long-term instability, intractable inequalities, disenfranchisement, and unsustainability.
Goal setting is an important component of achieving aims and objectives in fields as diverse as healthcare, physical rehabilitation, business, and policy implementation. The setting of poverty reduction targets is a key tool in child poverty reduction as part of a comprehensive and appropriately funded and managed strategy. Undertaking social impact assessments prior to policy implementation can help to poverty-proof new policies (Social Justice Ireland, 2019). A comprehensive strategy must then incorporate a range of measures, targets, and impact assessments.
The EAPN (2020) has set out a number of recommendations for anti-poverty strategy in the EU under seven broad headings:
A rights-based integrated anti-poverty strategy, beyond employment
An ambitious EU poverty target and effective poverty indicators
Urgent action to guarantee adequate minimum income/social protection
Concrete results to guarantee all social rights — quality jobs and services
Support for a vibrant civil society and decision making that listens and responds to people who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion
Economic policies for just and sustainable development
Each heading contains several elements. Two of these, in particular, stand out: a rights-based, person-centred anti-poverty strategy that goes beyond employment and that builds on integrated, active inclusion, and the inclusion of people experiencing poverty in the design of the strategy.
The existence, persistence, and scope of child poverty are consequent to our social and economic environments and policy choices and implementation. Ireland has a modern, diversified economy that provides the means to alleviate and eliminate child poverty. Ultimately, the economy, along with the society it supports, must be shaped to eliminate poverty.
The Social Democrats will bring a Private Members’ Motion before Dáil Éireann on Wednesday, September 30th. It will call on the Government to set a target for the elimination of consistent child poverty in Ireland by 2025.
Post by twitter.com/rlombardvance (modified repost from personal blog) for Psychologists for Social Change Ireland. PSC Ireland is a network, not a membership organization. This blog post does not purport to represent the views of all of the members of the PSC Ireland network.