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Document 52010AE0978

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Child poverty and children's well-being’ (exploratory opinion)

OJ C 44, 11.2.2011, p. 34–39 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

11.2.2011   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 44/34


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Child poverty and children's well-being’ (exploratory opinion)

2011/C 44/06

Rapporteur-General: Ms KING

In a letter dated 28 April 2010, and under Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Ms Laurette Onkelinx, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health, asked the European Economic and Social Committee, on behalf of the future Belgian presidency, to draw up an exploratory opinion on

Child poverty and children's well-being.

On 25 May 2010 the Committee Bureau instructed the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship to prepare the Committee's work on the subject.

Given the urgent nature of the work, the European Economic and Social Committee appointed Ms Brenda King as rapporteur-general at its 464th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 July 2010 (meeting of 14 July 2010), and adopted the following opinion by 113 votes to 6 with 14 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and Recommendations

1.1   In the EU today, 20 million children are at risk of poverty. The proportion of children in poverty is even greater than the proportion of adults in poverty (20 % vs. 16 %), with more expected to fall below the poverty line due to the economic crisis. The very existence of poverty among children living in the EU is evidence that they are being denied their most fundamental rights.

1.2   The consequences of doing nothing about childhood poverty will have a detrimental impact on the future well-being of the European Union. The achievement of EU 2020 Strategy depends on an educated, healthy and hopeful young generation. Both the existence of so many children at risk of poverty and the extent to which poverty is inherited from one generation to the next is a damning indictment of the failure of existing EU policies to protect the most vulnerable in society.

1.3   Child poverty and well-being is a multi-dimensional problem; findings from a number of reports show that a range of factors, including material deprivation, lack of access to basic healthcare services, decent housing and education contribute to the problem. It is generally understood that these factors are interlinked and interdependent, thus solutions to the problem should reflect this.

1.4   Child poverty and deprivation prevent millions of children from getting the best start in life, and plays a role in stunting their personal development. Very often, intervention at the early stages of a child’s life can have a positive impact on the rest of their life. It is vital that appropriate policies are developed to ensure that all children, particularly those from the most marginalised parts of society, are given a chance to achieve their full potential and therefore make a positive contribution to the future.

1.5   In this European Year on Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, the EESC welcomes the political commitment shown by the Council with its decision to make poverty reduction one of the five headline EU targets to be achieved by 2020. The target is to ‘reduce the number of Europeans living below national poverty lines by 25 %, lifting 20 million people out of poverty’ (1).

1.6   The Committee is however disappointed that there is not a specific target to reduce child poverty and promote child well-being, given the political attention and wide range of initiatives on this issue at EU and Member State level since 2000.

1.7   The Committee welcomes that one of the seven flagship initiatives will be a European Platform Against Poverty whose purpose is ‘to ensure social and territorial cohesion such that the benefits of growth and jobs are widely shared and people experiencing poverty and social exclusion are enabled to live in dignity and take an active part in society’.

1.8   The EESC strongly recommends that this Platform becomes the framework for eradicating child poverty and promoting child well-being by developing child-specific, multi-dimensional approaches, underpinned by child rights and supported by specific targets that focus on children and families with children.

1.9   The EU Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion has highlighted particular groups of children who are at high risk of extreme poverty including:

i.

children living in or leaving institutions, street children, children experiencing abuse, maltreatment or neglect, children whose parents have mental health problems, children in care, homeless children and children who are the victims of domestic violence or the victims of trafficking.

ii.

children with disabilities, children from ethnic minorities, Roma children, young asylum seekers and immigrants.

iii.

children living in very poor and isolated rural areas lacking many basic facilities and children living in large estates on the periphery of major urban areas.

1.10   The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights include provisions on children’s rights, which gives the EU a strong mandate to guarantee the survival, protection and development of children. These vulnerable children should have their own indicators and targets within the EU Platform against Poverty.

1.11   The EESC supports the call for a comprehensive Commission Recommendation on Child Poverty and Well-being to set key policy objectives and targets and create a framework for ongoing monitoring, exchange, research and peer reviews that will contribute to the achievement of this EU 2020 poverty target.

