Children in Ireland have suffered most in the recession and continue to bear the consequences, despite child poverty falling in almost half of European countries since the start of the economic crash, according to a new report.
The Unicef report, published yesterday, finds Ireland has been among the worst affected countries since the recession began, and has continued to perform badly.
Child poverty, defined as children living in households where income is below the poverty line, rose in Ireland from 18 per cent in 2008 to 28.6 per cent in 2012. Ireland was ranked 37th of 41 EU and OECD countries analysed, with only Croatia, Latvia, Greece and Iceland faring worse.
The report, Children of the Recession: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, points out that amid this "unprecedented social crisis", many countries managed to limit – or even reduce – child poverty. "It was by no means inevitable, then, that children would be the most enduring victims of the recession," it says.
Eighteen counties saw a reduction in child poverty since 2008, while there were increases in the remaining 23. In terms of exposure to the recession, Ireland is categorised by the report as one of the “most affected” countries and among those “with evident fiscal problems that experienced market pressure”.
A calculation of the impact of the crisis on the median income of households with children found there was a “sharp fall” of about 15 per cent in Ireland and suggests that between 2008 and 2012 Ireland “lost a full decade”. The only country to fare worse in this regard was Greece, which is deemed to have lost 14 years.
The report says labour market exclusion and cuts in social security benefits appear to be the “underlying factors driving these changes”. From 2008 to 2012, the proportion of households where all adults were workless increased most in those countries with the highest incidence of child poverty.
The research shows the proportion of children up to age 17 living in jobless households nearly doubled in Portugal and Spain and nearly tripled in Denmark, but the largest absolute increases of above 5 per cent were in Ireland, Bulgaria, Greece and Spain.
In terms of “recent significant changes” to family benefits, the report highlights “successive cuts to child benefit amounts [and] new means-tested benefits for low-income families” implemented between 2010 and 2013. It also points out that tax credits for lone-parent families decreased in 2011.
In several countries, family-related benefits were reduced, with Ireland and Spain singled out as countries where the “demands for financial adjustment measures” resulted in “leaving children behind precisely when their poverty indicators began to soar”.
“Ireland cut child benefits several times from 2010 to 2014, while squeezing unemployment benefits and social assistance,” says the report. “On a positive note, tax reform in 2011 reduced deductions for lone parents and disabled children and in 2014 initiatives were announced to improve health coverage for children under six and to reinforce school breakfast programmes.”
The impact of the recession on personal experiences and perceptions “is certainly not over”, it says.
In 13 countries, negative responses to three or four lifestyle questions were still rising between 2011 and 2013, particularly in Ireland.
Unicef Ireland executive director Peter Power said the wellbeing of children should be given priority during economic recessions. Children living in poverty were more likely to become impoverished adults and have poor children, creating and sustaining intergenerational cycles of poverty, he added.
“Every child has a right to an adequate standard of living,” Mr Power said. “Unicef’s research shows that the right policy choices, regardless of the economic environment, can make lasting positive changes to children’s lives and give every child the best start to ensure that they grow up to fulfil their potential.”