Romania doesn’t have any excuse not to act now to fight child poverty and social exclusion

Opinion article by the UNICEF's Representative in Romania, Pieter Bult

Pieter Bult
22 April 2021
Pieter Bult, UNICEF Representative in Romania
UNICEF/Anamaria Dinulescu

On March 25, after years of consultations and preparations, the European Commission launched the Child Guarantee (CG) to address child poverty and rising disparities across the EU. Unfortunately, Romania is one of the countries which inspired Child Guarantee as the country leads on child poverty within the EU, with 1 in 3 children being at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Romania’s response so far mainly has been to invest in child allowances and other social benefits, combined with investments in infrastructure and the promotion of economic development and jobs.

However, none of these investments have had any major impact on child poverty so far and the situation of children is still very dramatic. Over 300,000 children do not complete compulsory education, nearly half of all students do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills at age 15 (PISA), an estimated 350,000 children are left behind by migrant parents, infant mortality rate is two times higher than the EU average, over 60 children died in latest measles outbreak (2016-2019), one in every ten children is given birth by an adolescent mother. And these were figures before the COVID-19 pandemic during which we know inequities even further increased. The vulnerable children became more vulnerable.

While I am not saying that social benefits and capital investments are not needed, “cash” is not enough to tackle the challenges of the most vulnerable families and their children such as those living in poor rural areas, in Roma families, and of children with disabilities.

UNICEF believes that a mix of “cash and care” as a combination of social protection benefits accompanied with services are critical to show a difference in the dramatic figures I just shared. And the funding needed for such services are not ‘costs’, but rather ‘investments’ into the future of the country. Indeed, decennia of research have shown that social investments in health, education and protection are not only essential for the wellbeing of children, families and communities, but also for the economic growth and future sustainability of democracies and economies.

I want to highlight some of the opportunities currently at hand.

TODAY we have a real momentum to address child poverty and social exclusion in Romania. The EU is fully committed to implementing the child guarantee in all countries and is even considering mandating 5% earmarking of ESF to child poverty. In addition to the new EU Structural Funds, the EU is offering a massive financial package available through the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to be used for reforms needed to support Romania’s recovery from the pandemic and build our resilience for future shocks.

But the most important momentum is that we have effective, efficient and doable solutions for the many challenges faced by children; solutions that have been tested and proven in Romania, and that are now adopted in the amended law on Social Assistance. This solution is called the Minimum Package of Services (MPS) and it is Romania’s Child Guarantee. This MPS package is legally mandated to be available across the country to ensure the rights of every child to integrated services in health, nutrition, education, protection at local level are fulfilled.

MPS is an umbrella concept implemented successfully in 45 communities in the county of Bacău by UNICEF, in partnership with central and local authorities. With a team of at least one social worker, and one community nurse doing home visiting and outreach work and collaborating closely with a school mediator and a school counselor, MPS contributed in a relatively short period of time to reducing the number of children living in poverty (from 30% to near zero) and also prevented or addressed at an early stage, problems such as: violence, early pregnancy, preventable diseases, lack of access to cash benefits and school dropout.  An independent evaluation of the MPS interventions showed that: all children identified without documents at the beginning of the program now have identity papers and are registered with a family doctor; the number of unvaccinated children decreased by 40%; the number of teenage mothers decreased by 50%; all preschoolers are enrolled in kindergarten; school dropout was reduced by 60%. Furthermore, the use of an online application and tablets, gave mayoralties, and county authorities real time data and insights for targeted interventions and efficient and effective public policies.

Having good practices and lessons learnt from implementing MPS in Romania, but also the opportunity of the EU political commitments and funds, we have now the chance to reform the social system by strengthening the focus on preventive health, education for all, and social assistance services. This will rapidly improve important indicators – such as child poverty, school enrolment, health, child protection and separation from families - and children’s lives and result in budgetary savings in a few years.

Coming back to the investment needed, our costing tool shows that scaling up MPS to all children in Romania costs around Euro 150 million per year. That implies both the support and increased capacity of 12,977 workers in social, medical and educational assistance at the level of the 3,186 communities, including 261 supervisors as well within DGASPC / DSP / CJRAE. This will target 3.6 million children. This relatively small annual investment would reduce child poverty and be a life changer for thousands of children.

Investing these 150 million Euro per year will not only improve child-related indicators, but it will reform the social sector as this investment in prevention will have a significant ripple effect on all other services already available. It will reduce the burden on family doctors and hospitals and the use of emergency services; it will increase the level of education in the country and improve the quality of education; it will reduce the number of children in need of protection services, will lead to less children in residential care, and it will reduce child and domestic abuse and the need for police to intervene; and lastly it will increase the uptake of social benefits. Moreover, it will build the foundation for a more resilient and inclusive economy.

Furthermore, having professionals on the ground, making home visits and using an online application, the Government could implement other measures such as the minimum guaranteed income and make sure it monitors, evaluates and fulfils the assumed indicators and targets in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and other national strategies.

Moreover, these changes will result in major savings in social sector spending. Savings that will many times outweigh the initial investments made and it will actually add money to the national budget rather than costs!

If there is ever a time to make this investment it is NOW. The EU is providing a major life-line and we owe it to Romania’s most vulnerable, to Romania’s children, to use these lifelines wisely for reforms that will make a difference for the entire country in the medium run and build the resilience needed to withstand future shocks.

I am talking about saving lives, about changing lives, providing opportunities for all children, promoting equity and giving a chance to all children no matter what their socio-economic or ethnic background is, no matter whether they live, in cities or rural areas, or no matter what disability they may have. It is our collective responsibility to leave no child behind.