"That Dáil Éireann:
— that child poverty is an indictment of our State, robbing children of their childhoods, their health and well-being and squanders a child’s potential later in life;
— that consistent child poverty is the harshest form of poverty where children live in households below 60 per cent of the national median income, and experience deprivation based on 11 deprivation indicators;
— that despite the removal of 14,000 children from consistent child poverty during the lifetime of previous Governments (between 2011 and 2018) the number of children at risk of poverty or in consistent poverty remains unacceptably high, over 200,000 children are currently at risk of poverty and among these children more than 90,000 are in consistent poverty;
— that the previous Government’s target to reduce the number in child poverty by 70,000 by the end of this year, as indicated in the publication, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, 2014-2020 (Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures), will not be reached;
— that this wholly unambitious target is unlikely to offset the Economic and Social Research Institute’s (ESRI) prediction of a one-quarter increase in the rate of child income poverty by the end of 2020 if the economy does not recover due to the Covid-19 pandemic;
— that the Government has recommitted to the original target stated in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, in the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 and in the Programme for Government, however, very significant action will be needed in order to achieve these targets;
— the regrettable reality that child poverty rates in Ireland doubled during the last recession resulting in one in every five children currently at risk of poverty
— a stark reminder of the risk for children in the current recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic;
— that for many children, the current recession will be the second one in their lifetimes, meaning for some, they will never have benefited from improved economic conditions;
— that children who experience poverty have poorer physical and mental health, experience social and educational deprivation, contributing to a lower sense of well-being and less opportunities later in life; and
— that investing in poverty reduction measures leads to better outcomes not only for children and their families, but for society as a whole;
— this Government has an opportunity to end consistent child poverty in Ireland once and for all;
— the upcoming Budget 2021 is an opportunity to allocate the necessary resources to address consistent child poverty in this State; and
— a systemic approach to ending child poverty is required in Ireland, reflecting the ambition of the European Union (EU) Child Guarantee that every child in Europe should have access to free healthcare, free childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition with a primary focus on disadvantaged children, including those experiencing poverty, ethnic minority children and refugee children;
calls on the Government to:
— agree to a new and ambitious target of eliminating consistent child poverty within the lifetime of this Dáil;
— legislate for the target to eliminate consistent child poverty within the lifetime of the current Dáil;
— ensure the establishment of an Oireachtas Special Oversight Committee on Child Poverty to monitor the implementation of this target;
— establish a cross-Departmental Child Poverty Unit headed by the Department of the Taoiseach, tasked with the following:
— develop a comprehensive all-of-Government strategy and implementation plan to meet the target of eliminating consistent child poverty within the lifetime of this Dáil;
— ensure that the elimination of consistent child poverty target is a central focus in the new National Children and Young People’s Strategy;
— present an annual report to the Oireachtas Special Oversight Committee on Child Poverty on the progress of the implementation of this strategy and the implementation plan for the new target;
— establishing interim targets between annual budgetary cycles;
— undertake a child poverty audit of all policies across key Departments affecting children and their rights, ensuring that all annual budgets and Departmental budgetary decisions are poverty-proofed, transparent and fair;
— assist in the design of national initiatives to end child poverty;
— reform the current way in which child poverty and overall poverty is measured using the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) data and minimal essential budgets;
— carry out research and make recommendations to the Government on the required levels of investment for services that focus on inclusive universal health development services, early years education, school supports, disability supports, social housing, childcare and one parent family supports in line with EU Child Guarantee ambitions; and
— monitor the State’s implementation of the EU Child Guarantee and Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; and
— ensure that adequate funds and resources are provided to facilitate the establishment of the cross-Departmental unit."
Some 90,000 children in Ireland live in consistent poverty. That is 90,000 children who live in households where there is very little income and which cannot afford very simple things like a warm winter coat, to heat the home or a warm, roast dinner once a week. That is 90,000 children who we as a State have failed to protect in their most vulnerable position. None of those 90,000 children has chosen to be in the position they are in; we in this Chamber and successive Governments have made that choice for them. Today we have a choice to think differently. Targets to reduce consistent poverty have come and gone over the years and have not made the difference they needed to make. As such, the time has now come to ensure we eliminate consistent poverty for our children once and for all.
