Child poverty: ‘This is about Government priorities’

Experts warned that children were bearing the brunt of the crisis, so why did it take this week’s damning Unicef report for us to pay attention?

Children are going to school hungry – not just without breakfast but not having had anything to eat since they left the previous day.

Families of five or six people are squeezed into a hotel room, with nowhere to cook or for children to play, because they have been priced out of their homes.

Pre-school children arrive at crèches with doughnuts or large bars of chocolate for their lunches because that’s what is on special offer in the local shop.

These are some of the realities of child poverty that professionals working with vulnerable families have been exposing over recent years. They didn't need this week's Unicef report to tell them that child poverty rose sharply during what it terms "the Great Recession".


The proportion of children suffering from poverty rose from 18 per cent in 2008 to 28.6 per cent in 2012, an increase of more than half and pulling down an additional 130,000 children. Many of these children, states Unicef, “will suffer consequences for life”.

We are now chasing the US (32.2 per cent child poverty) and have exceeded the UK (25.6 per cent). But professionals are hopeful that a shaming on an international stage might finally drive the message home.

"People, particularly policy-makers and politicians, hear things differently depending on who's saying it," says Marian Quinn, chief executive of the Childhood Development Initiative in west Tallaght, Dublin.

It didn't have to be like this, according to the report entitled Children of the Recession: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Child Well-being in Rich Countries. Many other countries, such as Chile, Poland and Romania, did a much better job at protecting their children through five years of "financial adjustments", with countries beholden to the International Monetary Fund faring worst.

“Sadly we know the number of children living in poverty in Ireland grew horrifically during the recession,” says chief executive of Barnardos Fergus Finlay. “What we have learnt from this report is that was not inevitable.”

Fifth worst

Out of the 41 countries surveyed, 18 managed to reduce child poverty despite the economic downturn. The increase here is the fifth worst, in a list topped by Iceland and then Greece.

“Our Government could have made better decisions about the cuts it made and how it spent the money it had, so children didn’t suffer so disproportionately,” says Finlay.

He describes the report’s finding that Irish families with children have lost 10 years’ progress as “an indelible stain on our conscience”, adding that “every effort must be made to reverse this terrible trend as quickly as possible”.

“If the neglect persists,” states the report, “the crisis among children will continue well after any economic recovery.”

It is always helpful to have hard data to support something that people on the ground know instinctively, says Quinn. What she finds really interesting is that all the countries surveyed have experienced recession and yet the outcomes have been very different. The argument that it’s “just the recession and we have all had a hard time” has certainly been blown out of the water, she says.

“It’s really shocking where we have landed, considering there has been so much espousing of how well we have handled our fiscal difficulties.”

She hopes seeing where our levels of child poverty are now on the international scale will be a wake-up call.

“This is about what the Government has prioritised; what it has seen as valuable and important. And that leads you to the question of why?”

Children don’t march

The Government reversed a lot of unpopular decisions when people marched, she says. “Children don’t march and neither do their vulnerable parents because their energies are completely and utterly absorbed in getting through the day.”

Parents are unable to buy basic essentials for their children such as adequate food, school books, clothes and heating, says the ISPCC’s interim chief executive, Caroline O’Sullivan.

More children are calling Childline about difficulties and stresses at home. This she attributes to families’ abilities to cope being eroded by daily financial difficulties – the same reason the charity is seeing more referrals of parents in crisis to its Childhood Support services.

While the Unicef report is not surprising, it is “hugely concerning”, O’Sullivan says, as only four years ago the same organisation released a report showing that Ireland was one of the top 10 best places to be a child (based on research 2001-2010).

It's a "national disgrace", says Focus Ireland advocacy manager Roughan Mac Namara. "This did not just happen out of the blue. Political and economic choices were made which caused this," he says, singling out the decision to pay billions of euro back to unsecured bondholders, while cutting health, education, housing and welfare supports.

Some 729 children in almost 400 families in Dublin alone so far this year have lost the roofs over their heads, plunging them into a transient B&B existence.

Being homeless is not only hugely damaging every single day for families and children, it is building up more problems for the future.

“It is a sad reality that some of the next generation of children in care, early school leavers, unemployment, people with addiction and/or mental health problems will arise from the conditions these families are forced to live in,” says Mac Namara.

The report provides startling evidence that the State is failing a generation of children who are growing up poor, says Stuart Duffin, director of policy and programmes at One Family. "But we will fail them a second time if the whole of Government buries their collective heads in the sand."

Child poverty can be eradicated with the right policies and the right political will, he says.

“This means protecting children’s services and supports, ensuring work always pays and supporting families with costs such as childcare and housing. And there can be no excuse for getting it wrong again.”

During the period surveyed by the Unicef report, the free preschool year was introduced here in 2010.

The really positive thing, says Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland, is that centres are taking in children who wouldn't normally have attended.

Early educators are on the front line, dealing with child poverty at first hand, she points out. They see “nutrition poverty” as a big problem, with families having to eat cheaply, rather than eat well.

The State ranked 32 out of 41 countries in the proportion of families who did not have enough money to buy food in the previous month.

Learning difficulty

Preschool is where parents may get the first indication that their child has a learning difficulty or developmental delay. Yet there are no ancillary or professional services available to help preschool services to address these issues, Heeney says.

There’s been a “huge increase in additional needs over this time and there is a connection to poverty. Because the parents who have money go ahead and get private assessments done quickly”.

A lack of public investment in early years services, combined with unemployment and falling incomes has pushed many families into poverty and kept them there, says Toby Wolfe of Start Strong, a coalition of organisations that advocates for children's early care and education.

The high cost of childcare is a barrier to families trying to get out of poverty through employment. Wolf would like to see the urgent revision and extension of the subsidised community childcare scheme, as well as more resources for improving early years services. “Research shows that early care and education can improve children’s life chances, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty – but it is only high-quality services that benefit children,” Wolfe says.

The Unicef report also reveals how those at the other end of childhood have suffered in the recession, calling 15- to 24-year-olds “a generation cast aside” since 16.1 per cent are not in any form of education, employment or training.

Consequently, many will experience in the long-term increased alienation, magnified disadvantages and lost potential, it predicts.

“This figure is alarmingly high,” says Marie-Claire McAleer, senior research and policy officer with the National Youth Council of Ireland, which works on a daily basis with extremely vulnerable young people who feel marginalised and excluded from mainstream society.

“More needs to be done to engage with young people and provide them with access to meaningful forms of education, employment or training and to support them to achieve their full potential,” she says.

Unicef advises that the State “align its ethical obligations with its self-interest and place the well-being of children at the top of its response to the recession”.