What is child poverty and why must we try to solve it?
No Child 2020: Not everyone has enough to eat in Ireland. But poverty is more complex than that
Pessimism is often used as an excuse – the belief that nothing can be done relieves the burden of having to do anything. Photograph: Mariano Sayno via Getty Images
No Child 2020 is a new initiative by The Irish Times, providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues over the coming year. Inspired by the Democratic Programme issued by the first Dáil a century ago, we explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child.
Poverty? In Ireland? Surely we don’t have that here? I mean, everyone has enough to eat and a place to live.
First of all, no, not everyone in Ireland has enough to eat or a place to live. But importantly, poverty is far more complex than inadequate food and shelter. It is also about resources, access to services and participating in society.
The Government definition in the 1997 National Anti-Poverty Strategy, still stands: “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 which is acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and resources people may be excluded and marginalised from activities considered the norm for other people in society.”
OK. How many people, especially children, are in poverty?
It depends how it is being measured. There are three levels: to be “at risk” of poverty or in “relative poverty”; to experience “material deprivation”; and to be in “consistent poverty”.
Anyone in a household with an income less than 60 per cent of the median income is relatively poor and at risk of poverty. In 2017, when this meant living on less than €12,521 a year, 15.7 per cent of the population were in this category, but 18.4 per cent of children. Homes with children headed by single parents were at greatest risk, with 39.9 per cent in this kind of poverty compared with 9.4 per cent households with two parents.
So how does relative poverty differ from material deprivation?
Experiencing material deprivation means going without two of 11 indicators each month, including replacing worn-out household goods, two pairs of strong shoes, a warm coat, adequate heating, and having friends or family over for a drink or food.
In 2017 some 18.8 per cent of people, but 23 per cent of children, were in this type of poverty. Some 44.5 per cent of single parent households were in this category, compared with 15.8 per cent of two-parent homes.
And consistent poverty?
The harshest poverty is “consistent” poverty, when a person is both “relatively” poor and materially deprived. This affected 6.7 per cent of people in 2017 but 8.8 per cent of children. Some 20.7 per cent of single-parents homes were in consistent poverty, compared with 3.9 per cent of two-parent.
Other children most likely to be in poverty are households headed by Travellers, immigrants, asylum seekers, a person with a disability and in particularly deprived urban and rural areas.
But won’t the poor always be with us, and isn’t poverty down to the choices poor people make themselves?
Nelson Mandela said of poverty: “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Poverty is neither the fault of the people experiencing it, nor inevitable. The causes of poverty are structural and the result of choices made by policy makers. They can be changed if the right, perhaps difficult, choices are made.
Why should we care?
Study upon study has found poverty is bad not only for those experiencing it, whose lives are stunted educationally, professionally, emotionally and psychologically (particularly for children for who can suffer life-long effects) – but for everyone in society. Poverty means a loss in human potential, increased costs and increased demands on health and social services, as well as a breakdown in social cohesion where growing inequality leads to resentment, fear, crime and instability.
What is Government doing about all this?
It has set targets, the first in recent times set out in the 1997 National Anti-Poverty Strategy and the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016/2017. Among the aims: to reduce consistent poverty to 2 per cent by 2020, and to lift 70,000 (out of 138,000) children out of consistent poverty by 2020.
How is it doing?
Though there have been slight decreases in poverty in the past three years, these must be set against dramatic increases since the financial crisis began in 2008. Deprivation and consistent poverty rates are higher than they were a decade ago.