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Investing in children


Article
Hanna Heinonen
Lic.Soc.Sc, Chief Executive Officer, Central Union for Child Welfare, Chairperson of the Board, Eurochild

Tuomas Kurttila
M.Th., M.Soc.Sc, Ombudsman for Children, Member of the Board, ENOC European Network for Ombudspersons for Children

Online publication Future of Europe
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019


 

Children cannot choose the circumstances in which they are born. So far, the European Union has not been able to promote the fulfilment of children’s rights on our continent. The Union will have to take urgent measures to break the cycle of disadvantage, as the matter has wide social and economic impacts. The means include maintaining the income level of families with children and ensuring the quality and availability of early childhood education and care for all children. The child rights impact assessment is still not sufficient at national or Union level.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to protection, participation and provision.

The child’s right to provision is based on the fact that children cannot choose what kind of circumstances they are born in. As every child is equally valuable, society shall smooth the child’s prospects for good growth both by universal and targeted measures.

The children’s issues should not be categorized into merely child or family policies, because they are, above all, questions of social policy, in which the matters of children should be the object of cross-cutting political interest irrespective of the administrative sector.

The welfare of children and families will improve only if, in addition to securing a sufficient level of income, work-life balance will be facilitated by the parental leave system and early childhood education and care services. Children and families should receive good services. It is at least equally important that families can influence the services provided for them. They shall meet the needs of families, which are always defined on a case-by-case basis.

It is vital that children and young persons participate in the decision-making concerning them and in the development of the services offered to them.

One specific but important dimension in children’s daily life is the possibility of spending leisure time. Children and young persons shall be offered equal opportunities to spending leisure time and to cultural and sports hobbies.

Recommendations not followed

Child welfare themes show regrettably poorly in EU policy. Thus, the role of the Union in promoting children’s wellbeing should be strengthened and clarified.

Child welfare themes show regrettably poorly in EU policy.

The EU seeks to promote economic growth and creation of jobs with its Europe 2020 strategy, which is coordinated through the European Semester adopted in 2011. Although the Semester understandably focuses on economic considerations, it would be important to remember that the social goals of the Union have been specified and expanded.1 If this does not show in the economic policies of the member states, there is a high risk that the goals presented remain just fine words without actual impact.

The long-awaited Commission Recommendation on child poverty Investing in children – breaking the cycle of disadvantage was approved in February 2013 as part of the Social Investment Package (SIP) to promote growth. The recommendation is important, as it recognizes the importance of investing in children for the development of the whole society and for the economic growth.

The recommendation highlights the possibilities of several actors, including the civil society, of acting both on the national and regional level to decrease inequality using the tools of EU advocacy.

Breaking the recommendations down into principles and thereby into tangible policies and measures has not succeeded in the desired manner. Consequently, the influence of the Commission Recommendation seems to have remained regrettably small.

Promoting the rights of children in Europe, the Eurochild organisation obtains its funding from the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), which is e.g. intended for combating social exclusion and poverty. According to Eurochild, the Commission did not submit a single country-specific recommendation in 2017 which would have explicitly mentioned child poverty. In 2018, the recommendations are still driven by economic growth and fiscal discipline instead of by a comprehensive examination promoting a sustainable economy. Having assessed the 2018 recommendations, Eurochild finds that the social dimension is represented better than before. Despite this, from the viewpoint of promoting the well-being of children, the European Semester still functions poorly.

Problems of country-specific reporting

The implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy is also followed through country-specific reports. The problem with this process is that attention is paid to assembling the data and the reporting itself, but the results shown by the indicators are not analysed in any detail.

In the latest country report, the Commission paid attention to the major cuts in education expenditure in Finland, but still no recommendations were given to Finland regarding education.

In the Finnish country report, competition and employment aspects are emphasised in the review of economic growth, but for example child poverty remains entirely outside the report. Issues that are important for the wellbeing of children and the prevention of inequality among them – such as the participation rate in early childhood education and care and availability of healthcare services – are examined in the country report in the context of the social indicators.

Investing in early childhood education and care

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage requires investing in children. From this point of view, it is very important to invest in the quality, availability and accessibility of early childhood education and care.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended to Finland already in 2011 that it should improve the coverage and quality of early childhood education and care by increasing the number of personnel, limiting the size of kindergarten groups and guaranteeing the continuity of the caretaker relationship better than what happens now.2

Finnish children participate less in early childhood education and care than children in other EU countries 3. When the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care was amended in 2015, the Finnish Government decided almost simultaneously as part of the government political austerity measures to cut the annual costs of early childhood education and day-care by 127 million euros e.g. by restricting the children’s subjective right to full-time early childhood education and care e.g. with respect to the children of  unemployed parents. In the preparation of the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care, the genuine long-term cost-savings of restricting the early childhood education right or the impacts on children were not assessed. The amendment of the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care became effective on 1 August 2016. In the 2018 early childhood education reform, the subjective right to early childhood education and care was not reinstated.

