This week, Unicef published the most comprehensive study of the effects of the financial crisis on children in the OECD.
The statistics are stark. Unicef’s report, Children of the Recession, shows that in the last five years, Irish families with children have lost the equivalent of 10 years of income progress. Out of 41 OECD countries, Ireland is ranked 37th out of 41 countries on relative increases in child poverty. In real terms, there are 130,000 more poor children in Ireland than there were five years ago.
Six years after the global financial and economic crisis, a generation of children and young people are growing up in a new Ireland where their opportunities have been set back considerably by the recession.
Poverty is always a tragedy, but child poverty is especially devastating. Children living in poverty are more likely to become impoverished adults and have poor children, creating and sustaining intergenerational cycles of poverty. Society pays a high price for child poverty, including reduced productivity, lower social cohesion and the costs of responding to chronic poverty. It is impossible to measure the untapped potential of a poor child. Protecting one’s childhood is essential both for the well-being of those who are children today and for the well-being of the societies of tomorrow.
Unicef’s report clearly demonstrates that policy choices, and not just prevailing economic circumstances, contribute to child poverty across the OECD. In 18 countries surveyed, child poverty has decreased, sometimes markedly. Poland, for example, has reduced child poverty by a remarkable 30 per cent between 2008 and 2012. While child poverty in Ireland has increased by 10.6 per cent during this period, it increased only 2.5 per cent among older people. In 28 out of 31 OECD countries, the child poverty rate has increased more rapidly (or decreased more slowly) for children than for older people. It’s clear that when social protection measures are put in place to safeguard a vulnerable group, they have been effective.
There are also concerns for older children and young people. The report shows that 16.1 per cent of young people in Ireland aged 15 to 24 are not in education, employment or training, which is higher than many other OECD countries. This is an effective measure of social exclusion, highlighting those who have not made a successful transition from school to work. Being outside work or training has considerable long-term consequences, both for the young person individually and for the broader society.
When asked about their experiences of the recession, people in Ireland reported not surprisingly that their standard of wellbeing had decreased since 2008. People report higher levels of stress, increased struggles in providing food for their families and a lower satisfaction with life. The quality and quantity of time that parents spend with their children is affected by lower incomes and contextual stress. This can have an adverse effect on family relationships and affect children during critical periods of intellectual and emotional development. Tellingly, fewer people than in previous Unicef reports agreed that Ireland is a country where children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day.