Did you hear about the toddler stealing food from a creche?
No Child 2020: We want to build a fair and just society where every child can hope
Children are the single biggest group of the population living in poverty. They worry about their parents and learn not to ask. And as they get older they become more aware and feel inferior
No Child 2020 is an initiative by The Irish Times providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues. We explore the problems facing children in the Republic today, and offer solutions that would make this a better country in which to be a child. You can find out more here
I had been in the Children’s Rights Alliance for two years when I first heard about a three-year old child stealing food from a crèche to get through the weekend. Ireland was still in the midst of austerity, but I was still shocked that a small child had to rob food to survive.
Soon after I met with another member organisation that told me about a child in one of their pre-schools who wasn’t eating his meals. The reason? He was saving the food in his bag for his younger siblings back home.
A year later I visited a direct provision centre providing accommodation to asylum seekers. There I met two girls who had not seen their parents cook a meal in years. Instead their parents had to queue up for their white plastic bag of food at 1pm, which was cold and inedible by the time the girls got home from school at 4pm.
The girls told me about once seeing staff in the direct provision centre making smoothies. They had never had a smoothie before and excitedly thought it was for them. Turned out it wasn’t, and the staff shut the kitchen door in their faces.
These stories will ring true to many services working with marginalised children. And I ask myself why are children going hungry in a country where food is plentiful and which boasts one of the fastest growing economies in Europe?
In the struggle to make ends meet, parents sometimes are forced to choose between paying the electricity bill and buying groceries
Parents are often blamed. Why can’t they go to Lidl or Aldi? Why don’t they just shop around?
Well, there’s no doubt that living near a good low-cost supermarket makes life easier for low-income families. But the truth is that many families simply can’t afford to buy healthy food for their children.
In the struggle to make ends meet, parents sometimes are forced to choose between paying the electricity bill and buying groceries – a decision between heating and eating is one that no family should have to make.
What does this mean for children? Arriving to school hungry means that they can’t fully participate. They’ve no ability to concentrate or to socialise with their friends.
And when the household budget is so tight it can mean that children are more likely to be fed poor-quality processed food. One-in-four children under 14 is now either overweight or obese – a public health crisis in the making.
Low wages, part-time work, high childcare and rent costs are sucking up families’ incomes. Lone parents and two-parent households where only one adult is working feel this acutely. For many there’s nothing left at the end of the week for anything else. Going to the cinema or a birthday party is a luxury – a rarity.
And children understand this. Children are the single biggest group of the population living in poverty. They worry about their parents and learn not to ask. And as they get older they become more aware and feel inferior. Not being able to buy the right shampoo for your hair or having a new pair of trainers causes huge embarrassment and shame.
Many children living in poverty strive for a better life. They want to get a decent job, a third-level education and to reach their full potential, but society holds them back
But poverty isn’t just about food, income or housing. The daily grind of making ends meet is stressful and sometimes toxic. Children in low-income households often miss out on the invisible knapsack of privileges that children from the higher-income backgrounds enjoy. For them going to university is assumed, having weekly music lessons is the norm, and knowing how to behave and interact with other middle-class people is easy.
There are many children living in poverty who strive for a better life. They want to get a decent job, a third-level education and to reach their full potential, but societal attitudes hold them back.
I know this first-hand. I had lots of encouragement at school but I still remember the teacher who arrived into our English class on her first day. She told us not to worry about working too hard. We were in “pass” English, so we could just take it easy. It was the most demotivating thing I ever heard in school.
The same teacher questioned me about going to a UCD open day. Was I really taking enough honours subjects to get in? It left me with the impression that I didn’t belong and wasn’t good enough.
The best teachers, youth workers, social workers and gardaí have high aspirations for the children that they work with. They open the door to opportunities. They inspire hope.
I know I live in a country that values children and childhood. But the focus on dealing with the legacies of the past and our broken child protection system, coupled with austerity, has meant that children living in poverty have lost out.
Previous governments sought to plug the income-gap by increasing child benefit and other payments. Investments in a national child health programme, early childhood care and education, good quality public housing and free school meals for all children should also have been on the list.
Child poverty has long-lasting effects. It damages childhoods, limits life chances and destroys the human spirit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Poverty isn’t inevitable. Other European countries dealt with child poverty by investing in universal public services and targeted programmes for struggling families. We can too.
We have proof that intervention works. Nearly 25,000 children were lifted out of consistent poverty between 2016 and 2017
The government in 2014 committed itself to an ambitious target to lift 100,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People (2014-2020) provides the basis for a whole-of- government approach to tackling our high child poverty rate.
Investments made in the last few budgets have made an impact. Free GP care for all children under six years and the expansion of the free pre-school year to two years are a great start.
The recent increases to targeted payments for low-income families, including lone parents and children living in direct provision, are also important.
The ongoing development of prevention and early intervention programmes for struggling families has also improved child educational and wellbeing outcomes.
And we have proof that these interventions work. The latest data shows that nearly 25,000 children were lifted out of consistent poverty between 2016 and 2017.
Other measures will also make a difference. The new affordable childcare scheme from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, earmarked for autumn 2019 means that a lone parent with a two-year-old will get €175 a week for full-time childcare if they have an annual income of €26,000.
Plans to introduce a hot school meals programme from Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty is another step in the right direction.
But we must do much more. We must make better political choices. We can break the cycle of disadvantage that many families are trapped in. We can stop children falling into poverty. Increased government co-ordination, additional investment in public services and employment programmes that help families find good quality jobs could create the sea change we need.
The Children’s Rights Alliance has united with its members to launch a national campaign on the 100th anniversary of the Democratic Programme – No Child 2020.
With the support of The Irish Times we want to begin a national conversation about the realities of living in poverty for children. And we want to explore the solutions to build a fair and just society where every child gets the opportunities to fulfil their potential. Where every child can hope.
Join the national conversation at childrensrights.ie
Tanya Ward is chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, whose 100 members work to improve the lives of children in Ireland