We often hear that our children are the future, but what future are we giving them? In every corner of the world, child poverty is on the rise. Europe is no exception. Across the whole European Union already before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 22.5% of children, that is 18 million children, suffered from precarious living conditions. In some member states, the situation is even worse, with 36% of children in Romania and 34% in Bulgaria respectively. From the climate crisis to growing inequalities, from the rise of authoritarian regimes to new migration flows, the next generation will bear the burden of answering the many challenges ahead. We must ensure that they are well equipped!
Child poverty: the vicious circle
Child poverty not only has short-term consequences on the lives of our young ones. It also triggers a vicious circle of inequality across generations. The long-term implications of early social exclusion and deprivation are considerable. Children underperform at school, eventually dropping out of the system. Unemployed and unable to find a decent work, they end up facing the exact same issues in their adult life as they did as children: poverty and social exclusion. Our efforts to eradicate poverty and flatten the curve of inequalities thus have to start with children, and we therefore need strong common action.
How can we best do this? With a strong Child Union and an ambitious European Child Guarantee. A beacon of hope for the millions of children suffering from poor living conditions in Europe and a decisive move towards addressing the challenges our world is currently facing.
Before having a closer look at what the Child Guarantee and the Child Union are all about, let’s first get back to the root causes of child poverty in the EU.
The main factors affecting children's lives are their family professional and financial situations, as well as the composition of their households. Figures provided by EUROSTAT show that children living with only one parent are more likely to suffer from precarious living conditions, counting for 40.3% of child poverty in Europe. The level of education of the parents also heavily impacts their children's well-being. Indeed, a low level of education can lead to a poor labour market situation and low incomes which in turn increases the risk of child poverty and affects childhood development.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation. School closures in most EU countries left children with the impossibility to enjoy free meals and benefit from all the facilities their schools usually provide them with.
Likewise, the strict confinement measures brought additional stress on overcrowded households and have shown the urgent need to provide the poorest families with adequate housing. Not seeing their classmates also had a negative impact on children’s social life and mental health. Furthermore, the increased use of digital tools in education as the only alternative to schools has widened the inequality gap, with children from the poorest households unable to access E-learning platforms.
Another influencing factor worth mentioning is the migrant background of the children. Those whose parents were not born in Europe are more likely to suffer from precarious family situations. They represent 31.7% of the children at risk of poverty in the EU.
These numbers are revealing, as they show us that fighting child poverty can only be effective if it is part of a broader strategy aimed at reducing social inequalities and economic hardship as a whole. It is about putting the social dimension of our Union first.
Equal opportunity for all children: from words to action
The European Pillar of Social Rights, strongly advocated by the Socialist family, was a major step in this sense. It provides EU member states with a unique set of instruments and guidance to reduce inequalities within their territories. But while the Pillar’s action plan tackles the root causes of the problem, its results might only be visible in the long-term, and concrete action is needed to protect the generation of children currently at risk of poverty. This is where the Child Guarantee intervenes. It aims at providing member states with concrete tools to help children in need and deliver on the Pillar’s target of reducing by at least 5 million the number of children at risk of poverty.
How? By making sure every child throughout Europe has access to a number of “key services”. From early childhood care to education, from healthy nutrition and meals at school to proper housings, children across the EU shall not lack these essential needs. Put forward for the first time in 2015 by the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D Group), the progressive family finally managed to make the proposal for a Child Guarantee become reality with its adoption in the Council last June.
It was about time for the EU to build an ambitious policy targeting child poverty, but the EU’s added value can only bring fruits if effectively connected to European regions and cities. While the EU provides the framework, regional and local authorities are those responsible for effectively implementing the Child Guarantee in their territories. This is why we have to make sure they are empowered with this task, receiving the support needed and fully benefitting from the EU funds available for the Child Guarantee, mainly the European Social Funds + and the Recovery and Resilience Facility.
Progressive cities and regions in the lead
All over Europe, progressive cities and regions lead the way in the fight against child poverty.
The region of La Rioja in Spain has put its 2021 budget to good use, focusing on the well-being of its young boys and girls. Under the leadership of its President and PES Group Vice-President Concha Andreu, it has taken concrete actions to provide early care services to children between 0 and 6 years old with developmental disorders. For the slightly older children, La Rioja seized the opportunity of an increase in its budget to invest in public education with 2.3 million allocated to school meals and textbooks. Beyond that, the Spanish region also innovates in non-formal education programmes. Designed for students with difficulties, it moves away from traditional schools and proposes alternative approaches to education.
"Education is the best guarantee of the future for boys and girls and for our own community."
This is why we need investments in children and a #ChildUnion!
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) August 8, 2021
The Austrian capital Vienna is another good example. With its Children and Youth Strategy for 2020-2025, it has the ambition of becoming the most child-friendly city in the world! Vienna’s youth strategy looks towards involving children at all stages of the decision-making process for policies that concern them. It includes 193 measures to be implemented by 2025 aiming at improving every aspect of children’s lives. The “free nursery schools” is one example of a successful measure already implemented under the Youth Strategy. It provides children under six years old with free early years education and care.
These are only two examples of what progressive cities and regions are already doing to tackle child poverty. Many other cities across the EU are taking similar actions to improve the life of children in Europe, but we need to do more.
This is why progressive cities and regions also feed into the debate at European level. The opinion of the European Committee of the Regions on the rights of the child and the European child guarantee, adopted at the October plenary session, includes a significant number of Socialist’s proposals, such as the creation of an investments ecosystem for European children.
What is more, together with the Party of European Socialists and the Foundation of Europe Progressive Studies, our Group has also launched an ambitious Child Union Campaign!
The goal of this campaign is threefold:
- A rapid entry into force of the European Child Guarantee;
- The development of an investments ecosystem for European children starting with a correct planning of the Next Generation EU funding;
- Guaranteed equal access to quality and inclusive early childhood education and care for all.
You can sign this Call at this link and share the link with your network! And if you have best practices to share on childhood policies, do not hesitate to share them with us. Check out the campaign website to learn more.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) November 20, 2020
If not now, when?
With the COVID-19 having only worsened inequalities across the EU, European children are more vulnerable than ever. It is high-time that we turn words into actions and give them the means to live with dignity. Progressive cities and regions will continue to advocate for a recovery plan that puts children first. From the EU to the local level, we need to come together as one, within a Child Union, and deliver on the Child Guarantee. Only a real Union for our young ones can rebuild solidarity and close the vicious circle to guarantee our children the future they deserve.