2.   Background

2.1   Since 2000 the issue of child poverty and social exclusion has become an increasingly important part of the Social Open Method of Coordination. It has been highlighted as a key issue in each of the Joint Reports on Social Protection and Social Inclusion (2002-2004). EU Heads of State stated the need ‘to take necessary measures to rapidly and significantly reduce child poverty, giving all children equal opportunities, regardless of their social background’ (2).

2.2   The 2005 Luxembourg EU Presidency initiative on ‘Taking forward the EU Social Inclusion Process’ called explicitly for children mainstreaming and for the adoption of at least one child well-being indicator at EU level. In 2006, the European Commission Communication on the Rights of the Child gave particular attention to the issue of children’s social inclusion and to the role of the EU Social Inclusion Process. An EU Task-Force on Child Poverty and Well-being analytical report and recommendations were formally adopted in January 2008. At the end of 2009, the Commission Working Document on the Europe 2020 Strategy recognised that child poverty and social exclusion is one of the EU’s long-term social challenges which have been further exacerbated by the financial and economic crisis. In March 2010, a detailed report on Child Poverty and Child Well-Being in the European Union was produced by a consortium led by the TARKI Social Research Institute for the European Commission.

2.3   The 2009 Lisbon Treaty includes the promotion of Children’s Rights as an explicit objective of the EU. At the opening conference of the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, Commission President Barroso declared ‘Let us reduce the risk of poverty rate by 2020 for the whole population, particularly children and the elderly, because the current figures are intolerable.’ Belgium, who has the EU Presidency in the second half of 2010, has singled out the fight against Child poverty and promotion of Child well-being as key priorities.

3.   Child poverty and well-being in the EU

3.1   Child poverty

3.1.1   Child poverty and well-being are major challenges across the European Union. However, the extent and severity varies widely from country to country and indeed in many countries from region to region. So, evidence from the 2007 wave of EU-SILC shows the following (3):

20 % of children in the EU are at risk of poverty (4) as compared to 16 % for the total population. The risk is greater for children in all countries except Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany and Slovenia (in Latvia, the risk is identical. Child poverty risk is as high as 30-33 % in two countries (Bulgaria and Romania), and between 23-25 % in five countries (Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK), whereas it is 10-12 % in five countries (Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia and Sweden).

It is essential to complement this information with the national poverty risk gap (5), which indicates ‘how poor the poor children are’ - that is, the depth of child poverty risk. The poverty risk gap for children varies from 13 % in Finland and 15 % in France to 40 % in Romania and 44 % in Bulgaria. The risk of poverty tends to increase with the age of children in most countries.

Another key factor to look at when considering income poverty is duration, i.e. how long children spend living under the poverty risk threshold. As emphasised in the aforementioned TARKI report, ‘although the risk of poverty among children in a given year gives some indication of the threat of deprivation and social exclusion they face, the threat concerned is much more serious if they have an income below this level for several years’. For the 20 EU countries for which the required EU-SILC data are available, the TARKI report shows that the proportion of children living in households that have been at-risk-of-poverty for each of the years 2005-2007 ranges from 4-6 % (in Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Slovenia and Sweden) up to 13-16 % (in Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal).

3.2   Material deprivation

3.2.1   The EU definition of children at risk-of-poverty is based on the number of children living in low income families. While important, this measure is insufficient as it doesn’t include all that is needed for a child to have a good start in life. Children can live in substandard housing or even be homeless, live in a derelict neighbourhoods, experience high levels of crime, poorer health, poor diets, higher risks of accidents and injuries, more physical abuse, more bullying, less access to childcare, limited access to social and family services, educational disadvantage and low quality educational opportunities, have limited or no access to playgrounds, sporting and recreational facilities or to cultural activities. Some children face more than one disadvantage and as these accumulate they can interact and reinforce each other to deepen a child’s experience of poverty and social exclusion and to increase the cross-generational inheritance of poverty and exclusion.

