Fintan O’Toole: Why we should be hopeful about tackling child poverty

By investing in young citizens, democracies can rediscover the joys of good government

‘The proportion of children living in consistent poverty nearly doubled in the austerity years. Basic hunger returned as a reality.’ Photograph: Getty Images (file photo)

‘The proportion of children living in consistent poverty nearly doubled in the austerity years. Basic hunger returned as a reality.’ Photograph: Getty Images (file photo)

 

This morning in Dublin, two members of the Cabinet will be talking, not about Brexit, but about child poverty. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar will address a conference called Making Child Poverty Policies Real. Its aim is to assess the performance of both the State and the European Union in dealing with the single greatest abuse of human rights in contemporary Ireland and Europe.

Societies discriminate in all sorts of terrible ways against people on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion and race. But not even these barriers are as pernicious as child poverty. What happens to us in childhood shapes us in ways that are indelible. And while there may be no such thing as the perfect childhood, many of the forces that act from the womb onwards to limit the life chances of children are the result of social and political choices – choices often made casually and without serious thought.

Though the timing of this conference may seem unfortunate, it is actually quite apt. The Brexit debate has been a symptom of a wider crisis in politics and governance. Citizens have become alienated from power because power has not been well used.

There is a despair about the ability of democratic governments to transform the lives of citizens for the better.

Idealism and optimism have been drained from mainstream politics. Both Ireland and the EU are badly in need of an injection of concrete hope – not wild utopianism but the serious, evidence-based confidence that public institutions can make people’s lives better in tangible and permanent ways.

Life chances

There is ample, indeed overwhelming, evidence that serious, co-ordinated, sustained programmes that link together family support, education, healthcare, housing and loving encouragement can transform the life chances of all children.

And from a political perspective this makes child poverty a curiously hopeful area. Failures to take it seriously are a disgrace to our governing institutions, but serious and sustained commitments can have thrilling effects.

This is an area in which good policy works, in which public services and governments can have splendid and permanent successes. The benefits of a good childhood stay with us for the rest of our lives. By extending them to all young citizens, democracies can rediscover the joys of good government.

Child poverty is also, surely, an area in which broad social consensus is possible. It is very hard for any rational person to blame an 18-month-old child in a poor family because, as the Growing Up in Ireland studies have shown, its body already looks different from those born on the same day into more fortunate circumstances.

Whatever religious or political perspective one brings to bear on broad social and economic questions, few would argue that poverty is any child’s just desserts.

And even for the bean counters, the evidence of spectacular fiscal returns on investment in the early years is both global and robust.

What has held us back from acting on this consensus, though, is despair. There is a pessimism about whether some children are not just doomed by ill luck to fail.

But we live at a time when this pessimism is, on the large scale, completely unjustified. In our societies there is no reason for any child to be hungry, cold, homeless, marginalised or left behind. It happens, to an overwhelming extent, because of the collective choices we make – often silently and by default.

One of the choices we made in Ireland’s banking crisis after 2008 was that children would be at the front line of the pain of economic adjustment. This was largely a process of looking away – there was no coherent and sustained effort to shelter vulnerable children from the consequences of a crisis they had no part in creating. The results have been shocking.

The proportion of children living in consistent poverty nearly doubled in the austerity years. Basic hunger returned as a reality: children’s charities reported a phenomenon of even very young children stealing food on Fridays because they knew there would not be enough food at home for the weekend.

And homelessness among children has risen to scarcely credible levels. There was horror when it was announced that 1,000 children were homeless – there are now 2,121.

Children’s rights

Investing in Children

The State has published the widely welcomed Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures which also sets targets.

One of the problems, though, is that the target for the number of children to be lifted out of poverty by 2020 has risen from 70,000 initially, to 100,000 now. This is not because the programme is more ambitious but because there are more poor children than the planners at first imagined.

This in itself tells us what happens when child poverty remains an afterthought of governance. But it doesn’t have to be like this – for these children, Ireland’s and Europe’s future starts now.

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