According to research, high-quality early childhood education and care  promotes the wellbeing of children, combats social exclusion and evens out the risks caused by poverty and disadvantage4. Early childhood education and care services promoting equality and participation can reduce the inequality and stigmatisation of children irrespective of their parents’ labour market status. Particularly the access of children from disadvantaged backgrounds into early childhood education and care services shall be secured 5. Early childhood education and care should be included in the Finnish country report primarily from the viewpoint of strengthening the rights of children, not increasing the employment rate. However, in the EU politics, the discussion on early childhood education and care seems to centre around strengthening the employment rate.

In EU politics, early childhood education and care seems to centre around increasing the employment rate.

Poverty of Finnish families with children

The Finnish country reports should also include the measures taken – or measures that should be taken – to combat the poverty of families with children on a national level. In Finland, the poverty of families with children already affects more than 110 000 children, which corresponds to roughly 10 per cent of all 0–17­year-olds6.

More than before, the poverty of Finnish families with children is related to the low income of working parents. This can often be explained by fragmented employment market position, temporary work, part-time work and low pay. Particularly single parents and families with many children suffer from financial distress. What is worrying is that the poor families with children are increasingly often those with small children.

In the EU, 25 million children under the age of 18 suffer from poverty or social exclusion or are at danger of drifting into them. This means that the future may hold an unfinished education path, a weaker condition of health compared to one’s peers, weaker job opportunities and prospects to cope financially 7.

Increasing unemployment, health hazards and other social problems can be prevented, if we invest in children in time. The cycle of disadvantage must be broken as early as possible.

In the EU, 25 million children under the age of 18 suffer from poverty or social exclusion or are at danger of drifting into them.

Measures should be taken at both the national and EU level to maintain the income level of families with children in order to prevent the families from drifting below the poverty line. We desperately need actions which both increase the parents’ employment and ensure that the social protection of families with children is at a sufficient level.

Fresh thinking

The Finnish Government should make decisions on work-life balance and the sharing of caring responsibilities and costs more evenly than before between both parents. This requires a major reform and ability to fresh thinking.

To boost any decisions on a national level, it is important to put the wellbeing of children more strongly on the EU agenda; after all, the Union is committed to protecting the rights of children and promoting social justice.

We know that most decisions have impacts on children and families either directly or indirectly. Therefore, investing in children and breaking the cycle of disadvantage are decisive for the future of the entire Europe. Both at national and EU level, the child rights assessment is inadequate. Particularly the assessment of the long-term impacts of cuts and austerity measures on children and families with children has remained insufficient.

Investing in children and their wellbeing is our moral duty, but it should also be a fundamental economic priority. Investing in the wellbeing of children and families should not be considered only as a cost but specifically as a profitable investment in view of the future.

References

  1. The European Pillar of Social Rights was approved in November 2017. The Pillar consists of 20 basic principles, the purpose of which is to support the development of wellbeing, and fair and effective employment market in the member states. The rights of children have been noted in principle 11 dealing with the right of a child to reasonably-priced early childhood education and care, high-quality care and protection against poverty.
  2. . Conclusions and recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to Finland (2011), CRC/C/FIN/CO/4, paragraph
  3. Finland is far away from the EU goals of participation in early childhood education and care. In 2014, the participation rate of 4-year-old children was 74.5%. The EU target (Education and Training in Europe 2020 programme) is that in the EU countries, 95% of the children would participate in early childhood education and care.
  4. Investing in children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage 2014, “Varhaiskasvatuksella parhaat mahdolliset lähtökohdat lasten tulevaisuudelle”. ”Early Childhood Education and Care: Providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow ” COM ”Investoidaan lapsiin – murretaan huono-osaisuuden kierre.” “Investing in children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage” (2013/112/EU), Heckman 2011, Karila, K. 2016, Kekkonen, M. 2014,. According to the Pisa studies of the OECD, long-term participation in early childhood education and care shows clearly in the learning results of the 15-year-olds, particularly regarding children in a weaker position.
  5. The objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy of the European Commission highlight the importance of high-quality early childhood education and care accessible to all.
  6. Statistics Finland, Income Distribution Statistics.
  7. Combating child poverty: an issue of fundamental rights. 2018 FRA – European Union Agency for fundamental rights.

 


This is an article of the online publication Future of Europe.
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019