The New Cost of Childhood

The long-term future of Europe's youngest citizens risks being ignored as governments battle to keep their heads above water in the current economic storm.

The long-term future of Europe's youngest citizens risks being ignored as governments battle to keep their heads above water in the current economic storm.

The urgency of this financial crisis has meant that some countries are being forced to put aside their long-term goals - and with it their children's prospects. Thirty million children already live in poverty. That's not in Africa; that's in our industrialised world, where 15% of the 200 million young people surveyed live below the poverty line. Many more are now threatened and risk being overlooked.

Greek bailouts, Spanish debt and eurozone scrambling mean little to a 10-year-old, but the impact of public spending cuts and belt-tightening spells real hardship for poor children and families.

It is hard to say how deep and sustained the current financial crisis might be. It is, however, crystal clear that its results will be seen in the coming years, based as much on the policies taken to safeguard the rights of children and youth during this crisis, as the crisis itself.

UNICEF's Report Card 10: Measuring child poverty released today, from the organisation's Office of Research in Florence, Italy, examines child poverty and deprivation industrialised countries comparing and ranking national performance. This international comparison shows that child poverty in these countries is not inevitable, but susceptible to policy, and that some countries are doing much better than others at protecting their most vulnerable citizens.

Take Sweden and Belgium, for example. Both have similar levels of economic development and per capita income, yet only 1.4% of Swedish children are considered deprived compared with 9.1% of their Belgian counterparts. Meanwhile in Ireland and the Netherlands the aggregate rate of child deprivation is below 5%; it is more than double that figure in France and Italy.

These figures are from 2009 - the latest comparative figures available - and thus reflect the outcome of government decisions in the period before the crisis. The three years of economic hardship since then does not bode well for the present or near future.

This is why two issues are imperative - and go hand-in-hand: first, governments need to guide policies in a way that will safeguard the long-term futures of their children and economies; and second, to do so they must give much more importance to gathering more timely and accurate data on child poverty.

If politicians, policymakers and voters had a clearer picture of the prospects for their children it would become much harder to defend short-term policies at the expense of those who have no say in their futures. With strong data and informed public attention, governments can make decisions that take into account the long-term consequences for the next generation.

Given the depth of Europe's crisis, urgent action is clearly required to pull economies back from the brink. But UNICEF believes that it must not take place at the expense of jeopardising children's present and future opportunities, or limiting social protection for poor families. Every measure that governments consider should be checked against its impact on children and families with children.

The risk is that the poverty and exclusion that millions of children experience today will extend well into their adult years. And their 'adult years' are significant - a quarter of under 16s in Europe today are now expected to live to 100 years of age or more. In a tight labour market, and with record youth unemployment in some countries, it is imperative that governments invest in quality education systems and vocational training to support recovery and spur future employment. Unemployment hurts economies and is a tragedy for youth. Yet across the EU, we are seeing deep cuts in social spending.

UNICEF believes the prevention of child poverty and social exclusion belong at the heart of policy making, and that it possible to emerge from our economic impasse with a toolkit of policies that set our children on the right course for the future, and enhance economies. This needs to include support for education and employment, and ring-fencing services related to children and poor families.

European countries have for generations stood tall in support of their most vulnerable citizens. Today they must rise to a new challenge.


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