UN urges global action on child poverty

8 Feb 19

Almost two thirds of children around the world lack access to public services and cash benefits, leading to a “vicious cycle of poverty”, the United Nations has warned.

One-in-five children currently lives in extreme poverty – on less than $1.90 per day – and almost half live in “moderate” poverty – under $3.20 a day – according to the joint report by the International Labour Organization and the UN Children’s Fund.

The UN called for “rapid expansion” of child and family benefits which it says, “play a vital role in breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and vulnerability” and could significantly reduce poverty.

“There is a huge underinvestment that needs to be covered,” said Isabel Ortiz, director of the social protection department at ILO. “Child poverty can be reduced overnight with adequate social protection.” She added that improving the lives of children “is an issue of priorities and political will – even the poorest countries have fiscal space to extend social protection”.

Social welfare systems are in place for 35% of children around the world, but that figure drops to 28% in Asia and 16% in Africa, the report warned. In Europe and Central Asia, 87% of children are covered, while the figure for the US and Canada stands at 66%.

On average, the 139 countries covered by the report spend just 1.1% of country wealth on welfare for children under 14, Ortiz added.

The report also called for governments to improve public services. “While social protection cash transfers are vital for children, they shouldn’t stand alone,” said David Stewart, chief of the child poverty and social protection unit at UNICEF.

“They have to be combined with other services. If a child is living in a household with sufficient resources but doesn’t have access to educational health, it doesn’t make a big difference. So, it’s about combining these interventions together.”

The UN report highlighted that universal health coverage should not be seen as a “privilege” of wealthy states, pointing out that a number of developing countries have made great strides around social welfare, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and South Africa.

UN members have signed up to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which includes eradicating poverty. But in many other countries, social protection programmes for children struggle with limited coverage and inadequate benefit levels, the agencies warned. 

“Some governments undergoing fiscal consolidation are even cutting allowances, instead of extending benefits as countries had agreed in the SDGs,” the report added.


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