Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to the committee.
Last year Barnardos supported over 18,000 children and families across Ireland. We work with children and families to help address issues affecting children and young peoples’ development and well-being. The majority of families receiving our support services are experiencing poverty. They are living in cramped, overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation, with parents struggling to meet essential costs such as electricity, heating, transport, clothes and food, not to mention the costs associated with sending their children to school. Research shows that living in poverty significantly affects a child’s well-being and future development. It worsens children’s physical and mental health, educational attainment and causes social exclusion and isolation. It is associated with reduced life chances and increases the likelihood of poverty as adults. Our staff see first-hand the damaging impact that living in poverty can have on a child’s life.
Reducing and ultimately ending child poverty should be a fundamental aim and commitment of Government. Children living in poverty are often far more dependent on State supports for meeting essential needs. Unfortunately, the State all too often fails to meet these needs and children are waiting unacceptable lengths of time for assessment and support around speech and language, and psychological and mental health services. The children and parents we support deal with poverty on top of considerable adversity in their lives, including parental mental health issues, parental addiction, domestic violence, homelessness and parental separation.
Our recent back to school survey of almost 1,500 parents highlighted the financial challenges they faced last year, with 54% stating they experienced financial concerns. Over 50% of parents reported they had been concerned about the cost of returning their children to school and 20% had to take out some form of loan to meet those costs.
Our support services intervene to improve the life chances of children and parents experiencing poverty by providing direct support to families. We provide them with practical support to address immediate needs. This might be through the direct provision of items, including furniture and food, or linking with energy providers to try to reduce payments. One such service is our teen parenting service in Finglas, Tallaght, Waterford and Wexford that works with young mothers to ensure they continue in education through the provision of a range of practical supports, including funding childcare costs, contributing towards travel expenses, purchase of laptops and other support as needed. We know from research that the likelihood of experiencing childhood poverty is closely linked to maternal educational attainment.
In order to address child poverty the Government should do the following as a priority: reduce the number of children experiencing homelessness, placing a six-month limit on the time they can spend in emergency accommodation and ensuring they have access to family support workers; further roll out the hot school meals programme; provide free education to all children, including free schoolbooks, ending voluntary contributions and reducing the high cost of school uniforms; enhance welfare supports for lone parents, whose children are at heightened risk of poverty; and increase access to free childcare for low-income families.