Child Poverty in Rich Countries
While most people expect the face of child poverty to be African or Asian, child poverty is a global phenomenon that doesn't exempt any race or country. The poor children of the developed world are drawn from a surprising range of countries. In Greece 40.5% of children are poor, in Israel 35.6%, in Spain 36.3% of all children are living below the poverty line while in Turkey it's 30.2%. Mexico, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia all have child poverty rates above 30% while Ireland has spiked to 28.6%. In more than half of the world's richest economies, child poverty has increased since 2008.
According to UNICEF, 76.5 million children in the developed world now live below the poverty line. In addition, another 11 million children are either not in school or training for the workforce, in all, nearly 100 million children's lives are being wasted. How did this happen?
The Great Global Economic Recession of 2008 brought with it a rising tide of unemployment, underemployment, mortgage defaults, foreclosures and evictions. Even in households with working parents, median income decreased while "working poverty", parents working a job and being unable to meet their family's basic needs, increased by as much as 60% in places like Greece and Portugal.
Among the poorest children are those in particularly vulnerable households such as migrant, single parent, jobless or large families. So the global economic recession saw the poor get poorer and their children suffered the greatest harm.
How would a child experience poverty in a wealthy country?
The most grievous and long-term impacts are changes in diet and nutrition, not having enough food or enough of the right foods to eat at a time of life when children are developing physically and cognitively. Children can also become homeless when families lose their homes or are forced to move repeatedly. Healthcare can be beyond the reach of these families. In addition to the toxic stresses of living in households without enough money to get by, children are also subjected to direct and subtle humiliations in front of their friends, like not having funds for school supplies, having to skip sports, music or any extracurricular activities, being the "poor kid" and experiencing social exclusion.
How did governments respond to the crisis?
Response to the economic downturn has varied from country to country and over time but generally governments, especially in EU countries, cut budgets and public services, all in the name of austerity. Spending on healthcare, education and nutrition was reduced as a result of intense pressures from financial markets to make payments on public and private debt, in other words, money took precedence over the welfare of children.
While everyone can decide for themselves on the morality of children going hungry, homeless or without healthcare, there are additional long- range costs to societies where generations of children grow up to repeat the cycle of poverty. Left unaddressed, societies will inherit a chronically poor, illiterate and increasingly angry generation that feels discriminated against and sees through world-wide media the glaring inequalities in our global economy. As Desmond Tutu told me in an interview for our documentary on children and inequality, The Same Heart, " If I'm poor, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell me I'm hungry."
Is there anything to be hopeful about in this lopsided landscape?
In spite of everything, child poverty in 18 of the 41 developed countries declined from 2008 to 2013 due to strong social safety nets, public and private initiatives and government stimulus. In Chile, Finland, Norway, Poland and Slovakia child poverty was reduced by more than 30%. There are hopeful lessons to be drawn from these examples that must be more broadly and deeply adopted if we are to avoid losing an entire generation. These changes need to happen quickly, childhood passes quickly.
Helping children anywhere in the world to escape the impacts of poverty will require more money than is currently available or committed by governments or through private philanthropy. Here is where the simplicity and fairness of a small, broad based financial transaction tax can provide the juice to help get the job done.
See The Same Heart for helpful FAQs on the FTT for more background on the financial transaction tax.