Universal Child Grants – a universal solution to child poverty?

A conversation with UNICEF’s Regional Social Policy Expert for Europe and Central Asia, Joanne Bosworth

by Iana Kreul
3-year-old Luka and 5-year-old Nika Kurdghelashvili in former School No 68 occupied by up to 30 socially vulnerable families.
04 February 2019

Despite significant progress in reducing poverty in recent decades,  22 million children in Europe and Central Asia continue to live in poverty. They are less likely to access health care, complete their education and grow up to contribute fully to the social, economic and political futures of their countries. These children are also more likely to experience inadequate nutrition, another factor perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage. 

What is the most effective way of breaking this cycle and achieving Sustainable Development Goal No. 1 to halve the number of people living in poverty, in all its dimensions, by 2030? How can the most vulnerable children receive the essential support they need to be lifted out of poverty, while still maintaining budgets for other social services and development projects?

To tackle these and other questions, UNICEF, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) are convening Governments and others partners for the International Conference on Universal Child Grants, 6-8 February, 2019, in Geneva.

Ahead of the Conference, UNICEF’s Regional Advisor on Social Policy, Joanne Bosworth, shared her perspectives on the ongoing debate around two key instruments governments use to reduce child poverty in Europe and Central Asia: Universal Child Grants and targeted cash transfers.

Joanne Bosworth, Social Policy Regional Advisor, UNICEF Europe and Central Asia office.
Joanne Bosworth, Social Policy Regional Advisor, UNICEF Europe and Central Asia office.

Question: What are Universal Child Grants and how can they help children living in poverty?

Joanne: Universal Child Grants are simply small cash grants provided to every child in a country to help parents and caregivers cover the costs of bringing up a child and ensuring they have access to all the things they need for a good start in life. 

They are provided on a regular basis, and they do not depend on family income or any other qualifying feature. They do not meet all the costs of bringing up a child, but they do offer some support. 

Many high-income countries, such as Canada, Sweden and France, have Universal Child Grants.  Several middle-income countries, including South Africa and Argentina, are moving towards them.

What are targeted child grants?

Joanne: Targeted child grants are also cash grants to parents and caregivers, but they are only given to families in certain circumstances.  This could be “categorical” targeting, for example of children with disabilities, or the poorest children.  In short, for children and families to qualify for this sort of assistance, they must demonstrate that they do not have enough income or means of living (such as farmland) to support themselves. 

Natia with her three children in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Natia with her three children in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Child grants help Georgian families thrive: Natia's story

Natia, a mother in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the breadwinner for herself and her husband, offering private classes in English and German. Then in 2011, when their son Tsotne was born with a severe disability, everything changed. “Tsotne’s father didn’t want a child with a disability” she says. “One day, he simply disappeared.” Natia’s new husband was displaced from his village in South Ossetia, and does not live with the family full-time. With two more children, and often alone, Natia’s worries about money have often kept the 38-year-old mother awake at night. Natia’s family now receives much needed help through Targeted Social Assistance (TSA), the Government of Georgia’s flagship programme to address extreme poverty. The scheme also includes the country’s first ever monthly benefit for each child – 10 Georgian Lari ($4) – as a result of UNICEF advocacy, backed by hard evidence on the potential impact for children.

What are the arguments for and against each of these approaches?

Joanne: With targeted approaches, many children who do deserve support may be missed, because many targeting methods are imperfect, family circumstances can change quite quickly, and many of the poorest families either are not aware or cannot complete the complex application processes to ensure they benefit.  For example, in Kyrgyzstan, less than half of the poorest children have access to any cash support.  Targeting can also be quite costly to administer, which means less money directly reaches children. 

With universal approaches, virtually all children will be reached, and there are other benefits to the whole of society from everyone being treated equally such as greater social cohesion and social solidarity.  But universal approaches can also be more expensive than targeted approaches overall, and some people argue that it is wasteful to provide grants to wealthier people who may not need them.   

What impact do these grants have on children’s lives?

Joanne: Cash grants have very positive effects on children’s lives, even when the grants are small amounts of money.  Evidence from around the world tends to show improvements in school attendance and accessing health services, and sometimes improved learning and better nutrition which have long term benefits for children.

Cash transfers have also been found to reduce the risks of a child becoming involved in child labour, and to protect against early and risky sex.  These impacts are often stronger for girls.  For example, in Turkey, girls benefiting from a cash transfer were 10 per cent more likely to be regularly attending school than girls who did not benefit.  But beyond these very tangible benefits, having access to a small amount of extra cash in the household can help children participate in social life, and does a lot to improve children’s confidence and self-esteem, reducing the sense of exclusion. 

Healthier, better educated, and more confident children usually do better as adults, so these benefits are not only good for the children themselves but are also a great foundation for future societies.     

Seven year old Sladana sits with her new school bag in the small village of Ciglane, Croatia, where she lives with her six siblings and parents.
Seven year old Sladana sits with her new school bag in the small village of Ciglane, Croatia, where she lives with her six siblings and parents. Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well in school, enjoy good health and reach their full potential in life. UNICEF in Croatia advocates to protect the rights of the most vulnerable children, including those living in poverty.

What type of child grants are being used in countries in Europe and Central Asia?

Joanne:  All countries in the Region have some form of grants intended for families and children.  Mostly, these are targeted grants, so although many families are benefiting, many of the children who are in need do not receive any support. 

A small number of countries have universal or near universal grants, usually for the youngest children – up to the age of three – while some groups, such as older adolescents, are excluded from any benefits in some countries.  Due to aging populations, many governments around the Region have tried to encourage parents to have more children by giving substantial payments when a child is born, although support is not sustained as children grow. 

What is the way forward to protect the most marginalized children?

Joanne:  To ensure the most vulnerable children are protected and supported to realise their rights, countries in Europe and Central Asia need to ensure their programmes are reaching all children, including the poorest and most vulnerable, by expanding the coverage of regular cash grants for families. This can often be done by simplifying existing systems. Because some children also need extra support, governments also need to develop complementary social services and employ more qualified professionals and social workers to address more complex problems such as violence or mental health issues.