By Dominic Richardson (former UNICEF/ Learning for Well-Being Institute), Ian Orton, Christina Behrendt, and Shahra Razavi (ILO), Tomoo Okubo, David Stewart and Natalia Winder-Rossi (UNICEF)
Child benefits are literally a life saver and game changer for children. They can make the difference between a healthy, happy and long life or one punctuated by ill health, stress and unrealised potential, especially in times of crisis. They are indispensable for child wellbeing and economically dynamic societies.
Yet most children miss out on them. Today, three-quarters of the world’s children – 1.77 billion aged 0–18 years – lack access to child benefits. This is simply unacceptable.
For millions of families around the world, raising children without income support or social and care services – including child benefits, birth grants, paid maternity or parental leave, or childcare support – can have adverse implications for their futures.
The costs of inaction and not investing sufficiently in social protection for children are enormous. Failure to provide children with adequate social protection leaves them vulnerable to disease, missed education, poor nutrition, and poverty and can exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. Poverty, along with exclusion and discriminatory social norms, is one of the key drivers pushing children into egregious circumstances, such as child labour and child marriage, affecting 160 million children and 110 million girls respectively, both of which have seen increased numbers as a result of the pandemic.
Globally, around 356 million children live in extreme poverty – on less than US$1.90 a day – double the number of adults. A billion children live in multidimensional poverty – meaning they are without access to education, health, nutrition, housing, sanitation or water. A series of shocks and stresses from the pandemic, war, energy crisis, climate emergency and global debt burden – that have coalesced to form a polycrisis – are poised to shape children’s lives in 2023 and beyond. These disturbing numbers will only worsen unless we take action to provide adequate social protection for families and children and decent work for caregivers.
Social protection plays a critical role during the earliest years of a child’s development. At a time when young minds and bodies are forming and developing, and caregivers need the most support, social protection provides crucial income security, as well as time and peace of mind for caregivers. With the child policy choices we make today, we are allowing the green shoots of human development to wither rather than flourish.
Aside from being a right for children, social protection can also stabilize and dynamize entire economies and societies in times of economic or social strife. During the pandemic, we saw how governments can act decisively to deal with crises and address the needs of children. Nearly every government in the world either rapidly adapted existing schemes or introduced new social protection programmes to support children and their families. In the United States, for example, child poverty was halved almost overnight as a result of the government expanding its child benefit policies to all families. Similar progress was seen in other countries, but these gains have now been lost as many programmes were cut, reversed or deprioritized once again.
Worryingly, the number of children not covered by cash benefits worldwide is increasing. According to the ILO and UNICEF’s latest report on social protection for children, the number of children without child benefits increased by 50 million in recent years. Progress has stalled in most regions, and coverage rates remain especially low in Africa, the Arab states, and Asia and the Pacific where only 12.6, 15.4 and 18 per cent of children respectively are protected by such benefits. Only 0.1 per cent of the GDP on average is spent on child benefits in low-income countries.
While the lack of child benefits is acute in low-income countries, vulnerable children in high- and middle-income countries – including those displaced by conflict – are also missing out. And evidence shows that even for children who are covered, benefit levels can be inadequate. In the European Union (EU), for example, social protection is powerful and reduces the risk of poverty in the child population by 41 per cent. However, despite making large inroads into child poverty, it is not eliminating it, and still, 1 in 4 children in the EU are at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
Far from being deterred by these challenges, this should sharpen our collective resolve to redouble efforts. And there is reason for optimism. We know what works, and even moderate levels of investment, well-spent, can have an enormous impact. We know for instance that social protection can be a powerful policy tool for reducing child labour by reducing family poverty risks and vulnerability. It is for this reason that the 2022 Durban Call for Action enjoins policymakers to pursue universal access to social protection, including universal child benefits, to end child labour.
Around the world, many governments have made progress in closing protection gaps and in reducing child poverty. As documented in the joint report, just recently, Italy, Lithuania, Libya, Montenegro, Oman and Poland introduced a child benefit for all their children. And we see other progressive reforms and expansions in child benefits in Georgia, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Tunisia, Mozambique, and many more countries.
The way forward requires a change in narrative and policy mindset. Social protection is not only vital for addressing extreme poverty, it also contains and reduces inequality, and can support all children and families to address their everyday needs, enhance economic capacity, provides at least basic income security and enables inclusive recovery from setbacks. Inaction, manifest in a lack of investment, fails to capture these positive effects and carries terrible social costs in terms of inflicting avoidable harm on children and squandering their potential.
Part of the change required starts with connecting families to crucial health and social services, including free or affordable high-quality childcare, promoting human capabilities and core capacities, and facilitating access to decent work for primary caregivers of children. To better protect children we must also ensure adequate benefits – including unemployment, sickness, maternity, disability, and pensions, as well as access to health care – for their primary caregivers.
Global development is built on the progress of the upcoming generation and the promise of universal social protection will not be achieved without investing more in social protection for children. The number of children currently lacking access to child cash benefits is simply inexcusable. They cannot wait any longer. They need social protection now.