The Social Democrats are putting forward a motion to eliminate consistent child poverty and I will outline how we propose to do that. Our proposal was developed by listening to those on the front line, the NGOs and the child poverty agencies and by looking overseas to see where other countries have done it. Ireland is not an outlier in this regard; child poverty is a problem in many countries. Some of the countries which have taken the strongest steps to eliminate consistent child poverty are those which have legislated for it and that is something we are also putting forward in our motion today. The one consistent point coming out of discussions in the international sphere is that this was done on a whole-of-government basis and across all parties. That is something we must do here if we really want to address the issue. I ask Members listening to my speech to do so without their party political hat on and instead to listen as a parent, brother or sister, neighbour or community member. We need leadership on this issue and we can take that leadership step today.
It is a very complex issue and there is no one answer. It crosses all Departments and all sections of our society. Indeed it is not just the child who is impacted by child poverty but also their family, their community and society as a whole. It is also not the case that it just affects a child at a point in time - it follows that child through their lifetime. This is a burden that children should never be forced to carry. It is well documented that growing up in a poor household is linked with long-term consequences in educational outcomes, physical health and brain development that can follow someone throughout their life.
Growing up in poverty in Ireland means that a person will find it harder to escape poverty in adulthood and if that person has children that cycle continues into the next generation. Childhood poverty also brings with it health implications and increases the chance of developing chronic illnesses as a result. Poverty can also harm a child's brain development and brings lifelong mental health issues. Children in poverty also find it harder to graduate, affecting their chances of employment throughout life and there are even studies which show that childhood poverty leaves its mark on adult genetics. A child can be at risk or in consistent poverty. It can be associated with being born into a marginalised group or with a disability that their parents have perhaps acquired. It can be based on the marital status of a parent, their social status or even linked to a particular geographical location.
In this country we have a particularly shameful record when it comes to one-parent families. The State has consistently failed them and their children. These families have the highest risk of consistent poverty and are almost four times as likely to be living in consistent poverty as two-parent households. The chronic lack of adequate housing, childcare, income supports for one-parent families and the severe cuts to social welfare payments during the last recession mean poverty rates remain high for these families.
Child poverty is also persistently high in minority groups such as the Traveller community. Just a few days ago, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report that found Travellers have the highest rates of acute poverty, the lowest unemployment rates and face of some of the worst discrimination of six Traveller and Roma communities throughout Europe.
The face of poverty in Ireland is also changing and an alarming trend I would imagine we all see in our constituency offices is that more and more children are in poverty despite their parents working. Thousands of working households with children are struggling to stay out of poverty, particularly those living in the private sector and having to pay childcare, rent or mortgages or those living with teenagers and headed by one parent. According to CSO data, approximately 110,000 people who are employed live in poverty. Over time, the poverty figures for this group, the working poor, have shown little movement, reflecting a persistent problem with lower earnings in Ireland. Many working families on low earnings struggle to achieve a very basic standard of living.
Poverty can be geographically linked. The baseline report of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs found that children living in regions other than Dublin display the highest poverty risk, households in rural areas have the highest levels of child poverty in terms of income poverty and consistent poverty, while households in urban areas have the highest levels of material deprivation and low work intensity. Furthermore, Border counties and the south east consistently have high poverty rates more generally among all age groups.
We can see that children often bear the brunt of our decisions and bear the brunt of crises that happen to our society. They are extremely vulnerable to these crises and today they are experiencing three. They are experiencing the housing crisis, the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis. As of July 2020, 2,651 children are living in emergency homeless accommodation in this country. Until we stop families having to choose between paying rent and feeding their children, child poverty rates will never be eradicated. Aside from the housing crisis, children and families have the current global pandemic to contend with, and navigating the changes in the Government's response and facing economic uncertainty has meant more and more families remain on the brink of poverty. The reality for parents under lockdown was bigger food bills, little to no access to school meals programmes and less child maintenance for one-parent families. The provision of childcare at this time is uncertain and was missing for a large part of lockdown, affecting one-parent families in particular as they lost income because they had to care for children.
All of this uncertainty for families was highlighted in the ESRI's report on child poverty and the pandemic, which predicts a very alarming scenario for children in the State entering the current recession. It predicts that without an economic recovery in the latter half of this year, and I do not think anyone can foresee this happening, child income poverty rates are estimated to rise from 16.6% at the beginning of the year to 21.1% by the end of 2020. This is a one quarter increase in the rate of child income poverty.
