Child poverty targeting by Regina Doherty not enough

Analysis: Despite welcome measures, more must be done to help worst-off children

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection: to tackle the deepest children’s poverty, she will need  political backing from  colleagues in the Departments of Children, Housing, Education, Health and Justice.  Photograph:  Garrett White/Collins Photo Agency

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection: to tackle the deepest children’s poverty, she will need political backing from colleagues in the Departments of Children, Housing, Education, Health and Justice. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins Photo Agency

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The 139,000 children still living in consistent poverty, in the midst of an apparent full-blown economic recovery, are clearly top of Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty’s priorities in Budget 2019.

Detailing her department’s package at a briefing on Tuesday evening, she said she was unashamedly targeting children living in the deepest poverty.

It’s worth remembering, however, how much pressure is on the Government to do something radical on child poverty.

In 2014, when there were 152,000 children in consistent poverty, the Government committed to lifting 70,000 children out of it by 2020. And yet, despite the boom being back, the numbers remain stubbornly high.

To be in consistent poverty means living in a household where the main income is less than 60 per cent of the national median income (in 2016 this meant less than €12,358 per year), and going without such basics as a warm, waterproof coat and having meat at least every second day.

Among the measures Doherty announced is a €5 increase in all weekly social welfare payments from March next.

There is also a raft of changes specifically targeting the poorest children. These include increases to the qualified child payment, made in respect of children of parents dependent on social welfare, by €2.20 a week for children aged up to 11 and by €5.20 a week for children aged 12 to 18. This is the first time the increased cost associated with rearing a teenager has been acknowledged in this weekly payment.

This is the first time the increased cost associated with rearing a teenager has been acknowledged in this weekly payment

The annual back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is increasing by €25 for both primary and secondary school children, to €150 and €275 respectively, while a new hot school meals scheme is to be piloted in disadvantaged schools, benefiting 7,000 children initially.

Lone parents

Lone parents – 21 per cent of whose families are in consistent poverty – are targeted with changes to the one-parent family payment and the jobseeker transitional payment which will allow these parents earn up to €150 a week without their welfare payment being affected, and a new disregard worth €95 a week for lone parents receiving maintenance from a former partner. Both of these will mean significant improvement in these families’ monthly income.

All of this will help somewhat. But we are not seeing the same commitment to child poverty from other government departments.

The children most likely to experience deep poverty are in lone-parent households, Traveller families, families headed by a person with a disability – including a mental health disability – and some minority immigrant families, including Roma.

These are among the most stigmatised and, frankly, despised families in our society and no matter what modest commitment Doherty can make to them, really reaching out to support these children will require more than social welfare transfers.

One easy, and yet again not taken step that would make an enormous difference to thousands of families, would be free school books for all primary school children. This has been costed by Barnardos at €20 million a year. Where is the Department of Education on this?

Lone parents need secure housing, supported access to further education and affordable childcare. Traveller families need these but their children also need support to complete their education (just 13 per cent of Traveller children complete secondary school compared with 92 per of settled children).

Traveller accommodation

Most importantly, Traveller children need to see their parents provided with culturally appropriate housing – for which they would pay rent – and to which they are legally entitled. Too many children are living in shameful conditions without electricity or a safe water supply.

Children with a disabled parent need to see their parents supported into meaningful employment, while Roma families need support overcoming multiple barriers, including satisfying the habitual residency requirement which would enable them to access child benefit.

The deeply harmful racism experienced by Traveller and Roma children, which compounds and deepens the poverty they experience, should be tackled head-on in the primary and secondary school curriculums.

Too many children are living in shameful conditions without electricity or a safe water supply

These will all require political choices that will probably be unpopular, and leadership and commitment from Doherty’s colleagues in the Departments of Children, Housing, Education, Health and Justice.

The Minister’s announcement on Tuesday that an inter-departmental group is to look at what the rest of the Government needs to do to tackle child poverty is welcome.

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