Child poverty and disparities in Ukraine
Children are more likely to live in poverty than adults. Poverty is not only about money, but about a lack of access to opportunities that shape us. Children from low-income families can suffer lifelong consequences as a result of poverty, affecting their physical, social and cognitive development. Children in poor families are less likely to get a good education, find a job and break out of poverty.
Over the past five years, there has been a division between rich and poor. This means that many children are born in unequal conditions with no choice. Their parents' social status, place of residence and wealth determine what their childhood will be like and - often - their future.
Since 2016, absolute poverty (when a person cannot afford basic food, clothing, medical care and adequate housing) among families with children has decreased. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic and social crisis, the problem of child poverty in Ukraine has worsened.
Growing up in poverty is a violation of children’s rights, and a failure of nations to protect their future. Other countries have proved that we can reduce child poverty, if not completely overcome it. This task requires cooperation at all levels. First of all, in order to understand the gravity of the problem and recognize what mechanisms can help to solve it, we need proper monitoring and analysis.
That's why the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) analyzed child poverty in Ukraine and, based on the results, developed recommendations that could help to reduce child poverty.
The report aims to shed light on the specific challenges faced by Ukrainian children when experiencing poverty. The unique needs of young Ukrainians should be at the heart of the National Poverty Reduction Strategy. One hundred and 93 members of the United Nations have committed to reducing child poverty under the Sustainable Development Goals. We are glad to know that Ukraine is amongst those countries.
Reducing child poverty means securing a prosperous future for generations to come. It means building the different world we want our children to live in. And it can be done!
Ten recommendations for poverty reduction and the promotion of equal opportunities for children in Ukraine
Poverty has lifelong consequences for children. A child living in poverty is more likely to go on to be poor as an adult. The cost of inaction is very high. Ukraine’s National Poverty Reduction Strategy expired in 2020. This report draws on a poverty analysis that was conducted, and proposes recommendations for the Government, the international community, the private sector and the population at large. Implementing these recommendations could help to ensure that the progress in poverty reduction is sustained, the impact of COVID-19 is mitigated, and the country moves towards progressive realization of equal opportunities for children.
1. Now as never before it is important to ensure that Ukraine prioritizes reducing child poverty and fostering equal opportunities, and firmly puts these on the agenda.
It is critical for the Government to officially recognize that child poverty is a major concern. Lessons must be learned from the National Poverty Reduction Strategy that expired in 2020, and aspirations to reduce child poverty must be translated into a new road map that will mobilize action. A child poverty reduction strategy needs to be underpinned by sufficient financial resources and a capable workforce.
A broad approach is also needed, in order to build a wider coalition. Achieving the goal of reducing child poverty is not a responsibility of the state alone. Rather, success is possible in cooperation with the private sector, non-governmental organizations and international partners. In addition, poverty can be successfully overcome also through the active involvement of families and children themselves, provided that they are enabled appropriately.
2. Good diagnostics are a prerequisite for effective poverty reduction. It is therefore necessary to improve measurement.
Ukraine measures poverty on a regular basis. It is critical to continue measuring monetary poverty as well as multidimensional poverty, as no single indicator alone can capture all dimensions of poverty, which are often mutually reinforcing.
The following specific improvements are needed:
(i) Cover children who are omitted by national household budget surveys, including children in institutions, children living close to the ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine, Roma children, and children living or working on the street.
(ii) Collect data on chronic poverty, for which a panel-based data survey needs to be instituted.
(iii) Address weaknesses in existing household budget surveys by capturing data on children with disabilities.
(iv) Prioritize analysis of the children who are at the greatest risk of poverty.
(v) Ensure that international measurements of poverty have disaggregated data for children (for example, the World Bank international poverty line).
Child poverty reduction is invariably only discussed in specialized expert and academic circles: when it is discussed in popular discourse it receives little attention from policy makers and does not result in policy action. One of the possible reasons for this is that the topic is perceived to be too technical and thus too complicated. This means that it does not receive its due consideration in the public sphere and therefore it is not prioritized to the necessary extent. Another possible reason is the political sensitivity of the topic.
To address both these issues, technical language needs to be translated into user-friendly data sets and intelligible messages. Quality visual infographics could help to convey complex poverty indicators into language and concepts that are actionable and understandable for those without specialized expertise in the topic.
The participation of the key political actors during the design and implementation of the measurement system would help to ensure ownership of the data by key policy makers. An additional way to bridge child poverty measurement and policy is to create a platform for discussions between experts and policy makers. Moreover it is important to ensure alignment of strategies and policies with budgets. Priorities of the most vulnerable must be sufficiently reflected in the budgets at both national and local levels.
