Fighting child poverty: reaching out or missing out

Poverty transcends geographic and economic boundaries, affecting millions of children worldwide.

Defined by a lack of access to the essential resources and opportunities required for a healthy and fulfilling life, child poverty encompasses economic, educational, and healthcare disparities that hinder a child’s development and potential.

This pervasive challenge disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, perpetuating cycles of disadvantage and hindering the attainment of fundamental rights for countless children.

Addressing child poverty is crucial for creating a more equitable and just society, as wellbeing during childhood profoundly influences the trajectory of future adult communities.

Photo by Gothenburg City Council

Cities delve into the complexities of child poverty, examining its far-reaching implications and implementing solutions to uplift the most vulnerable.

A new initiative by the municipality of Gothenburg took centre stage at the 8-10 November 2023 Eurocities Social Affairs Forum in Lyon. In a workshop co-organised with UNICEF, the Swedish city showcased its ‘The School as an Arena’ programme to help children from vulnerable communities in an innovative way.

The school as an arena

Over 50% of children live in poverty in low-income areas of Gothenburg, data shows. This, in turn, affects the kids’ living conditions, school performance, access to leisure and opportunities, as well as trust in public institutions.

In addition, police reports show that socio-economically vulnerable areas present higher crime rates, which has a negative impact on society.

To tackle the issue, Gothenburg selected a group of young residents aged 6 to 18 and involved them in activities carried out inside the educational building outside of school hours.

“We follow a family-oriented approach and increase our activities according to the needs and wishes of those in the area,” explains Louise Stiernström, Developing Manager International Affairs at Gothenburg City.

Photo by Gothenburg City Council

Schools act as both a physical location as well as a bridge builder to reach the targetted group. “Schools are a part of the society where we can feel safe,” explains Stiernström.

Central to this model is the the coordinator: the person covering this role plans and executes the activities after previously determining the group needs; documents and follows the programme; is the primary contact person for the target community, the organisations and stakeholders involved. In addition, the coordinator recruits role models such as teachers or trainers.

Every day after school and on weekends, kids are encouraged to try new activities, lead their own actions, go on field trip, and join food clubs. “We realised that some of the children started school without eating breakfast in the morning, so we are providing breakfast now,” Stiernström says.

In the evening, the schools turn into a space for people of all ages, hosting job fairs, parenting support sessions, family activities and events such as food and culture festivals.

What did it change?

Gothenburg wants to equalise differences in children’s upbringing conditions, improve kids’ wellbeing and offer them a good start in life.

By giving children the opportunity to spend active spare time in the company of role models, the city fosters a safe environment that helps young students to succeed in their studies and access new educational and professional opportunities in the future.

Photo by Gothenburg City Council

In addition to activities for children, ‘The School as an Arena’ becomes a meeting place for local communities. The school is an institution that has a higher trust rate than other social actors, so “why not use that trust to build more trust?”

Lack of trust is an obstacle for different levels of government to tackle poverty. However, “by giving a physical building and place to meet that does not directly relate to social services, we can build a trustful relationship with the local community,” says Stiernström.

Throughout the process, Gothenburg has seen an increase in the number of boys and girls who attend after-school activities and enroll in activities such as playing a musical instrument.

The school acts as an arena to build trust with the local community. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic the school allowed the municipality to raise awareness about the virus in areas with low vaccination rates.

A joint effort

Gothenburg’s model relies on a collective effort and on the team’s determination to foster lasting change within the most vulnerable communities.

Photo by Gothenburg City Council

The Eurocities and UNICEF partnership allowed this initiative to be presented to other municipalities at the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum. This collaboration aims to build local authorities’ capacity to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights and the EU Child Guarantee.

By fostering a society that prioritises the wellbeing of its children, cities not only alleviate the immediate burdens of child poverty but also invest in a future where every child can meaningfully contribute to society.

Cities can build more inclusive environments for the future generations through continued dedication and initiatives of this type.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer