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Ombudsman: Urgent action needed to tackle child poverty in Finland

The Children’s Ombudsman has described child poverty as a silent phenomenon that the thriving middle class cannot see.

Lapsi piirtää tikku-ukkoa.
Image: Timo Heikura / Yle

Children’s Ombudsman Tuomas Kurttila is calling on the government to take urgent action to eliminate child poverty in the country.

“Decision-makers cannot wait for the next legislative term. Government must outline concrete measures to reduce poverty. Poverty is costly for society. Children’s poverty is especially so. We cannot afford it,” Kurttila said in a statement released Friday.

The Ombudsman drew attention to the issue in his yearbook report, which he handed over to Minister of Family Affairs and Social ServicesAnnika Saarikko on Friday. In it, he pointed to a deterioration in the status of children living in straitened circumstances in recent years.

“In Finland, poor children account for a growing proportion of all children,” Kurttila added.

According to fresh data from the national statistics agency, income disparity data from 2016 show that 10.2 percent of all children – some 110,000 youngsters – lived in low-income households. Kurttila described the situation as grave.

“Children are experiencing the many facets of poverty at school, during their leisure time and at home,” he declared.

The children's advocate pointed out that recent reductions to families’ child allowances and a decision to freeze index increases to social benefits are further worsening the circumstances in which poor families live.

MLL: Welfare cuts hit children, single parents especially hard

The Mannerheim Child Welfare League (MLL) said that it is also worried about the impact of benefit cuts and a freeze on index increases on families with children. Esa Iivonen, lead expert with MLL, said the value of current child allowances correspond to 30 percent less than they did in 1994.

Since 2000, the allowance has been slashed in 2015 and 2017, while politicians have not adjusted its buying power to offset the rising cost of living.

According to Iivonen, it is now especially important to improve the status of single heads of households.

“Single-parent families are clearly in a weaker position in terms of all poverty metrics. We would to see a significant increase in the child allowance single parent supplement, which was recently hiked by a few euros,” Iivonen said.

Iivonen noted that families with children have been hit particularly hard following cuts to social benefits in 2015, resulting in an increase in child poverty.

“If we consider a family’s income, then it has a major influence on a child’s life. How do we make things work on a daily basis, how do we make the money stretch to cover living expenses, food, transportation, hobbies? It affects life in many ways when you have to stretch every penny,” Iivonen added.

Hardship of poverty increasingly visible

Kurttila proposed a number of measures to tackle the stubborn problem of poverty.

The yearbook proposes making secondary education entirely free of cost and proposes restoring the right to free full-time early childhood education to all children.

Although secondary education is currently free, families still have to fork out cash to purchase textbooks and other learning materials.

According to Kurttila, local governments should more generously provide supplementary and preventive income support to ensure that children in low-income families have access to extra-curricular activities. He also pointed out that the status of single mothers in particular needed to be improved.

The Ombudsman called for measures to eliminate the disparity in health status among different children and their families. He proposed using taxation to encourage the consumption of healthy foods and limiting advertising promoting unhealthy foods.

Kurttila said that poverty is not limited to financial means, but also aspects social issues and results in other kinds of hardship. He noted that children are often forced to wonder whether or not they will be able to participate in a school trip, after-school hobbies, or whether they will be bullied. A consumption-based society brings with it pressures and the tendency to compare people, he added.

Comprehensive poverty policy required

The Ombudsman describe Finland’s current situation as challenging.

“Birth rates are falling, the proportion of poor children is rising, learning outcomes are falling and children’s health and wellbeing disparities are vast – both in terms of gender and educational background,” Kurttila expanded.

He called on the government to develop comprehensive policies to reduce poverty and said that families’ income support affects children’s lives in different ways.

“Research shows that when incomes are tight it can be reflected in relationship problems as well as parents’ concerns about their children’s education, health and social relations and their ability to learn.”

Kurttila has described child poverty in Finland as a silent phenomenon that the thriving middle class cannot see.

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