The European Commission has published a roadmap on the so-called Child Guarantee, a scheme to combat child poverty, one of the largest challenges to many European countries. In our current position paper an evidence-based reaction is presented in reaction to the roadmap by Parents International raising the voice of a main stakeholder group, parents and guardians supported by our own and secondary research. It is a detailed reaction to the overall approach of the document as well as feedback on the planned actions and the lack of other necessary ones. The roadmap claims to make an attempt at breaking the cycle of poverty but fails to address the issue in the only way that can actually result in that rather than helping today’s children without any sustainable results: supporting and empowering the parents and family raising the child. For this reason, Parents International is obliged to offer the research base as well as an experience-based demand on behalf of those legally responsible for protecting children, their parents and legal guardians.
The document contains but a single mention of parents in the context of “providing adequate income”, and fails to even acknowledge the fact that measures targeting children directly (free meals, free school supplies, food provisions at school) have proven to recreate the need for the same support in the next generation, thus do not break the cycle. At the same time there is clear and strong research evidence clearly showing that providing parents with adequate parenting support and income while making them accountable for providing for their children actually breaks the cycle as it provides children with the necessary, responsible parenting example. The Norwegian approach of family support is an example that should be taken into consideration in this respect being closest to the desirable solution.
The document does not aim to deviate from the already well-known EU approach of setting up and directly financing services that governments find suitable rather than creating an environment that enables parents to make informed choices for their children having no financial constrains also violates basic parents’ rights stipulated in Articles 5 and 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Equitable access to services that correspond to families’ real needs is prevented by these policies as only well-off parents have an actual choice while vulnerable families are in the trap of “take it or leave it” having no opportunity to choose what is best for their children, but they have to opt in or opt out of an often single state-financed option. Parents’ organisations as well as organisations working with or for parents and children have long demanded funding schemes that treat services equally and do not punish parents for wishing to use services that are for the best interest of their children rather than ones chosen by states.
It calls for governments to create multi-annual plans, but as it targets a field that is national competence there is little hope those countries that have the largest share of the problem (Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania) will do anything. This is especially true for Hungary that denies the presence of child poverty while having the second highest percentage of children living in poverty in the European Union.
Looking into the services listed as ones to be tackled by the Child Guarantee the first, most shocking, but taking the above into consideration not surprising element is that family and parenting support is totally missing. This should be a priority and a pre-requisite for breaking the vicious circle of poverty.
With regards to Early Childhood Education and Care the roadmap is only aiming at increasing the percentage of children in institutionalised education from an early age. While it is important to offer such services to working parents, it has long been demanded by parents’ organisations, based on WHO recommendations and child development knowledge to implement such programmes in a way that clearly discourages families from using these facilities in the first year to ensure breast feeding and not promoting institutionalisation before the end of separation anxiety. This would require adequate financial provisions for families that consider the best interest of the child and thus opt out of institutionalised education, but also for empowering parents as educators as the crucial role of the first 2 years for later life success is also well-proven.
Health care is the area that is the most accessible of all services in Europe. What the document fails to mention is that the actual problem area is pre-natal care that is not accessible for people living in poverty in many countries thus endangering children in these families already from before they are born. Another area that needs to be scrutinised is vaccination. There are two main tendencies that endanger children’s well-being: anti-vaccination movements and compulsory vaccination schemes that threatens families with removing the child from the family. Both of these are detrimental for child well-being and the EU needs to move in the direction of parental empowerment in this field, too, providing for trustful relationships between parents and paediatricians offering a strong basis for conscious and informed parental decisions on opting in, opting out and creating vaccination schedules that are best for the individual child. Vaccination must be free for all children, but free availability must not be accompanied by making them compulsory.
With regards to education the statement that in all Member States education is free is false. According to our own, EU-wide research there is no EU Member State where education is free and this fact is a main barrier to access. What is more, in the majority of Member States parents are prevented from making choices in the best interest of their child as government funding is often much lower or missing for certain schools. To break the cycle of child poverty, it is of utmost importance that parents are not prevented from sending their children to the school that can support them in reaching their full potential by lack of own financial resources. There are EU Member States where special education needs are often only catered for in schools not affordable for parents living in poverty, while – due to poor access to pre-natal care – these families are more likely to have special needs children.
The European Union cannot afford to have a single child starving, but this must not be achieved by free meals attached to school or other institutional attendance. The recent school closures due to coronavirus have clearly shown how wrong this approach is leaving tens of thousands of children without adequate meals. This, on a much smaller scale, is true at any given time, food support must not punish children that are ill and cannot attend school or on vacation. At the same time there should be schemes to support families in changing their diet both for preventing children from starting and preventing obesity. All programmes that have tried to achieve the later against the family have failed, the most famous of these failures being the one by Jamie Oliver.
Finally, access to culture and leisure has little to do with being able to afford leisure equipment. Member States must ensure that all non-formal education services are equally accessible for children, regardless their parents’ financial situation or disability. Culture and leisure are not to be tackled on their own, but in the wider framework of education. Promoting and financing open education schemes that build on the collaboration and cooperation between formal, non-formal and informal education is key to this. There are successful community approaches that can serve as an example that provide formal education as well as various nonformal and informal learning opportunities such as culture, arts and sports activities as well as library services locally, under the same or coordinated management, adjusted to the needs of local communities. The key to achieve this is to rigorously implement one of the main principles of the EU, subsidiarity. National programmes are deemed to fail having little to no knowledge of local community needs, thus decisions must be made locally while it is the responsibility of the state to make adequate funding available for local communities for this.
To end this input Parents International is ready to offer support in re-shaping the initiative to really serve its purpose: to break the cycle of poverty. Consultation with parents is dearly missing from the action plan, and while it is absolutely necessary to consult those responsible for providing for children, their parents, Parents International can provide research evidence and policy support, bringing in the parental perspective via our members from all EU Member States, parents organisations as well as organisations working with or for parents, often the most vulnerable ones. The EU’s action can only be informed by successful initiatives from outside of Europe that Parents International is also ready to help.