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Covid crisis increasing Finland's child poverty rate, experts say

Finland had some 121,000 children living in low-income families in 2019, a figure that specialists say has likely increased during the pandemic.

Kuvassa on maahan piirtyviä varjoja Helsingin keskustassa elokuussa 2020.
The Covid crisis has weakened the economic circumstances of many families living in Finland. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The Covid pandemic has led to a noticeable increase in the number of families with children in Finland seeking welfare assistance, according to the Finnish branch of the international NGO Save the Children.

Workers from many different sectors have been made redundant, laid off or temporarily furloughed during the crisis, Save the Children volunteer Susanna Lankinen told Yle, meaning that the range of families in need of help has widened significantly.

"In the past, many of those seeking help were either long-term unemployed or in a family where there was an illness. Now just about any family could be in a situation where they have to accept outside help," Lankinen said.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the Covid outbreak was officially a global pandemic in March 2020, Save the Children Finland launched a food aid project, the purpose of which was to help families with children in distress due to the unfolding crisis.

Since then, the NGO has helped more than 10,000 families and almost 27,000 children via food donations and grocery store vouchers, according to the organisation's own figures.

In the city of Kirkkonummi, where Lankinen volunteers, a total of about 30,000 euros worth of food aid has been distributed among a population of 40,000 inhabitants, with the offer of assistance advertised in local newspapers, via social media channels and through local social welfare offices.

Although the number of food aid applications has decreased slightly in recent weeks, the need for help in many families has not ended even as the pandemic has subsided, Lankinen pointed out.

Child poverty increasing

Figures published by Statistics Finland at the end of last year revealed that there were 121,000 children in Finland living in low-income families in 2019.

This equated to about 11.6 percent of all under-18-year-olds, but the pandemic has likely led to even more families with children dropping below the poverty line, according to Liisa Partio, the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare's Director of Communications and Fundraising.

"The number of low-income families has probably increased, as the coronavirus pandemic has both widened and deepened the number of children living in poverty," Partio said, adding that it is also likely that the families that were already living in poverty before the pandemic are probably doing even worse now.

Partio also chairs the European Anti-Poverty Network Finland (EAPN-Fin), which published a report called 'Poverty Watch' earlier this month, an annual insight into Finland's poverty rate.

The increase in poverty among families with children due to the coronavirus pandemic was one of the key themes of the report, as the report outlined how the crisis has led to cutbacks in services as well as increases in redundancies and lay-offs.

"On average, families with children do well in Finland, but 'on average' is never enough. There are children in a very good situation and then children in families facing a multitude of problems. Poverty is one of the things that affects a child's life the most," Partio said.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure

Save the Children Finland's nationwide food aid project, which involves the distribution of food gift cards, is scheduled to continue until the end of 2021.

"Asking for help is not easy and for many it involves shame. That is why distributing aid in this way has been a good solution," Lankinen said, adding that many people want to be self-sufficient and be responsible for their own family's livelihood and well-being.

Story continues after the photo.

Susanna Lankinen vapaaehtoistyöntekijä, Pelastakaa lapset Ry.
Susanna Lankinen works as a volunteer for the NGO Save the Children Finland in the city of Kirkkonummi. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

Asking for and receiving help may therefore seem wrong to many people.

"People may have the feeling that they themselves have failed somewhere. However, it is good to remember that this exceptional situation has affected so many people that if you have to ask for help, it is quite normal," Lankinen said.

The pandemic motivated people to help others

In addition to Save the Children, many other organisations have also helped families facing additional difficulties because of the pandemic.

For example, in 2020, the charity Hope has assisted more than 9,000 families with an estimated 22,300 children or young people since the pandemic began.

The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare and the Finnish Red Cross, in a cooperative project with Yle, meanwhile aim to raise 2.5 million euros this year in order to distribute food gift cards worth 70 euros each to 36,000 families. The collection will begin in November with a target of helping even more families than last year, when gift cards were distributed to 25,000 families.

Partio told Yle that she is pleased the pandemic has motivated people to help others, but she wants more decisive action from decision-makers to overcome child family poverty.

"It seems that the rate of child poverty has long been stagnant. It is a structural and political issue that should be tackled more effectively," she said, adding that even if the pandemic ends soon, many families will not immediately be able to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles.

There are a lot of families whose need for help will continue for a long time to come, Partio said.

"We learned from the recession of the early 1990s just how long consequences and effects on children can last," she said.

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