More than 1 in 5 children live in poverty in 40 of the world’s richest countries

France, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom saw sharp rises in child poverty between 2014–2021, while Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia achieved the largest reductions, according to UNICEF’s latest Report Card

06 December 2023
A young girl next to a bike in front of a run-down house
UNICEF/Cybermedia

FLORENCE/NEW YORK, 6 December 2023 – Some of the world’s richest countries experienced sharp rises in child poverty between 2014 and 2021, according to data published today by UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight.

Report Card 18: Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth – the latest in the series looking at children’s well-being in OECD and EU countries – finds that Poland and Slovenia are faring best in efforts to tackle child poverty, followed by Latvia and the Republic of Korea. In contrast, some of the richest countries in the report are lagging behind, near the bottom of the country rankings.

The report presents the most up-to-date, comparable picture of poverty affecting children in OECD and EU countries, and analyses governments’ income support policies for families with children. It finds that, despite overall decreases in poverty by nearly 8 per cent across 40 countries between 2014 and 2021, there were still over 69 million children living in households earning less than 60 per cent of the average national income by the end of 2021.  

“The impacts of poverty on children are both persistent and damaging,” said Director of UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight, Bo Viktor Nylund. “For most children this means that they may grow up without enough nutritious food, clothes, school supplies, or a warm place to call home. It prevents the fulfillment of rights and can lead to poor physical and mental health.”

The consequences of poverty can last a lifetime. Children who experience poverty have less chance of completing school and earn lower wages as adults. In some countries, a person born in a deprived area is likely to live eight to nine years less than a person born in a wealthy area, according to the report.

The report also highlights huge inequalities in poverty risks. Across 38 countries with available data, children living in a lone-parent family are over three times as likely to be living in poverty as other children. Children with disabilities and from minority ethnic/racial backgrounds are also at higher-than-average risk.  

According to the findings, 2012 to 2019 saw stable economic growth among this group of countries, presenting an opportunity to recover from the impacts of the 2008-10 recession. However, while a number of countries reduced child poverty during this time, some of the wealthiest countries saw the biggest backward slides. The report also shows that countries with similar levels of national income, such as Slovenia and Spain, have stark differences in their child poverty rates - 10 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

Children’s living conditions can be improved regardless of a country’s wealth, the report notes. For example, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, and Lithuania – not among the richest OECD and EU countries – have achieved important reductions in child poverty, minus 38 per cent in Poland and minus 31 per cent in the other countries. Meanwhile, five higher income countries – the United Kingdom (+20 per cent) and France, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland (all around +10 per cent) – saw the greatest increases in the number of children living in households experiencing financial hardship since 2014.

Romania achieved a positive change on reducing the level of child income poverty rate between 2012-2014 and 2019-2021 periods (-22.5 per cent). However, 29 per cent of children were still living in relative income poverty during the period of 2019-2021 which is the highest rate among the EU member states. In 2022, the rate of severe material and social deprivation for children was over 30 per cent in Romania. This is at the level of almost 12 percentage points difference with Bulgaria which was the second low performing country in the EU during the same year.

Moreover, Romania also has the largest prevalence of persistent child poverty (prolonged periods or repeated episodes of poverty) – 25 percent – among the countries covered by the study. Engrained experiences of poverty throughout childhood can be associated with particularly negative outcomes for children, exacerbating the disadvantages that poverty already creates. One of the key reasons for the high rate of child poverty in Romania could be related to the limited impact of social protection benefits in reducing child poverty. In 2021, the average income transfer system reduced child poverty by 42.4 per cent in the target countries, while in Romania the impact of social protection remained marginal and reduced child poverty by less than a quarter.

To eradicate child poverty, the Report Card calls on governments and stakeholders to urgently:

  • Expand social protection for children, including child and family benefits to supplement families’ household income.  
     
  • Ensure all children have access to quality basic services, like childcare and free education, that are essential to their well-being.
     
  • Create employment opportunities with adequate pay and family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave, to support parents and caregivers in balancing work and care responsibilities.
     
  • Ensure that there are measures adapted to the specific needs of minority groups and single-headed households, to facilitate access to social protection, key services, and decent work, and reduce inequalities.

“Cash benefits have an immediate effect in alleviating poverty. Decision makers can support households by prioritizing and increasing expenditure on child and family benefits,” added Nylund. “A lot can be learned from the successes of different countries. How we use this learning will determine how effectively we can ensure children’s well-being today and in the future.”  

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Note to editors

Download the report here.

Report Card 18: Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth picks up from Report Card 12’s analysis of the effect of the 2008-10 recession on child poverty, published in 2014, and looks at the progress that has been made in the last decade and consider what more needs to be done to achieve results for children.

Report Card 18 makes use of monetary and non-monetary (material deprivation) measures for its analysis. The headline measure of the report is relative income poverty, that is the proportion of people who earn less than 60 per cent of the average income. Non-monetary poverty measures access to essential goods and services.

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UNICEF Romania
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