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Opinion: Sky-rocketing childhood poverty is a direct result of austerity

Moves to cut child benefit, unemployment benefit and social assistance were not inevitable, they were choices.

Julien Mercille

IT IS TIME to state the obvious: Ireland is led by a right-wing government that has squeezed the Irish population repeatedly under austerity. The number of people suffering from deprivation has reached 1,230,000—almost 27% of the whole population—whereas in 2007 it was less than 12%.

Ireland is not unique in this respect and has followed other European governments in implementing fiscal consolidation. Many in the mainstream media have supported the strategy.

Some of the consequences of this idea are outlined in an important UNICEF report released this week that describes in detail the harsh impacts of the economic crisis and austerity on children in developed countries. Since 2008, 2.6 million children have entered poverty on a net basis, for a total currently standing at about 76.5 million in the 41 most affluent countries surveyed in the report.

For example, since 2008, the percentage of households with children not able to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetable equivalent has more than doubled in Greece, Italy, Iceland and Estonia, reaching respectively 18%, 16%, 6% and 10% in 2012.

The report concludes that the Great Recession “had the greatest impact on the weakest, and possibly for the longest time… The progress made in education, health and social protection over the last 50 years is now at stake”.

There was nothing inevitable about this state of affairs: some countries took the means to prevent a deterioration in the well-being of children by enacting policies to bolster or protect the social safety net and stimulate the economy. It is a no-brainer that ‘millions more children could have been helped if protection policies had been stronger before, and had been strengthened during, the Great Recession’.

But the Irish Government didn’t do that: it cut child benefits a number of times between 2010 and 2014 and squeezed unemployment benefits and social assistance. The country has thus fared poorly compared to other developed nations. It comes in position 37 out of 41 for its increase of 11 percentage points in the child poverty rate since 2008. Only four countries did worse, including Greece and Latvia. According to the report’s methodology, Ireland’s child poverty rate rose from 18% in 2008 to 28.6% in 2012—which corresponds to a net increase of more than 130,000 poor children.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment has skyrocketed. Compared to 2008, there are now 1 million extra young people not in education, employment or training in Europe, for a total of 7.5 million. This ‘epidemic of youth unemployment’ is a ‘pathology of austerity’. Youth unemployment has reached almost 60% in Greece, 55% in Spain, 50% in Croatia, 40% in Italy and 37% in Portugal. Ireland is also among the worst performers, at over 25%.

Children affected by poverty and recession will likely suffer the consequences for a long time, hence the importance of addressing those issues. Children living in households affected by unemployment or large drops in income will see a deterioration of their diets; increased levels of stress; some humiliations in front of friends and classmates; difficulty in doing well at school; among others.

The Government should prioritise programmes supporting children’s well-being, and, if it is serious, pay compensation for the harms it has already caused.

Julien Mercille is the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland, published recently. Follow him on Twitter @JulienMercille

More than 130,000 children slipped into poverty during the recession

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