Brussels (Brussels Morning) A child living in poverty is, I believe, a catastrophe. It is a personal hardship for the family but also a failure of society to guarantee that its most vital members receive a fair start in life.
This is not a new problem with decades of debates on its possible solutions and increasing fund allocations to alleviate poverty causation.
Nevertheless, figures in Europe remain high, with almost one out of four children growing up in poverty, particularly among poorer regions and vulnerable groups. In my own home country of Romania, 35.8% of children are living in poverty but it is not just a southern or eastern problem – in Brussels, the unofficial capital of the EU, child poverty levels are at 40%.
Behind those numbers there are young children who lack adequate food. They live in improper housing conditions, without heating or insulation from heat. If they do go to school, which is not always the case, their families cannot afford books. Most do not go to pre-school or kindergarten, where they could learn valuable early-life skills.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the situation with the post-COVID-19 digital-education age increasing the disparities: many of these children have no phones or tablets to do their on-line classes. Those who have the devices are set back because their families cannot afford Internet subscriptions.
If they get sick, from the bad food and bad living conditions, their parents have trouble paying for adequate health care or for more expensive medicine.
These children will become vulnerable young people and then vulnerable adults, perpetuating this cycle. Some will escape the cycle, managing to get scholarships or better paid jobs – but most do not.
As I said, Europe is aware of these problems and annual funds are allocated to help solve child poverty. Each piece of the jigsaw that contributes to deprivation of children is addressed through national social expenditure as well as European funds, NGOs and charities.
Yet, figures continue to rise.
We clearly need something else to break the cycle and I believe that is a paradigm shift from expenditure to investment.
As a society, we must understand that child poverty is simply bad for business and it will take more than just the public or civic sectors to be involved but also the private sector with significant buy-in.
There are two approaches currently being taken, both to be integrated into the new Child Guarantee to be launched at the end of March by the European Commission and adopted by the Portuguese Presidency of the EU Council in May at its Porto Social Summit.
First, there must be coordination of financial tools with silo policies avoided at all costs. The age where one government agency will disburse some money for housing, another for nutrition and another for childcare, without joint planning, must end. We need an integrated and holistic approach encompassing both national and EU expenditure where only the Commission, through the Child Guarantee, would be entitled to draft recommendations for strategy.
There are many existing tools to get started. At the EU level, for the first time, the European Social Fund+ (ESF+), a general financial line, will have a dedicated segment for children and young people. Various lines from this fund already contribute much needed aid, such as FEAD, providing food aid, for example.
The novelty is the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), targeted toward economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — a 672.5 billion euro fund, comprising grants and loans — is the first initiative of its kind that will support the NextGenerationEU project and make it a reality.
Mainstreaming children and young people
Despite the current scope of the RRF, I was surprised when in my capacity as European Parliament co-rapporteur my search for the word ‘children’ in the RRF’s original proposal amassed zero hits. Eventually, the Parliament negotiating team remedied the oversight with member states now obliged to use a part of their national allocations for children and young people, as part of the NextGeneration pillar — I fought hard to add to the text.
Where the ESF+ is a scalpel, the RRF must be a financial bazooka to get Europe back on track. To ensure this approach, money must go into investments for the future and not be spent to plaster over longstanding gaps.
That is why the fight against child poverty must include investment into new and sustainable solutions as the new norm, particularly social impact investment.
The idea is that money can be spent in joint public-private ventures to generate both social impact and a return revenue, leading to more investment and, therefore, more benefits. For example, housing projects that create jobs and sales revenues with a number of dwellings earmarked for social housing. Or the creation of childcare centres that train and employ people who have trouble finding a job, allow more people to enter the workforce, offer early-life skills to children in vulnerable regions and lead to significant improvements in school drop-outs levels and, in the long run, are paid for and maintained by the communities they help.
This can be applied to investments in sustainable, organic farming that can provide healthy nutrition to children and jobs for their parents, to communal centres for digital competences to families, to medical screening programmes and facilities that would in turn lower health expenditure dramatically and so on. The potential of the concept is immense and could, with adequate understanding and avoidance of silo policies, have wide implications. It can give jobs to the aging, help the environment and lead the clean energy revolution, harness the digital wave and significantly lower unemployment.
And, most importantly for me, such investment could ensure that fewer and fewer children grow up in unacceptable conditions, impacting their success in life. That, for me, is the promise of the Child Guarantee. It is something I will continue to fight for, in the European Parliament and beyond.