If we consider how Ireland performed during the last recession we have to rethink our approach to the current one. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, children in Ireland suffered most in the recession and they continue to bear the consequences of this despite child poverty falling in almost half of European countries since the start of the economic crash. Child poverty rates doubled in the recession years, making Ireland one of the worst performing countries in Europe at the time. The sad reality is that many of those 90,000 children living in consistent poverty today went through the first recession and they are now going through a second recession in their very short young lives. Some of them will never experience the benefits of an economic recovery. As we navigate the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic it will be important that we poverty proof Covid supports for children and their families, ensuring they meet the needs of those most at risk of poverty at this time.
We must not forget that children can be very vulnerable to climate change as we transition to a low carbon society. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in its report Growing up in the Cold, reported that 12.3% of children in Ireland live in homes with leaking roofs, damp walls, floors or foundations, or rotting window frames or floors. It is important that they and their families are not left behind as we transition to a low-carbon economy.
Past Governments have tried and failed to reduce consistent poverty. Going back to 1992, after Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Government pledged to commit to the right of children to a childhood free from poverty and deprivation. Almost two decades on from that promise we continue to fail children in this regard. In 2002, the national anti-poverty strategy pledged to reduce the number of children experiencing consistent poverty to 2% and, if possible, to eliminate it by 2007. In 2007, having failed to meet this target, the pledge was repackaged and repeated with an end date pushed out to 2016. Between 2006 and 2016, the national social partnership agreement stated that every child should grow up in a family with access to sufficient resources and supports to nurture and care for the child and to foster the child's development and full and equal participation in society. This target also failed. In 2014, the national policy framework for children and young people included a target to reduce by two thirds the number of children in consistent poverty by 2020. However, because it lacked an implementation plan, child poverty rates only marginally declined within that timeframe. In the same year, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures was published, which set out the Government's previous target of reducing by 70,000 the number of children in consistent poverty by 2020. Unfortunately, this target will also be missed. The roadmap for social inclusion, which was signed off by the previous Government in January, recommitted to this target and it was also acknowledged in the programme for Government. We can all see a pattern here. Where Governments have put in place a target to partially reduce child poverty they have failed. This time we need a new target and a new way of dealing with this. We need a new approach. We need to eliminate child poverty once and for all.
Our motion sets out a four-pronged approach to making child poverty history. It calls on Dáil Éireann to target, legislate, implement and resource. The motion calls on the Government to commit to the ambition target to eliminate child poverty within the lifetime of this Dáil. This target rejects the idea that any amount of poverty is acceptable. All child poverty should be targeted and not just a percentage. The motion calls for legislation to put into law this new target. It has been done in other jurisdictions. It not only puts the onus on Governments to meet targets but also ensures that the issue of poverty remains high on the agenda. Previous targets failed when there was no implementation plan and legislation can only go so far without one. The motion calls for the establishment of a child poverty unit to be housed within the Department of the Taoiseach which, among other things, would help in the design of an implementation plan and monitor its progress. The motion also calls for the establishment of a special Oireachtas oversight committee on child poverty to monitor progress in this area. We need to put funding in place to make sure this happens. This has been lacking in the past. The motion calls for the provision of necessary and available resources to support the target of eliminating child poverty in the lifetime of the Dáil.
We all bear the cost of child poverty. Inaction not only affects those children in poverty but us all as a society. This year, the Hidden Cost of Poverty report by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul found that poverty costs the country €45 billion annually. This figure is not specific to children and child poverty but it looks at and puts costings on the services that deal with child poverty, such as housing, the justice system and education. The money we spend on the consequences of poverty is money that cannot go into other services. It is money we should be investing in children now rather than waiting five or ten years to have to invest it then.
As stated in the motion, income alone will not address child poverty. A systemic approach is required in Ireland reflecting the ambition of the EU child guarantee that every child in Europe should have access to free healthcare, free childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition, with a primary focus on vulnerable children and those experiencing poverty. With regard to ethnic minority children, including refugee children, we need to address child poverty in an intersectional manner addressing all dimensions and manifestations of child poverty. We are only bringing four children from the camps on Lesbos and I ask the Minister to look at bringing more than this.
I thank the Children's Rights Alliance and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for their input, research and support.
I can only hope the Government chooses to distance itself from this regrettable history we have and chooses a different course of action to eliminate child poverty within the lifetime of this Dáil, to legislate for this new ambitious target, to put in place the necessary mechanisms to implement this target and to provide the necessary resources to end child poverty once and for all. I call on this House to show leadership when it comes to child poverty and work together to ensure we eliminate it from our society because I do not believe any one of us here thinks it is right that we have this in Ireland at the moment.