3.2.2   The material deprivation rate for all children in the EU is identical to that affected by poverty risk (20 %). However, material deprivation varies by a significantly larger extent across Member States: from 4-10 % (in Luxembourg, the three Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Spain) up to 39-43 % (in Hungary, Latvia and Poland), 57 % (Romania) and 72 % (Bulgaria). This compares to a poverty risk range of 10 % to 33 %. This large variation in material deprivation reflects the differences in average living standards across Member States as well as the distribution within them.

3.2.3   The material deprivation rate is 46 %, a proportion which varies significantly - from 18-28 % (Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden) to 72-96 % (Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Romania). And among children which are above the poverty risk threshold, the EU average material deprivation rate is 13 %. Here again, the range is very high: 1-6 % (Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden) and 35-62 % (Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Romania).

3.2.4   The EESC recommends that the national poverty risk rates, poverty risk thresholds and the national material deprivation rates are included as indicators.

3.3   Children most at risk

3.3.1   Lone parents and large families

3.3.1.1   Children living with lone parents and children living in large families are at highest risk in virtually all countries. Evidence from the 2007 wave of EU-SILC indicates that at EU level, 34 % of children living in single parent families are at risk of poverty, with proportions varying from 17-24 % (Denmark, Finland, Sweden) to 40-45 % (Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Romania, UK) and 54 % (Malta). As to children living in large families (i.e. households consisting of 2 adults and 3 or more children), their poverty risk for the EU is 25 %. The share ranges from 12-15 % (Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia) to 41-55 % (Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania) and 71 % (Bulgaria).

3.3.2   Jobless households

3.3.2.1   The 2007 EU Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that 9.4 % of children live in jobless households, a proportion ranging from 2.2-3.9 % (in Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg and Slovenia) to 12 % in Belgium, 12.8 % in Bulgaria, 13.9 % in Hungary and 16.7 % in the UK (6). These children have a very high - 70 % - average poverty risk, with the lowest risk registered in Denmark and Finland (47-49 %) and the highest risk in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia (81-90 %).

3.3.2.2   Regarding material deprivation, living in a household where no-one is in paid employment is likely to have a significant effect on both the current living conditions of children and on their future living conditions. Joblessness not only raises the question of potential financial problems; the absence of a working adult in the child’s household can also limit current or future opportunities to participate fully in society.

3.3.3   Children at risk of ‘extreme’ poverty

3.3.3.1   The EU Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion has highlighted particular groups of children who are at high risk of more severe or extreme poverty. This is particularly evident from the various Member States' National Action Plans for Inclusion and several transnational exchange projects. These groups include: children with disabilities, children from ethnic minorities (especially the Roma), young asylum seekers and immigrants, children experiencing abuse, maltreatment or neglect, children whose parents have mental health problems, children in care, homeless children and children who are the victims of domestic violence or the victims of trafficking, children living in very poor and isolated rural areas lacking many basic facilities and children living in large estates on the periphery of major urban areas (7). From the 2007 analysis of the EU, it appears that the position of children of migrant families and some ethnic minorities is a growing issue of concern in the older Member States.

3.4   Long-term effect and intergenerational poverty

3.4.1   Long-term effect

3.4.1.1   An important theme from the Joint Reports on Social Protection and Social Inclusion is that growing up in poverty limits personal development and has long term consequences for the development and well-being of children and for their future health and well-being as adults. It increases their risk of being poor and experiencing unemployment and social exclusion as adults. This long-term impact was highlighted in the 2007 report which concluded that ‘Children growing up in poverty are less likely than their better-off peers to do well in school, enjoy good health, stay out of dealings with the criminal justice system, and - as young adults - to find a foothold in the labour market and in society more broadly’.

3.4.2   Intergenerational poverty

3.4.2.1   The extent to which poverty is passed from one generation to the next is also a related and recurring theme. In a number of countries the intergenerational transmission is particularly evident in relation to education and this appears to be true in countries with both high and low levels of child poverty and social exclusion. The 2005 EU-SILC module on the intergenerational transmission of disadvantages revealed that childhood educational opportunities impact on the likelihood of adult poverty. So, an individual whose parents have educational qualifications at primary level has 23 times the risk of having no formal qualification compared to someone whose parents have third level education.

