Child poverty is at the top of the political agenda currently. The economic crisis is causing increased unemployment and hardship while putting pressure on national governments’ budgets for financial support to children and families. 2010 is also the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. In addition the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy includes a proposal for a new flagship initiative, the European Platform Against Poverty. It was in this context, that on 4 and 5 November 2010, stakeholders and policy makers met at the Seventh Eurochild annual conference in Örebro, Sweden to discuss how to work together to end child poverty. Eurochild is a European network of organisations promoting the rights and welfare of children in Europe.
In the keynote address, Maria Larsson, Swedish Minister for Children and the Elderly set out the new government’s view of family policy as an investment in society. She also emphasised Sweden’s commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the government’s ambition to make this a “living document in all our countries”.
Financial supports aim to improve conditions and give families control over their lives, the Minister said, as well as helping parents to spend time with their children. Sweden has one of the best records in the EU in reducing child poverty through social transfers.
László Andor, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion used a speech and interview delivered by video to lay out the vision for the European Platform Against Poverty as part of the Europe 2020 strategy. “We need to build strong alliances with Member States, NGOs and local governments”, he said, “and make connections between the different policy areas, such as: inclusion, employment, health and education.”
The plenary morning session covered the situation in three EU Member States. In his introduction, Hugh Frazer of the Department of Applied Social Studies at the National University of Ireland welcomed the EU’s renewed commitment to tackling child poverty through the Europe 2020 agenda.
“It could not have been envisaged just six months ago that we should have a European poverty target”, he said, “and addressing child poverty is vital in reaching that target.” He noted that the huge variation in poverty levels across Member States means that all can learn from one another.
In his presentation, Tapio Salonen, Professor in Social Work at Linnaeus University, Sweden, looked at changing rates of relative and absolute measures of children at risk of poverty in Sweden. He made the point that measures of absolute poverty are often based on eligibility for social assistance, but rates then vary with changes in policy.
Only relative measures of the poverty line, such as the EU definition using 60% of median household income, are comparable across countries and across time. Sweden still had pockets of persistent child poverty, he said.
He concluded with two points: maintaining that child poverty would be three times higher in Sweden if not for the impact of public policies, and that the welfare policies of EU countries should never be seen as irreversible and taken for granted.
Heather Rushton, Deputy Director of the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes (C4EO) in Children and Young People’s Services explained the challenge of addressing these issues in the UK. The United Kingdom has a poverty rate of 19%, relatively high for the EU, and had 2.8 million children living at risk of poverty in 2008/09. The legislative environment is also changing, following the passing of the Equalities Act and Child Poverty Act by the British parliament in 2010.
C4EO was set up as a virtual resource to bring together evidence and practices on nine themes related to children and young people’s well-being. Ms Rushton ended by emphasising the value of sharing experience and suggesting that a virtual European centre for excellence would be a useful development.
Another academic perspective came from Wieslislawa Warzywoda-Kruszynska, Director of the Institute of Sociology at the University of Lodz in Poland, where poverty pockets are a serious problem. Poland has one of the highest child poverty rates in the EU, with 22% of children at risk of poverty. Some of the challenges to tackling this include poor housing and quality of education, she said, but a large number of Polish emigrants working abroad has also complicated the situation.
In the afternoon, workshops discussed examples of how municipalities, NGOs, families, children and researchers can work together to reduce child poverty.
Examples included civil society initiatives, such as the Single Parent and Action Network (SPAN) from Bristol in the UK. This family support NGO uses innovative partnership and participation to strengthen families and communities through a range of activities, from child care and parenting classes to advocacy and campaigning.
State support for parenting was presented based on an example in Antwerp, Belgium. The Kind & Gezin (Child & Family) agency provides family supporters in the Dutch-speaking half of the country. These outreach workers can build bridges between vulnerable families and the various health, social and justice services they come into contact with, in order to promote social inclusion.
Following a round table discussion the various possibilities for a way forward, featuring representatives of the European Commission, national governments, civil society and the education, health and social services sectors, the conference closed with its final conclusions.
These included recommendations to the European Union. One of these asks the EU to adopt a comprehensive and ambitious EU strategy on the rights of the child, and a Recommendation on child poverty and well-being. The Eurochild conference also asked Member States to strengthen cooperation and exchange at an EU level on child poverty and well-being, while maintaining budgets for children and families.
Eurochild itself also committed to raising awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and promoting its influence on decision-making among policy makers, practitioners, parents and children.