The number of children who do not have access to family allowances continues to increase. It’s just inexcusable
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For millions of children around the world, child benefits can mean the difference between a healthy, happy life free from crises and a life punctuated by ill health, stress and unrealized potential.
For some, it can mean the difference between life and death. Yet today, three-quarters of the world’s children – 1.77 billion – lack access to this essential social protection benefit.
Raising children without child benefits can impact their health and well-being throughout their lives, increasing the risk of poverty, disease, missed school, poor diets and harmful practices such as marriage children and child labour.
Globally, around 356 million children live in extreme poverty — on less than $1.90 (€1.75) a day — twice the number of adults. One billion children live in dire living conditions and suffer from multiple deprivations, including lack of access to education, health, nutrition, housing, sanitation or water .
Without urgent action to provide child benefits for all children and decent work for their carers, these numbers will only increase.
Family allowances also help the economy
These benefits play an especially critical role during the early years of a child’s development, when young minds and bodies are forming and developing.
To neglect to ensure that children have sufficient support in these early years is to let the green shoots of human development wither instead of flourish.
As well as being a right for every child, child allowances — along with other social protection benefits — can stabilize and energize entire economies and societies in times of economic or social conflict.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, almost every government around the world has been quick to adapt existing schemes or introduce new benefits to support children and their families.
In the United States, child poverty was halved almost overnight thanks to the government’s extension of its child allowance policies to all families.
Similar results have been seen elsewhere, but most of those gains have since been lost as programs have been cut, canceled or deprioritized.
The number of children without access to allowances is increasing
Worryingly, the number of children who are not covered by any child benefit worldwide is increasing.
According to the latest ILO and UNICEF report on the social protection of children, the number of children without family allowances has increased by 50 million children in recent years.
Progress has stalled in most regions and coverage rates remain particularly low in Africa, the Arab States and Asia and the Pacific, where only 12.6%, 15.4% and 18% of children respectively , are protected by these benefits.
While the lack of child benefits is most acute in low-income countries, vulnerable children in high- and middle-income countries, such as children in institutions, ethnic minorities and those displaced by conflict, are also absent.
Despite these troubling numbers, we know what works for children, and some countries are leading the way.
Georgia recently increased the number of children covered by its main child benefit as well as the amount paid, while the Republic of Korea widened the age range of its covered child benefit from 0 to 6 years old to 0 to 8 years.
South Africa now pays a 150% higher value child allowance to orphaned children, and Mozambique has introduced a new allowance for children aged 0-2 years in areas where children are particularly vulnerable.
In the European Union, family allowances reduce the risk of child poverty by up to 41%.
A change of mentality is desperately needed
Although impressive, 1 in 4 children in the EU are still at risk of poverty and social exclusion due to a combination of inadequate benefit levels in some contexts and underinvestment in carer services.
In 2022, the EU recognized this shortfall and established the European Child Guarantee, which aims to prevent and combat child poverty and social exclusion.
Most recently, Italy, Lithuania, Montenegro and Poland have extended their family allowances to all children.
All this represents progress and should serve as a catalyst for us to redouble our efforts.
The way forward requires a shift in narrative and political mindset.
Social protection, consisting of family allowances and essential benefits for primary caregivers – such as unemployment, sickness, maternity, disability, pensions and access to health care – is not only vital in the fight against extreme poverty.
They are, in fact, essential to helping children and families meet their daily needs, build economic capacity, reduce inequality, build resilience, and enable inclusive recovery from setbacks.
Basically it’s inexcusable.
We need to start providing child benefits to protect all children and as a primary means of connecting families to health and social service systems, including free or affordable high quality child care.
This will promote human capacity and facilitate access to decent work for primary caregivers of children.
To better protect children, we must also ensure that primary caregivers of children have access to adequate benefits at working age.
Global development is built on the progress of the rising generation. The number of children who currently do not have access to child benefit is simply inexcusable.
They can’t wait any longer. They need child benefits now.
Natalia Winder-Rossi is Director of Social Policy and Social Protection at UNICEF. Shahra Razavi is director of the social protection department of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
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