An environment that emphasizes seeking solutions rather than criticizing and attributing blame to existing political leaders must be encouraged. To increase political acceptance and buy in on the topic, tailored framing may be needed of the indicators and key messages.
4. Leadership at the highest level and coordination among key actors are critical for poverty reduction to be effective.
Poverty reduction is inherently interdisciplinary, and thus will require commitment from the relevant line ministries and key government stakeholders under leadership at the highest level. Clear division of responsibilities is critical, as no single institution can reduce poverty alone. Intersectoral coordination is needed. The choice of coordination mechanism must take into account the differences between institutions and must create incentive structures for ‘all to contribute to joint success’.
5. The focus should be on policies that support adequate (and more stable) income and child-friendly labour policies.
Generally low labour remuneration standards in Ukraine mean that the presence of a working individual in a family does not necessarily protect the household against poverty, particularly in the case of families with children. In order to break cycles of child poverty, labour opportunities and the level of remuneration of parents must be enhanced. There should also be a special focus on strengthening skills, ensuring a successful transition from education to employment, and lifelong learning.
It very difficult for families to balance work and family without having to sacrifice income. Family-friendly policies — such as paid parental leave, breastfeeding breaks, and affordable and high-quality childcare — must become a reality in Ukraine. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a need for work schedules and modalities that benefit both employers and families.
A UNICEF policy brief draws on the substantial evidence on the health, educational, and economic benefits of family-friendly policies to recommend four transformative shifts in workplaces:
- From ‘maternal’ to ‘parental’ leave. Time and support for all key caregivers is important for young children’s development.
- From ‘infrastructure’ to ‘people’. These policies should go beyond infrastructure changes, such as safer work conditions and breastfeeding rooms, to a strengthened approach of investing in families so they can provide both time and support to their young children.
- From ‘individual’ to ‘co-responsibility’. It is also crucial to move from viewing work-family balance as an individual matter to a shared responsibility of governments, private sector employers and families.
- From ‘reducing parental stress’ to ‘enhancing family wellbeing’. Social structures and the work environment have been shown to affect stresses associated with parenting. Family-friendly policies can help to reduce parenting stress and promote wellbeing among parents. This, in turn, leads to better businesses, happier families, and healthier children.
Between 2013 and 2018, actual expenditure on social protection for families with children in Ukraine decreased by a factor of 2.5, thus changing the impact of the programmes on poverty. Prioritizing support for families with children and youth by restoring stable and sufficient funding is key to effectively overcoming child poverty.
Families are more likely to be poor when children are born and when they are small. This is not specific for Ukraine: many countries, including developed countries, address this challenge by offering a system of universal support during the critical early years of life.
Ukraine offers a universal childbirth grant. The high poverty rate among families with children under three guarantees the programme’s reach to those in need even without meeting a means-testing condition. While the programme offers a significant one-off payment, monthly benefit rates are low today, failing to meet the needs of even one individual, not to mention those of a non-working mother and her child. The monthly transfer has not been revised since 2014, and is currently nearly two times lower than the officially approved subsistence minimum level. Given the universal coverage of children aged 0-3 and the relatively low cost of administering the programme, if strengthened, the universal child birth grant could become the basis for supporting families with children in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s social protection system must reflect the needs of children of different ages. One example of an age-sensitive programme is the newly established in-kind universal assistance to all newborns — the Baby Box. The programme provides a combination of essential goods needed to care for a child during the first, important days of life, as well as educational materials for young parents on topics such as early childcare, vaccination and breastfeeding. The programme needs to be a part of a broader early childhood development strategy.
Ukraine spends a significant proportion of its budget on social protection, but the performance of social assistance programmes according to fundamental indicators (coverage of the poor, adequacy and targeting accuracy) is highly unequal. There is room for efficiency gains, for which a system of effective programme monitoring and evaluation needs to be established.
Learning from the current crisis is paramount for ensuring that the system becomes more shock responsive, is equipped to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19 and is able to expand during future crises. The role of social protection must be to support the poor but also to enable families’ consistent consumption over time.
To be sustainable, social protection programmes must be part of a broader social contract.
Fundamentally, providing adequate investment to enable children to thrive is a moral imperative. Investing in children also has the potential to benefit their families and their communities, and to yield positive benefits for economies and societies as a whole.
Child poverty is multidimensional. Therefore services such as health care, education, security, sanitation, and social services are important for reducing poverty. In Ukraine, the focus must be on ensuring quality, access and equity. There are many interlinkages between sectors and a child-centred approach, and these should be considered to address the deprivations effectively.
