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FactCheck: Is Willie O'Dea right to say Ireland has the highest child poverty rate in the OECD?

The Fianna Fáil TD made the bold claim earlier this week in an interview with a local newspaper.

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FIANNA FÁIL TD Willie O’Dea this week defended his 2008 guest appearance on Limerick’s Live 95 FM, after earlier slating Minister Leo Varadkar’s forthcoming slot on RTE Radio One’s Late Debate.

He pointed to the purportedly different circumstances afoot in Ireland then and now, and told the Limerick Leader newspaper Ireland’s child poverty rate is now “the highest in the OECD”.

Is that true?

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: Ireland has the highest child poverty rate in the OECD
Verdict: FALSE

What was said:

In an interview with the Limerick Leader, published on Monday, O’Dea stated:

Now, we have huge levels of consistent poverty in the country, huge numbers of children in poverty, the highest in the OECD.

The Facts

10/5/2016. Protecting the Self Employed Legislation Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

FactCheck asked Willie O’Dea for evidence to support his claim, but we did not receive any. Instead, a Fianna Fáil spokesperson made a series of claims related to child poverty in general, in Ireland.

We’ll have a quick look at those later on, but for now, let’s check O’Dea’s claim that Ireland has the highest child poverty rate in the OECD.

Background

The definitive source on this is the OECD’s Family Database, which has tracked poverty rates among children and the general population throughout OECD countries, since 1989.

The OECD is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental group currently composed of 35 countries with relatively developed economies.

The child poverty rate is measured in two ways:

The proportion of children (0-to-17 year olds) with an equivalised post-tax-and-transfer income of less than 50% of the national annual median equivalised post-tax-and-transfer income.

And:

The proportion of the population in households with a working age (15-to-64 year olds) head and at least one child (0-to-17 year olds) with an equivalised post-tax-and-transfer income of less than 50% of the national annual median equivalised post-tax-and-transfer income.

“Post-tax-and-transfer income” is income from work and capital gains, with the following disregarded: taxes and social security contributions paid, and government transfers (social welfare) received.

The median is the income level that half the population fall above, and half the population fall below.

So let’s say the median household income is €30,000 (after disregarding taxes, social welfare, and so on).

If a child lives in a household with an income of less than €15,000, that child is considered to be living in poverty.

With that in mind, here’s how Ireland has fared since 2004 (the first year for which data is available for Ireland).

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

As you can see, Ireland’s child poverty rate was above the OECD average from 2004 to 2006, but since 2007, it has been below average.

And in almost every year, it has been very significantly lower than the country with the highest child poverty rate, but also higher than that country with the lowest child poverty rate.

And here’s where we have ranked in the OECD, with a lower number indicating a higher child poverty rate.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

As you can see, in 2004 Ireland had the sixth-highest child poverty rate out of 18 OECD countries for which data was available.

But by 2009, we had the 18th-highest out of 21 countries, or the fourth-lowest, and in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available), Ireland ranked 24th out of 30 countries. That is, we had the seventh-lowest rate in the OECD.

So when it comes to the latest available figures, Willie O’Dea’s claim is way off. Ireland has never had the highest child poverty rate in the OECD, and in recent years, we have actually ranked comparatively very well.

Although we don’t have figures for 2016, it is almost inconceivable that Ireland would have gone from being in the bottom half of the child poverty rankings every year between 2007 and 2013, to now being at the very top.

We’re satisfied to give this claim a verdict of FALSE.

Other claims

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 2.05.15 PM Source: UNICEF

Some of the other claims made by O’Dea’s spokesperson, in response to FactCheck, were:

  • “Despite minor improvements in child poverty rates in recent years, 1 out of every three children in Ireland are materially deprived according to a 2016 UNICEF Report”.

The figures in that report (pg 17) themselves come from the 2013 EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC).

The SILC does indeed show that in 2013, some 29.8% of children (under 18) in Ireland lived in households suffering material deprivation – that is, they were unable to afford at least 3 out of 9 items on a list, including paying rent, eating regular meat or protein, a TV, a holiday, a car, etc…

Ireland ranked 20th out of 28 EU countries that year for this measure – a poor record.

It’s worth noting that Fianna Fáil’s disclaimer – “despite minor improvements in child poverty rates in recent years” – is off the mark.

As the OECD data showed, above, Ireland’s child poverty rate has consistently and significantly declined over the past decade, from 16.9% in 2004 (3.8 percentage points above average) to 9.1% in 2013 (4.2% below average).

Over the same period, the average child poverty rate in OECD countries where data was available increased from 12.8% to 13.3%.

  • “Nearly 6 in 10 Irish lone parents are at risk of poverty, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality, above the EU average of 49%”

This is an entirely accurate citation of the research. The EIGE report (pg 65) earlier this month states that Ireland had the EU’s joint second-highest risk of poverty or social exclusion among lone parents (58%).

