BRUSSELS, Belgium — Despite encompassing some of the richest regions in the world, Europe has been experiencing a resurgence of factors that put increasing numbers of children at risk of falling into extreme poverty. This resurgence is mainly due to the impact of the economic crises of 2008 and 2009. As a result of these crises, income equalities and wealth gaps continue to widen to the point that even children in high-income countries are at risk of falling into poverty.
In 2011, the European Union deemed children to be the most vulnerable group in the continent, as 27 percent of children were designated as at risk of falling into poverty and experiencing social marginalization. According to UNICEF, approximately “30 million children across 35 countries with developed economies lived in poverty” in 2012.
Children have been underperforming and often falling asleep in school due to inadequate nutrition at home prompting the establishment of school meal programs in many Southern European countries, like Spain. Frequently children in Albania and other Balkan countries are forced to beg on the streets or work in order to help their families. In Eastern Europe, children are often left to fend for themselves as their parents move abroad to find work. This abandonment leaves children frightened and at risk. Adult unemployment is also a major source of inadequate nutrition and a lack of appropriate health care.
Poverty can severely hinder children’s physical and mental abilities causing problems for them later in life. According to a report by the EU, several factors are crucial to breaking the cycle of intergenerational child poverty in Europe.
Good health and nutrition are vital to cognitive development and functioning. Researchers found that well-nourished European children performed 60 percent better in school than their malnourished counterparts. Children must also grow up in a nurturing and warm environment. Struggling parents are more likely to be anxious, worried and harsher resulting in a negative home environment that fosters violent behavior in children.
Finishing school, especially secondary school is also crucial to breaking the cycle of child poverty, yet a significant portion of children in Europe do not finish secondary school. This is especially true of children belonging to minority groups, such as the Roma. Only about 15 percent of Roma children finish secondary school, according to the EU Commission.
Wealth inequality can also lead to health inequality for children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one million children in Europe are not vaccinated for easily preventable diseases such as chicken pox, measles, mumps and rubella. A resurgence of these diseases has therefore occurred on the European continent, so much so that 50 percent of deaths of children 5 years of age or younger in Europe are a result of these diseases.
Child maltreatment rates also increase as a result of poverty and as children become more likely to fall into poverty. The WHO estimates that 18 million European children have experienced sexual assault, 44 million have experienced physical abuse and 850 children per year under the age of 15 are homicide victims.
According to the EU Commission, “more than 120 million people in the EU, (or 24 percent of the EU population) are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.” Eurostat has therefore established three factors that indicate whether children are at risk of falling into poverty or being marginalized.
First, the family has a disposable income less than 60 percent of the national average. According to the EU, this accounts for approximately 17 percent of the European population. Second, children at home are deprived of four of the nine material items considered vital to child development and a good home environment.
These nine material items include, “the ability to afford unexpected expenses,” to go on a one-week vacation away from home once a year, to pay mortgage or rent, to pay utility bills, “to provide a meal with meat, chicken, or fish every second day,” to keep the home warm, “to have a washing machine, to have a color TV, to use a telephone and to possess a personal car.” Approximately 9 percent of the EU population lives in severe material deprivation.
Finally, adults in the household work 20 percent of the time or less. The EU estimates that 10 percent of children live in households where no one in the home has a job.
In order to address this problem the EU has developed the Europe 2020 strategy with the goal of lifting 20 million people out of poverty by 2020. To do so, the EU must address the lack of a regional framework to address the problem as national efforts continue to fall short due to the fact that many European countries are still attempting to recover from the financial crisis. As a result of the financial crisis, social programs that the poor rely on to help support themselves have been cut in many countries. Therefore, the EU has developed a broad regional policy entitled the “European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion” in an attempt to more effectively tackle this problem.
According to the EU Commission, 20 percent of the European Social Fund will be directed at poverty eradication and efforts to combat social exclusion and marginalization. All EU countries have adopted the strategy and are in the process of developing national legislation to help carry out these efforts.
– Erin Sullivan