4.   Benchmarking, monitoring and evaluation

4.1   A major challenge that needs to be given particular attention is that rigorous benchmarking, monitoring and evaluation should be made a central and visible feature at both national and EU levels.

4.2   For this, we would recommend:

instituting a process whereby the Commission and Member States would explore ways of making the EU social objectives more visible, measurable and tangible at EU level.

ensuring that progress made towards the EU and national targets and towards the improved performances in the agreed set of EU indicators are rigorously and regularly monitored and reported on.

ensuring that peer reviews are organised to discuss the results of this monitoring exercise with a view to boosting policy learning among Member States and the Commission.

introducing a much more rigorous approach to monitoring and evaluation with an increased focus on results and ensure that independent critical analysis of progress made in achieving objectives is regularly carried out. Key elements could usefully include:

incorporating the common indicators more systematically into the Member States' national monitoring and analytical frameworks in order to improve mutual learning;

boosting statistical capacity at EU, national and sub-national levels and in particular ensuring the production of more timely social statistics (including data on child poverty and well-being that allows for a better monitoring of the impact of the financial and economic crisis across the EU);

requiring all Member States to have formal arrangements for involving civil society organisations and independent experts in monitoring and assessing social inclusion policies on an ongoing basis.

5.   Establishing the European Platform Against Poverty

5.1   The strengthening of the social dimension of the EU, and in particular the delivery of the EU 2020 targets will depend significantly on the proposed EU 2020 flagship initiative, the European Platform Against Poverty (EPAP).

5.2   The EPAP must become the visible symbol of this renewed Social Europe. It has to play a central role in ensuring that all other strands of EU policy making (e.g. economic, competition, education, migration, health, innovation and environmental policies) contribute to achieving the EU's social goals, including the EU target on poverty reduction.

5.3   A key priority will be to mainstream issues of adequate social protection, including the fight against child poverty, promoting child well-being, and children’s rights across all relevant EU policy areas and programmes, including the Structural Funds. The EPAP should play a central role in monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the social impact assessment process and on the extent to which the other strands of Europe 2020 are contributing to the goal of reducing poverty.

5.4   Improving links between EU social inclusion objectives and EU Structural Funds objectives

5.4.1   There should be much closer alignment between the EU's and Member States' social inclusion objectives and the use of EU Structural Funds. In this context, the use of Structural Funds should become a key part of the National Action Plans for Inclusion. An example was the Commission’s proposal, in 2009, aimed at permitting the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to be used for supporting housing interventions in favour of marginalised communities living in the newer Member States. This could play an important role in increasing resources for initiatives in this field.

6.   EESC Recommendations

6.1   EU commitment to addressing child poverty and well-being

6.1.1   Given the overall objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, a coherent framework for addressing child poverty and child well-being, should be developed, taking a rights-based approach. A specific EU target should be introduced to eradicate child poverty and promote child well-being.

6.2   Adequate Resources

6.2.1   For families with children, there should be an establishment of a minimum family income using cash transfers that depend on the labour market status of parents. Also cash support could be guaranteed to all children by tax credits and/or universal cash benefits.

6.2.2   Universal child benefits should be further explored as a key means of fighting child poverty, given the overall efficiency in administration, absence of social stigma and high take-up as based on the analysis of the Social Protection Committee (2008).

6.2.3   As children living in jobless households run a very high poverty risk, there needs to a target to reduce the poverty gap for jobless households and those experiencing in-work poverty in order to reduce the depth of poverty experienced by children. Active labour market policies should support parental employment and there should be the provision of quality services, such as childcare, that are local, accessible and affordable.

6.2.4   Inclusive labour markets need to provide quality jobs for parents. To ensure that parents have time to spend with their children there needs to be policies that promote the reconciliation of work and family life.

