Fintan O’Toole: Poverty, in our republic of equals, is written on children’s bodies

Those from Yes and No sides should unite to end child poverty by 2020

Wonderful as it is, same-sex marriage is not the human rights issue of our generation. The most urgent human rights issue is the same for this generation as it is for every generation. It is poverty. And the most urgent aspect of poverty is child poverty. Spending your early years in deprivation does more than anything else to limit your chances of being an equal citizen with the same dignity and the same opportunity as everyone else.

So here’s the challenge for all those who poured their hearts and souls into the Yes campaign because they believe in equality and for all those who voted No because they were sincerely anxious about the welfare of children. Let’s get together to end child poverty by 2020.

We’ve created a newly enlivened democracy, with an expanded sense of possibility. We have a new generation suddenly aware of its democratic power. We have, for the first time, a diaspora that feels part of the political conversation. We’ve experienced a renewed joy in being Irish. We know that collectively we can achieve what was until recently dismissed as an impossibility. Let’s not waste this moment of concrete optimism. Let’s imagine the moment in five years’ time when no child in Ireland is living in consistent deprivation. It will happen if we really want it to happen.

The most bereft, marginalised and voiceless minority in Ireland is made up of children living with poverty, deprivation and the corrosive effects of inequality. They don’t matter. Their interests have been comprehensively ignored by those with power. In all the rhetoric of “tough choices” and “hard decisions”, they have been the soft target, the easy option.


Budget after budget, measure after measure, has targeted them with complete impunity. The results are as stark as they were predictable: in 2008, just before the crash, 6.8 per cent of Irish children were living in consistent poverty – a shameful figure in itself. By 2013, that proportion had almost doubled to 11.7 per cent. That’s 138,000 children – pretty much an entire Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of poor kids.

We don’t have the excuse of not knowing what this means for real live children. The excellent Growing Up in Ireland study has been tracking 11,000 children who were born in the year of the crash, 2008. And even by the age of three, the kids born in poverty were different. They actually look different. They’re lighter at birth, shorter at the age of three but also heavier and thus more at risk of obesity. Poverty, in our republic of equals, is written on the bodies of our children. Inequality is locked into flesh and bone from infancy.

Surely not even the smuggest right-winger thinks that these three year olds are responsible for their own conditions, that they’ve somehow failed to work hard enough or be sufficiently aspirational. There are no just deserts being served here. And if you don’t find this situation morally repulsive, you ought to find it fiscally reckless. Study after study has shown that taking a child out of poverty is the single most productive investment a government can make, saving at least seven times what it costs. The doubling of child poverty under this and the last government is not “austerity”. It’s a scandalous waste, of both human potential and public money.

Policy choices

The very fact that child poverty has increased so rapidly tells us that it’s not natural and inevitable. It is a product of social, political and economic choices. Which means we can choose differently. The Government actually acknowledges this because it has an official target of reducing consistent poverty among children by two-thirds by 2020. The other side of this is that its aspiration, its target, the aim which it would proud to fulfil, is to leave 37,000 children in consistent poverty five years from now.

This is why we need a national movement to end child poverty. There are excellent existing organisations that provide vital services to, and fight valiantly for, children. But they need a critical mass behind them. They need all of those who are sick of inequality. They need all the sincere people of faith who worry about families and children. They need the buzz of brilliant campaigning and heart-and-soul enthusiasm. They need that electrifying sense of a national pride.

Such a movement would do four things. It would bring together a wide coalition of citizens and civic society. It would draw up a concrete five-year plan. It would make child poverty a central issue in the 2016 election. Most importantly, it would harass and embarrass – make sure whoever is in power cannot slip away from the promises they will easily dispense.

I’m not setting myself up as head of such a campaign – there are much better and less divisive candidates. But I’ll do everything I can. If you will too, drop me a line at