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EU auditors: Action on combatting child poverty lacks focus

© Unsplash/Alexander Dummer

It is almost impossible to assess how the EU contributes to member states’ efforts to reduce child poverty, according to a new report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

Almost 23 million children in the EU are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This means that they are living in households suffering from at least one of the following three conditions: risk of income poverty, severe material deprivation and very low work intensity.

Yet studies have shown that the economic benefits of investing in children significantly outweigh the initial financial costs. In the EU, the fight against child poverty lies in the hands of each member state. The European Commission’s role is to complement and support national child poverty actions through both legal and financial instruments.

A previous audit report on the Europe 2020 objectives showed that the number of people at risk of poverty in the EU rose from 116 million in 2008 to 122 million in 2012, and started falling after 2012, to 109 million in 2018.  The Europe 2020 target is 96 million by 2020. The target did not include a sub target for children despite calls from relevant NGOs and other stakeholders.

In the new report, ECA sought to assess how effectively EU action has contributed to member states’ efforts to reduce child poverty. The audit team visited national authorities in Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania, as well as relevant NGOs active in the field of tackling child poverty.

“Child poverty remains a serious issue in the EU which is not conducive to a sustainable, inclusive and fair society. Unfortunately, child poverty is likely to become even more prevalent in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis”, said Tony Murphy, the Irish member of the ECA and responsible for the report.

“You would imagine that in a region as economically well developed and prosperous as the EU, being poor would be something out of the ordinary. Sadly, this is not the case, which is a shame and can be seen as failing of the EU’s mission,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday (29 September).

The auditors consider that the 2013 Commission Recommendation “Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage” was a positive EU initiative to combat child poverty in an integrated way. Despite this, the absence of measurable targets and milestones makes it impossible to assess how well it has been implemented.

“Despite calls from the European Parliament and stakeholders, the Commission didn’t prepare a roadmap for the 2013 Recommendation, as a result, we found it impossible to assess its impact or how well it has been implemented,” the ECA member said.

European Child Guarantee

The 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) is another non-binding instrument that is available to combat child poverty. The auditors acknowledge that the EPSR has increased awareness of social policies in the EU and welcome the proposed EPSR action plan (2021).

Finally, the auditors highlighted the fact that children living in poverty are not an explicit target group for EU support. Without such a target, there is a risk that adequate funds may not be available when designing the future European Child Guarantee.

The Child Guarantee was outside the scope of the audit but the audit team explained that for such an initiative to be effective there is a need to determine which measures would work best for individual member states and what the level of corresponding funding might be appropriate.

On the positive side, the Commission last May amended the proposal for the European Social Fund (ESF) by adding a requirement that each member state should allocate 5% of its resources to addressing child poverty directly. “We believe that this proposal is a potential opportunity to better focus and measure funding relating to child poverty in the future.”

The main message in the report is that the Commission has to increase its admittedly limited leverage on the member states via the EPSR action plan and the country specific recommendations (CSR) and improve its monitoring of investments in tackling child poverty.

Asked by The Brussels Times if ECA had relied on Commission evaluations or collected new data to assess the impact of the policies to reduce child poverty, Tony Murphy referred to other studies that had arrived to the same conclusions as ECA.

An expert with insight in early child, education and care policies (ECEC) commented that the audit findings are correct. “The fight against child poverty at the EU level has only taken place at the level of policy advise.”

He added that the EU should agree with the member states on a concrete quantitative target both in terms of poverty reduction and money spent. “The upcoming council recommendation on the child guarantee is the opportunity to do so but without a close monitoring system the guarantee will remain a splash in the air.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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