Children are more at risk of poverty or social exclusion than adults, making 18 million children across the EU less likely to find a decent job when they grow up, and more likely to remain socially excluded when they are adults.
To fight child poverty and promote equal opportunities for all children, the European Commission has launched the first ever EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, as well as a proposal for a Council Recommendation establishing a European Child Guarantee. The two strategic documents reinforce one another; the strategy takes stock of the rights of children inside and outside the EU and proposes a wide range of actions, while the child guarantee focuses on targeted support to children in need, to give them better access to key services.
What kind of guarantee for children in need?
Under the European Child Guarantee, the European Commission calls on member states to guarantee for children in need:
- free and effective access to early childhood education and care, education and school-based activities; at least one healthy meal each school day; and healthcare.
- effective access to healthy nutrition also outside of school days, and adequate housing.
“With this Guarantee, the European Commission is aiming high, but is it high enough?” questions Bianca Faragau, Senior Policy Advisor on Social Affairs at Eurocities. “There is a missed opportunity to set clear targets to reduce child poverty in the EU. Unless a clear benchmark has been set, it’s hard to see how the guarantee hopes to reduce child poverty in the EU by 2030 and to inspire member states to contribute to it.”
A fragmented approach?
“The child guarantee offers bits and pieces of a puzzle, rather than a real strategic overview,” explains Faragau. “For instance, supporting children in need does not take into account a whole family approach, and will therefore fail to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.”
Cities like Milan, via its ‘Primi Passi’ (First Steps) programme, have pioneered approaches to working with vulnerable families with young children in the city’s most deprived areas. The idea is to engage them through the education system: improving access to childcare and preschool services, and offering peer-to-peer support. The goal of tailoring social services in this way is to reduce child poverty by reducing inequalities from a young age.
In effect, programmes like these try to take a step back. While the proposal on the EU child guarantee does invite member states to consider putting actions into an integrated enabling framework, it lacks a strategic approach, according to Faragau, on how to do it, which is something that city social services try to account for.
Another example of this comes in the call on housing. “This is by far the most difficult service to improve access to,” says Faragau, “as it requires considerable infrastructure investment, but at the same time, without decent housing, children’s health, education and nutrition cannot really be improved in the long term. It’s therefore a pity that the proposal asks member states to step up investments in other areas, but does not mention housing at all.”
Cities like Ghent are actively working to ensure that vulnerable families have access to decent housing, by providing family-centred guidance and information points at neighbourhood level.
Moreover, one third of all city commitments to Eurocities Inclusive Cities 4 All initiative, which sees cities committing to implement the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights, have been on housing and homelessness, demonstrating a major issue facing Europe.
“The child guarantee also leaves open the definition of a child in need insofar as it does not identify children from the most deprived areas as a vulnerable group, but leaves this open for interpretation. Yet, we know from our own research, that these children are at three to ten times higher risk of poverty due to accumulated disadvantage in accessing key services,” adds Faragau.
A shared endeavour
The Commission’s proposal recognises cities and local authorities as key partners in delivering the EU Child Guarantee and acknowledges the territorial dimension of social exclusion, including in urban areas, and the need to develop effective outreach measures in particular at local level. It further calls on EU member states to ensure the participation of local authorities, alongside other relevant stakeholders, throughout the preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the national action plans for the EU Child Guarantee.
“Given that the issue at stake is not just the provision of services or ensuring equal access, but also making sure these services are taken up by children in need, it’s clear that cities play an essential role in reaching out to the hard-to-reach children, even more so in the most deprived urban areas,” says Faragau.
Moreover, The European Commission has set out an ambition to use all possible EU funds to deliver the Child Guarantee. However, with the biggest pot of money set to come from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, for which member states must submit their plans next month, Faragau fears that this represents, “too little too late.”
The most directly linked source of European funding for social investments, on the other hand, is from the European Social Fund+, which has a mandatory earmarking of 5% for measures to tackle child poverty for the 11 member states with child poverty rates higher than the EU average. Faragau describes this as “positive” even if she would prefer this to be the case for all member states, given that all territories share the burden of child poverty.
Next, the ball is in the corner of EU member states, which are expected to adopt the Council Recommendation as swiftly as possible to show their commitment to investing in children. The Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU has even shared an ambition to have this agreed by the EU Social Summit in May.
Cities, for their part, are committed to working closely with national governments to turn the Child Guarantee from words into actions. “We need to prevent a lost generation of European children,” said Maarten van Ooijen, Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum and Deputy Mayor of Utrecht. “No government should be allowed to pass on the costs and burden of child poverty to cities without providing them with adequate financial means. That’s why we need to ensure that the upcoming EU Child Guarantee will be an investment in children, nothing more, nothing less.”
Main image: © City of Amsterdam Stadspas archive