Peter Power: As global inequality spirals, wealthy nations are failing children living on edge of poverty
Published 14/04/2016 | 02:30
The recent global debate about rising inequality seems focused on the accumulation of wealth at the very top. While this is a serious problem requiring urgent attention, it can distract attention from the devastating, and arguably more important, issue of inequality amongst those at the bottom. This is where inequality seriously diminishes the chances in life for the most vulnerable global citizens - children.
When we turn our attention to "bottom end" inequality, i.e. the gap between the lowest 10pc and the median, we get a fuller picture of how the most disadvantaged in society are falling further away from the promise of a decent life in the middle.
This increasing gap is just as significant as the gap between the wealthiest 1pc and everyone else.
This critical gap is where Unicef's 13th Report Card: 'Fairness for Children' is urging political leaders in rich countries to turn their gaze. The message is stark: as inequality increases, wealthy nations of the world are failing their most vulnerable children. Those with the least ability to narrow the gaps are being allowed to fall furthest behind.
Children in Ireland have the highest income poverty and material deprivation rates of all groups (even the over 65s). Report Card 13 shows that 30pc of all children in Ireland live in materially deprived households. Many of those households are working households.
Over half (52pc) of all children living in the lowest income percentile are experiencing deprivation.
Households are deprived if they cannot afford at least three items deemed essential as defined by the European Union.
Those items are housing, heating, utility bills, a protein meal every second day, the ability to face unexpected expenses, a holiday, a phone, a TV, a washing machine or a car.
These deprivation rates would be far greater were it not for social protection policies. Unicef's report finds that in Ireland, income before social transfers is the fourth worst in the EU.
With a gap of 76.3pc, we are ranked just below the UK, Belgium and Bulgaria.
Society would be a far more unequal place were it not for social transfers, or State benefits, which nearly halve our income gap to 41.5pc. Our reliance on social transfers to tackle inequality is unsustainable and leaves many living on the edge.
A more comprehensive and holistic approach is required.
Each Unicef Report Card creates an important if infrequent moment when Unicef turns its attention to vulnerable children in wealthier nations, as is mandated by our Universal Charter.
Unicef ranks the performance and delivers grades to 41 EU and OECD countries. It usually gets powerful minds focused on children, fast. But rankings also accomplish a more substantial task.
They allow us to compare where countries have done well or poorly, and this underscores the truth that child inequality is not inevitable, but policy susceptible. Policy makers need to grasp this fundamental concept.
As our newly elected representatives battle it out to lead our country, they must face the stark reality of this growing inequality and make the right policy decisions for children. Decisions that invest in our public infrastructure like housing, healthcare and transport, create decent jobs with fair and decent incomes, and, most importantly, provide for the nation's children.
As children fall behind their peers, the likelihood of leaving school early, joblessness, obesity and poor health becomes ever greater, leading to generational cycles of inequality.
The unequal circumstances children are living in is beyond their control. It is up to society and the adults in their lives to ensure that they have the best start in life.
'Fairness for Children' tracks other dimensions of inequality to build a better picture of how far children at the bottom are falling behind their peers. Educational attainment, self-reported health and life satisfaction are also measured.
The right policy decisions can create better outcomes for children.
The results of the Report Card show we are addressing relative inequality gaps in education, health and well-being - however, there are still some alarming indicators of gross inequality.
Children living in less affluent households are much more likely to report feeling unwell or suffer from mental health complaints like anxiety or low mood.
Their health behaviours around food and exercise put them at significant risk of obesity and other physical health complaints.
With Ireland on course to become the most obese nation in Europe, it is essential that policies and resources are targeted to support children and low-income families to reverse this trend.
The big message from 'Fairness for Children' is that the fight against growing inequality should include strategies to push the bottom 10pc of children up.
The "bottom-up" approach may also be the most cost effective way to fight the worst ravages of inequality.
As 'Fairness for Children' outlines, the most effective strategies involve simple, low-cost measures such as targeting social support to the poorest homes, making schools more supportive, encouraging healthy lifestyles and taking children's sense of their own life satisfaction seriously.
Peter Power is Executive Director of Unicef Ireland, and a former Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs