Economic and social policies

The Issue

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The Issue

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Most countries in this region are middle- or upper-middle income countries, with fewer than 10 per cent of their people living on less than $2.50 per day. Although this may seem low compared to other regions, it masks the intense concentration of poverty rates that are as high as 30-40 per cent in some of these countries. More importantly, child poverty is higher than adult poverty and those households with children are far more likely to be poor than those without. Furthermore, income, ethnic and geographic inequalities have widened, indicating that universal policies and programmes need to be redesigned to better reach the groups of most vulnerable children, and to be complemented with targeted actions.

Significant groups of children in each country survive at below minimum living standards, stunted, not immunized or missing out on quality preschool and education, maternal and child health and other essential services. A child who is born poor is less likely to have access to proper nutrition, appropriate parenting support and a good quality education. Poverty in early childhood can also cause lifelong cognitive and physical impairments and put children at a permanent disadvantage.

Our analysis shows that some children are more likely to be poor than others, such as those who have more siblings, those from rural areas and the urban poor, those with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities, such as the Roma. Rather than addressing the root causes, the traditional response has been to take children away from families that are struggling.

Across the region, the coverage of social assistance and social health insurance schemes is very low relative to many countries’ GDP (social assistance spending is equivalent to a meagre 1.6% of GDP). Benefits for families with many children are usually of limited value and there are barriers that prevent many from even seeking them. Social support services to facilitate access to services such as basic maternal and child health and education services, as well as alternative care facilities at the local level can often be of poor quality and underfunded. New services for family and child support cover mostly urban areas and many reforms continue to overlook the specific needs of those most vulnerable such as children under three, children with disabilities and children from the Roma minority.

Fiscal constraints as a result of the global financial crisis have made it more difficult for countries to meet their obligations to protect and promote children’s rights. Low public investment in social assistance and health persists in the region, with out-of-pocket spending by families making up about 40-50 per cent of Total Health Expenditure, as high as 60-70 per cent in some counties, according to WHO European Health for all Database 2011. This exposes families to catastrophic health expenditures and poverty. 

Reform of social policies, and of social protection systems, is critical for this region. Social protection – ensuring that families with children have access to a minimum package of cash benefits and social support services – increases access to health and education services on an equitable basis and reduces poverty. It also improves school attendance and performance, immunization rates and nutrition, and helps prevent institutionalization, school drop-out and child labour.

In order for all children to reach their full potential in life, UNICEF’s work endeavours to address the barriers that are keeping certain groups of children excluded. In our agenda for action, we aim to realize every child's right to social protection.

Last updated November 2013



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