Over 1 in 5 children live in poverty in 40 of world’s richest countries

There were over 69 million children living in poverty across 40 of the world’s richest countries by the end of 2021, according to a recent report by UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency.

France, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom saw sharp rises in child poverty between 2014–2021, while Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia achieved the largest reductions.

The report by UNICEF Innocenti examined child poverty in the high-income and upper middle-income countries in the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It found some progress has been made, but there is much more to do to end child poverty in the midst of wealth.

Living on the breadline

In 2015, the world rallied around the Sustainable Development Goals, which featured an ambitious challenge: to eliminate extreme poverty and halve poverty in all its forms by 2030, everywhere.

Poverty is often defined by income but for most children, it is about growing up in a home without enough heat or nutritious food, no new clothes, no telephone and no money for a birthday celebration.

“The impacts of poverty on children are both persistent and damaging,” said Director of UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight, Bo Viktor Nylund. “It prevents the fulfilment of rights and can lead to poor physical and mental health.”

A mixed picture in Europe

The percentage of children who live in poverty in 40 countries of the EU and OECD dropped by about 8 per cent during a period of about seven years – which translates to six million fewer children in poverty. However, the rates of child poverty vary.

In countries such as Denmark, Finland and Slovenia, about one in 10 children live in poverty. Whereas in countries such as Italy and Spain, the figure is more than one in four.

In UNICEF’s report, France, Iceland and Norway saw increases in child poverty of at least 10 per cent.

The UK was ranked in the bottom three countries. Child poverty increased in the UK by about 20 per cent, meaning around half a million more children were in poverty in 2019–2021 than seven years earlier.

Certain children are more at risk

Children from certain groups and living in certain contexts are more likely to experience poverty than others.

Children with disabilities and from minority ethnic/racial backgrounds are at higher-than-average risk.  In eight European countries, 80 per cent of Roma children were living below the income poverty threshold in 2016.

A child living in a lone-parent family in an OECD country is over three times as likely to be living in poverty. In countries including Belgium, Finland, Iceland, Ireland and Norway, the figure was more than five times as likely.

In the UK, the highest child poverty rates were in urban areas. In other European countries, this picture was reversed, with substantially higher rates of poverty in rural areas. In Italy, there are long-standing disparities in wealth between the north, the centre and the south.

Cost-of-living crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions in global supply chains and the war in Ukraine sent shock waves around the world. As pandemic-related global restrictions were eased, suppliers were unable to meet the increase in consumer demand, and prices, including of energy and food, began to rise. The cost-of-living crisis has been particularly devastating for low-income households because they spend a large share of their incomes on these staples.

For UNICEF, many countries “missed the opportunity to reduce child poverty” after the global recession of 2008-2010. The UK, for example, reduced its expenditure on child and family benefits relative to the size of its economy and child population.

Children’s living conditions can be improved regardless of a country’s wealth, the report notes.

“If sufficient political will is present, governments have a variety of policy tools to protect and promote the well-being of children,” the report found.

Learning from others’ success

Meaningful and lasting improvements to the lives of children in poor households requires governments to invest in multiple services that touch children’s lives, including education, health, nutrition and labour market policies.

Cash benefits are among the most effective ways to support children and families and alleviate child poverty, the report highlights. Slovenia’s key to success was improving living standards by increasing the minimum wage. In Poland, the government’s decision to increase cash benefits for families helped to reduce child poverty.

Greece and Malta were also among the countries that have made progress in child poverty reduction, although they still have relatively high rates. In Greece, despite worsening overall living conditions, evidenced by a sharp drop in average wages, the country managed to reduce the share of children living in poverty by 17 per cent. The report noted that the effectiveness of the social protection system has nearly tripled since 2012.

“A lot can be learned from the successes of different countries. How we use this learning will determine how effectively we can ensure children’s well-being today and in the future,” added Bo Viktor Nylund.

To eradicate child poverty, the UNICEF report calls on governments and stakeholders to urgently:

  • Expand social protection for children, including child and family benefits to supplement families’ household income.
  • Ensure all children have access to quality basic services, like childcare and free education, that are essential to their well-being.
  • Create employment opportunities with adequate pay and family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave, to support parents and caregivers in balancing work and care responsibilities.
  • Ensure that there are measures adapted to the specific needs of minority groups and single-headed households, to facilitate access to social protection, key services, and decent work, and reduce inequalities.

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