The quality of early childhood development (ECD) services is widely acknowledged to play a critical role, not only for the immediate well-being of children but also for lifelong development. ECD services start before birth with important health support and education for soon-to-be parents. ECD is an ‘umbrella’ for essential services during the first three years of life, including — but not limited to — regular monitoring of the health and nutrition status of children, lifesaving vaccination and early education. The national system should be strengthened to enable the poorer and most disadvantaged, who are also more likely to benefit from such services, to enjoy access to high-quality ECD services, regardless of their places of birth.
While there have been improvements in access to preschool education over recent years, much still remains to be done. On the one hand, poor children in remote locations have limited access to quality pre-schooling. On the other hand, many children in urban areas often cannot get access to kindergartens at all due to long waiting lists. Further emphasis must be placed on improving the quality of preschool education.
Ukraine is one of the leaders in higher education enrolment rates. Now it is time to ensure that coverage is translated into quality education and linkages are strengthened between education and labour markets. Ukrainian graduates, both women and men, must be able to reap the benefits of a digital future.
While health reform aims to improve access to primary health care, and some benefits have accrued, many families remain excluded from quality medical care. The focus must be on prevention and primary health care. Too many families still have to pay for health care out of their pockets, and many risk falling into poverty.
Effective social services at local level are critical for poverty reduction and prevention. Social services — such as day care for children, psychosocial support, support with temporary housing, and rehabilitation services, among others — mitigate the effects of poverty and strengthen families in their childcare role.
The development by the Government of the position of case managers and a move towards establishing a system of integrated social services has been a positive step in this direction. However, there is a need to strengthen the system so that it can attract, train and retain qualified social workers at local level. Clear division of responsibilities and financing mechanisms should be established between the national and local level for the provision of basic and specialized social services. Moreover, the social services system must be coordinated with the system of social benefits (usually delivered in cash) to ensure comprehensive social protection of families with children.
Inequality among children is a problem because children are a distinctive population group. They have no choice about which families they are born into and about their families’ well-being and social status. Limited life chances due to lack of money is not the only manifestation of child inequality. Inequality at birth is exacerbated from the very first years of life by unequal access to vital services.
As children grow up, their environments influence their development opportunities and educational attainment, and define their access to material goods and services. Together, these greatly impact their quality of life and shape their opportunities in adult life. Reducing inequality of opportunity among children is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but will also contribute to economic growth and development. The Government has a clear role in addressing these disparities.
While inequality prevents children from having an equal start, certain especially marginalized children are deprived of basic rights and thus require attention. Social benefits for particularly vulnerable groups — such as children with disabilities, children without parental care, children living close to the ‘contact line’ and Roma children — are an important component of social protection, but not the only one. Effective and efficient protection of such groups requires a focus on equity and an integrated approach. It is possible to eliminate fragmentation through a holistic needs assessment and inter-sectoral support plans for such children.
The number who are poor at any given time depends on the number of families that managed to escape poverty and those who fell into poverty. Different policy instruments may be required to address both these dynamics.
Child poverty is multidimensional, and the monetary equivalent does not fully reflect the deprivations that children may face, even when the family earns above a certain level. Given the sensitivity of the choice of poverty line, the focus must not be limited to those just below the poverty threshold. Narrowly targeted programmes that use a monetary threshold risk excluding from much-needed support many vulnerable families who are at risk of poverty.
10. A stable macro-economic context and strong governance at the national and local levels are necessary conditions for poverty reduction efforts to bear fruit
There is much evidence that economic growth is one of the key mechanisms to overcome poverty. The report also confirms the close inverse relationship between trends in GDP and the absolute poverty rate in Ukraine, with no time lag. Macroeconomic stability is an important precondition for both economic growth and poverty reduction. In Ukraine there has been a close relationship between the consumer price index (CPI) and the absolute poverty of households with children between 2008 and 2018. Therefore, macroeconomic stability and economic growth that is inclusive and shared equitably across the population should be core components of any poverty reduction policy.
Good governance at both national and local levels is widely considered conducive to poverty reduction. The decentralization reform that started in Ukraine in 2015 shifted power downwards, to newly formed local authorities, which received greater responsibilities for service delivery, and often higher budgets. However, decentralization has also engendered numerous challenges and conflicting priorities. For example, local authorities generally prioritize economic issues (such as roads and utilities), over social services. Decentralization has a lot of potential for more effective poverty reduction, but disparities between newly created communities must be addressed and incentives must be in place for investment in children.