FLORENCE/NEW YORK/TORONTO, 11 December 2020 – Child poverty is expected to rise above pre-COVID levels for at least five years in high-income countries. Yet, only 2 per cent of government-provided financial relief across OECD and EU countries was allocated to support children and families raising children during the first wave of the pandemic, according to a new UNICEF report.
Supporting Families and Children Beyond COVID-19: Social Protection in High Income Countries – produced by the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti – reviews how the social and economic impact of the pandemic has affected children and youth; the initial government responses to the crisis; and how public policies could better support children and limit rising inequality.
“Children are not responsible for the pandemic or the economic downturn, and their childhoods should not pay for the recovery. We must ensure that child well-being and equality are built into the heart of Canada’s COVID-19 recovery responses,” said David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “Governments should protect existing child and family benefits and services from austerity at all costs and further invest to provide better futures. The amount of financial relief currently allocated to children and families does not match the severity of the risks children are facing; especially the most marginalized children and their families, where the worst off will be hardest hit.”
Many children and youth in Canada were struggling before the pandemic started. Canada ranked 30th out of 38 EU and OECD countries in child and youth well-being just before the outbreak of COVID-19. About one in five children in Canada were living in poverty. Canada was only spending about two-thirds as much as comparable nations on children and families before COVID-19, though its overall pandemic spending outpaced many peer countries.
Across high-income countries, a historic 10.8 trillion USD was spent on COVID-19 responses from February to the end of July 2020. Around 90 per cent was spent on fiscal stimulus packages directed to, or through, business, the report notes.
In Canada, governments have implemented or announced $281-billion in fiscal measures, representing 12 per cent of pre-pandemic (2019) GDP. The report finds that Canada’s social protection response has been more robust than many of its peer countries, spending slightly more than the average 10 per cent of pre-pandemic GDP. A recent estimate of Canada’s expenditures between March 13 (the start of lockdown) and November 20 (National Child Day) found that 53 per cent went to or through business, more than the amount spent on direct support to individuals. Less than 2 per cent was spent on responses specifically directed to children.
The structure of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and similar programs put more money directly into households with children than in comparable countries. However, while the Government of Canada did not distribute the CERB through businesses, eligibility was tied to the employment system, meaning that some of the most marginalized households, including those detached from the labour market and reliant on social assistance, did not see the same benefit. Newer pandemic protection benefits like the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) are even more closely tied to employment conditions. At the same time, families continue to face economic risk due to loss of employment, particularly among mothers.
Although an essential part of the crisis response, business supports will inevitably exclude the most marginalized children and their families in society. Direct intervention to families and children is more effective than fiscal stimulus in mitigating the pandemic’s effects on poverty and child well-being.
Around one-third of OECD and EU countries included in the report did not implement any policies specifically aimed at supporting children in their response to the first wave of the pandemic. Among countries that did invest in social protection interventions for children and families – including childcare, school food and family allowances – the majority of these only lasted on average three months. The short-term nature of these responses is completely inadequate to prepare children for the projected length of the crisis and the expected rise in child poverty in the long run, the report notes.
The report offers guidance to help find a better balance to meet the needs of both families and businesses, including strategies to protect children and families from further fallout as the second wave of COVID-19 takes hold. UNICEF Canada calls for a permanent increase in the Canada Child Benefit for the lowest-income households to ensure that no child is living in a household below 50 per cent of the median income to limit child poverty and further deterioration in health and education
While the risks of COVID-19 persist, every effort should be made to avoid widespread school closures. As children’s lives get back to normal, greater investments in youth mental health and child protective services will be necessary. For older youth, increased employment supports and educational opportunities will be essential. The UNICEF report finds that investing in healthy school meals is also a highly effective and low-cost “recovery benefit” for children and youth.