6.2.5   For children experiencing extreme poverty, ensuring equal opportunities for all through well-designed social policies, and strengthening efforts aimed at successful educational outcomes for each child, is required in order to break the transmission of poverty and exclusion to the next generation. Inclusion and anti-discrimination policies need to be reinforced, especially in relation to immigrants and their descendants and to ethnic minorities.

6.3   Early Childhood

6.3.1   The EESC supports Eurochild's recommendation that childcare services need to be broadened to adopt an inclusive concept of services from pre-natal to preschool that is open to all children and families. Eurochild argues that the Barcelona targets ignore many of the good practice around early childhood policy. The EESC recommends that with regard to the Barcelona targets, there is a need for the development of common EU ‘quality standards’ for early years’ services, including early years’ care and education, as identified by the European Commission’s Childcare Network, which should influence the development of national policies and practices, including the use of the Structural Funds.

6.4   Health

6.4.1   The EESC recommends that the EU Working Party on Health Indicators should develop indicators in relation to children to monitor and evaluate public health policies and their impact.

6.4.2   Mental health indicators for positive mental health and mental disorders in children should also be developed.

6.4.3   The Commission Communication on Health Inequalities, due in 2012, should address child health.

6.5   Housing

6.5.1   EU Member States should implement the commitments and actions agreed at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in March 2010 in relation to Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe.

6.5.2   The European Commission should agree with Member States a common framework and common guidelines for measuring, monitoring and reporting on homelessness and housing exclusion, paying particular attention to the circumstances of children.

6.5.3   The European Commission should continue to support and fund initiatives to assist Member States and candidate countries to close poor quality residential institutions for children and develop appropriate alternative provision.

6.6   Protection from violence, abuse and exploitation

6.6.1   The European Commission should explore with all relevant stakeholders the feasibility of establishing an indicator set on violence against children, child abuse and exploitation, covering issues of identification, protection, prosecutions and prevention, in line with the recommendations of the study of the 2009 study for the Fundamental Rights Agency on indicators.

6.6.2   Member States should develop national strategies to prevent and protect children from all forms of violence, including clear targets and budget allocations, as well as mechanisms at local level where children or others can report cases of violence.

6.7   Child centred measures

6.7.1   The Commission should strengthen links with the Council of European's ‘Building a Europe for and with Children’ which puts an emphasis on children's participation.

6.7.2   The existing commonly agreed indicators in relation to income and material deprivation need to be expanded to include more child-centred indicators. It is important that the indicators reflect the various stages of childhood development reflecting the most relevant dimensions and covering all relevant child ages. The Tarki/Applica study recommends age ranges 0-5, 6-11, 12-17 and including dimensions such as income, material deprivation, education, housing, health, exposure to risk, social participation.

Brussels, 14 July 2010.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  According to the EU definition, people ‘at risk of poverty’ are people living in a household whose total equivalised income is below 60% of the median national equivalised household income (the equivalence scale used is the OECD modified scale).

(2)  Brussels European Council, 23/24 March 2006 Presidency conclusions, 7775/1/06 rev 1, pt 72.

(3)  See the web site of Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Communities: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/statistics/themes.

(4)  A child ‘at-risk-of-poverty’ is a child who lives in a household ‘at-risk-of-poverty’, i.e. a household whose total equivalised income is below 60% of the median national equivalised household income.

(5)  The ‘relative median at-risk-of-poverty gap’ (here: poverty risk gap) measures the distance between the median equivalised income of people living below the poverty risk threshold and the value of that poverty risk threshold; it is expressed as a percentage of the threshold.

(6)  See Eurostat web site: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/statistics/themes.

(7)  This pattern is reinforced in the 2007 report from the EU Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion which led to the conclusion that ‘Two groups of children stand out in a significant number of countries as being at very high risk and of experiencing severe poverty and social exclusion: children living in or leaving institutions and Roma children. However, there are also a number of other situations that are highlighted quite often: children drawn into child labour; children who are victims of violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, and addiction and are involved in crime; children with a disability; unaccompanied minors; children in homeless families and street children.’ (Frazer and Marlier, 2007).


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