  • “Lone Parent Households also have the highest rates (22.1%) of consistent poverty in Ireland compared other households”

This is exactly right. The 2014 Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC), an annual EU-wide study, found that, among different types of households, ones with one parent and at least one child (aged 0-17) did have the highest rate of consistent poverty (22.1%).

That’s compared to households with two adults and one or more children, where the rate of consistent poverty was 7.9%, and households with two adults, at least one of which was aged over 65, which had the lowest rate of consistent poverty at 1.9% (See Table 8).

  • “According to the Child Poverty Statistics, published in November 2014, the number of children living in consistent poverty has nearly doubled, from 6.3% in 2008 to 11.2% in 2014.

This is true. Although technically it’s the rate of children living in consistent poverty that has nearly doubled, not necessarily the number.

However, we know from CSO population estimates that the population aged 0-19 increased by 7.1% between 2008 and 2014, so the number in consistent poverty is likely to have been close to double.

The SILC 2008 (pg 7) shows a consistent poverty rate of 6.3% among children, which did indeed rise to 11.2% in 2014 (Table 2).

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 2.06.58 PM Source: CSO.ie

  • “Additionally, the number of children experiencing deprivation has nearly tripled since 2008 from 13.5% to 36.1% in 2014″.

This is from the same source, again – the SILC. The rate of deprivation in 2014 was indeed 36.1% (See Table 2, above), but we weren’t able to find the equivalent figure for 2008. Fianna Fáil did not respond to our request for that in time for publication.

  • “Ireland ranks close to the bottom of the list on how the recession impacted on children coming 37th out of 41 nations in terms of measuring relative changes in child poverty”.

This comes from a 2014 UNICEF report, which measured changes in the child poverty rate between 2008 and 2012.

It found that Ireland’s child poverty rate increased from 18% in 2008 to 28.6% in 2012 – an increase of 10.6%, the fifth-highest rise out of 41 countries (pg 8).

There are two reasons why these figures appear to differ so significantly from the child poverty rate calculated in the OECD data.

Firstly, the rate in 2008 is higher because UNICEF used 60% of median income as the poverty ceiling, as opposed to 50%, thus automatically increasing the number of children considered to be living in poverty.

Secondly, the increase between 2008 and 2012 actually measures the rate of poverty in 2012 as compared to the rate of poverty in 2008.

It uses 2008 as a benchmark, whereas most child poverty calculation uses 50% median income within each year as the benchmark.

Nonetheless, Willie O’Dea accurately cited the results of the UNICEF report.

  • “Children in Ireland are disproportionately affected by poverty with 40% of people living in poverty being under the age of 18

This isn’t stated in the 2014 SILC results, but we were able to test it using the numbers available (Table A1 and Table 2).

  • The total number of people surveyed in 2014 was 14,078
  • Of these, 16.3% (2,295) were “at risk of poverty
  • Of those 2,295, some 31% (713) were aged under 17
  • Of the total number surveyed (14,078), some 27.2% (3,833) were under 17.

So children were disproportionately deemed “at risk of poverty”, but they didn’t quite make up 40% of all those at risk of poverty. Let’s check out the “consistent poverty” numbers.

  • The total number of people surveyed in 2014 was 14,078
  • Of these, 8% (1,126) were in “consistent poverty
  • Of those 1,126, some 38.1% (429) were aged under 17
  • Of the total number surveyed (14,078), some 27.2% (3,833) were under 17.

So children were also disproportionately deemed to be in “consistent poverty”, and did make up close to 40% of all those in consistent poverty.

  • “Minister Varadkar, when he took up office earlier this year, was set a target of lifting 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. His department is already behind target and must now lift 98,000 out of poverty by 2020 to stay on track”.

It is not the case that Minister Varadkar was set that target, upon taking office. The government set itself that target in a 2014 policy document.

And on 12 June, the Sunday Times reported that after taking office in May, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar had been given a memo by department staff which said:

Since 2011, no progress has been made on the child poverty target…This means that a new figure of 97,000 have to be lifted out of consistent poverty to meet the target by 2020.

So it is not the case that Varadkar and his department have fallen behind so far that the target has been changed. That had already happened by the time he took office.

We weren’t able to confirm this memo to Varadkar with the Department of Social Protection, in time for publication, but based on the Sunday Times report, Fianna Fáil’s claim again appears to be true.

As you can see, the claims presented by Fianna Fáil in response to our query are basically on the mark.

But the claim Willie O’Dea made during his interview this week – that Ireland has the highest child poverty rate in the OECD – is way off it, and gets a verdict of FALSE.

To download an OECD spreadsheet containing all the relevant data, click here.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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