PROGRAMME TO COMBAT CHILD POVERTY
Summary of the Short Programme for March 2006
1. Reasons why we need this programme
In 2005 out of a population of 10 million there were 2.2 million dependant children below the age of 20 living in Hungary. Families with children on the whole are poorer than childless ones. Twelve percent of the overall population and 19 percent of children - 420,000 - were living below a widely accepted poverty threshold. (This corresponds to one of the Laeken indicators: the ratio considered poor is defined as the rate of those living under 60 percent of the median value of equivalent income.) This threshold is lower than the per capita minimum pension that is often used in practice as a poverty threshold. Until 2005, anyone living below this latter threshold was entitled to receive regular child-raising support, which was paid to the parents of 650,000 children. The minimum subsistence level calculated by the Central Statistical Office, which attempts to draw a socially acceptable, possibly adequate threshold of poverty, gives a higher figure. In 2004 fully 28 percent of the population and 40 percent of all children - 850,000 children in all - were living below the statistically calculated subsistence minimum.
Family poverty is closely related to the number of children in the family. The Laeken poverty rate of families with one child is not significantly different from that of childless couples. The poverty rate of families with two children is already nearly double that level, while the poverty rate for families with three children or more was 36 per cent, almost 3.5-times of the average ratio. From another perspective 60 percent of large families - with three children or more - were living below the minimum subsistence level of the Statistical Office . The most seriously hit by poverty are children of parents with low education levels, of jobless parents, of parents living in small villages, of Roma families, and children with serious disabilities. There are some corollaries or components of poverty that deserve special attention such as growing institutional, residential, and school segregation; ethnic discrimination of the Gypsy population which is the main factor of segregation; other forms of discrimination of the Roma. Also, access to good institutions and services is highly unequal and opportunities are low for all poor groups.
It is clearly necessary for society and the government to make a serious effort to reduce poverty. On the request of the prime minister in Autumn 2005 the preparation of a Program against child poverty was launched. The Program was prepared by a research team specially set up for this purpose within the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The Program is based on the idea that within the government effort to reduce poverty and social exclusion, reducing child poverty must receive special emphasis. The sufferings and disadvantages of children must be alleviated as quickly as possible, for children are the most vulnerable members of society. Hungary must alter the medium and long-term mechanisms that reproduce child poverty and low education levels, for this is the only way sustainable social and economic development can be assured.
Significant central funding is necessary to improve on the current situation and turn about current trends, even though some job opportunities for the poor are increasing and they are able to benefit to some extent from recent economic development. Nonetheless, the entire array of family supports, schools and education opportunities, healthcare, and personal services needs to be significantly uplifted. The sorely needed innovations and reforms are also costly. Despite the need for additional resources the objective of reducing poverty does not contradict targets of economic growth and improving competitiveness - the two objectives may become complementary, particularly on the longer run. Meanwhile the trickling down of economic growth will not automatically reduce poverty. The alleviation of poverty and exclusion needs a fairer distribution of income, knowledge and information, an improvement in personal social services, and a stronger enforcement of rights, children's rights included.
Broad-scale political consensus is necessary to reduce child poverty along with the cooperation of all institutions and professions involved and of all adults who are involved with children. Another prerequisite for success of the Program is that every single local community has to recognize the vital significance of offering children a better life, and has to define its own tasks. Local governments and NGOs including religious organizations are particularly important on this level. The government will have to provide organizational conditions, for instance, by "policy proofing", studying every single government decision from the aspect of how it will affect child poverty and by improving children's rights advocacy (for instance, through a children's ombudsman).
2. The goal, structure, and tools of the Programme
The most painful and acute aspects of child poverty require urgent intervention, but achievements on society-wide scale only can be expected on long term, even if efforts are continuous. For this reason, the programme has multiple interconnected elements. The whole plan is the long-term or "one-generation programme" (2006 to 2030), of which only the main outlines are prepared. The first three years of the Generation Programme are covered by the Short Programme (2006-2008), already elaborated. There are in addition medium-term National Development Plans that form bridges between the other two programmes, and allow the use of significant European Union funding for this purpose.
The goal of the programme over one generation is to (i) significantly reduce the poverty rate of children and their families to but a fraction of the current one; (ii) put an end to the exclusion of children and the extreme forms of intense poverty; (iii) transform the mechanisms and institutions which currently reproduce poverty and exclusion, in other words to improve living conditions, environmental conditions, and institutions. The basic goal of the first three years, the short programme, is to tangibly reduce the number and ratio of children living in poverty, to significantly improve the living conditions of children currently living in deep poverty and profound exclusion, and to make initial preparations for the changes that will require more time.
Implementation of the Programme and its level of success must be measured and monitored. This requires designing the methods for monitoring and evaluation, and guaranteeing the data. It also means that incentives and means of sanctioning non-compliance will have to be designed as well as a series of indicators to demonstrate outcomes. Some indices (the EU indicators already accepted) are already available, while others will be designed by professionals and by the adults and children currently living in poverty.
The Programme sets the targets into three major groups. One general target is to reduce the poverty and exclusion of children and their families, which includes as separate but complementary goals the reduction of the extent of poverty and the depth of poverty. The goals which may be interpreted functionally and can be connected to the current system of public administration responsibility are: to improve employment for parents; to ensure better and more equal conditions for skills and abilities of children to unfold , and to reduce segregation; to improve the level of personal social services and assistance for children and their families; to guarantee children a healthy childhood; and to improve living conditions and the security of having a home. Horizontal goals that cut across all functional areas are the following: reduction of ethnic and regional inequalities and segregation; improvement in the situation of children with disabilities; strengthening of rights; improvement in cooperation among institutions and professions on various levels; mobilising civil actors for cooperation; and improving information levels. Further, the reduction of the disadvantages and exclusion of poor settlements and regions gets special emphasis among horizontal goals, because reducing the steepness of the regional gradient has a beneficial affect on numerous other problems. In addition, the Programme considers it also a horizontal priority goal to improve the infrastructural and human conditions of the major public systems - schools, healthcare system, network of services - that also serve children.
The reason to support and develop major systems lies in the good experience of universalism (for instance, as attained in the Scandinavian countries) and in the serious problems raised by means testing. However, there are never sufficient resources immediately available for universal provisions. For this reason, the Programme proposes two new methods of distribution. Gradual universalism means the step-by-step introduction of a benefit or service that ultimately is meant to become universal. For instance the "Sure Start" programme (i.e. its equivalent in Hungary) is first introduced in settlements that are worst off. After the evaluation of the experiences and with increasing funds the system is gradually expanded along the "settlement quality gradient." Differentiated universalism means that everyone receives the universal provision on a standard level, but the state offers surplus benefits, attention, and resources to the groups that are known to be in a bad position because of special, lasting conditions. This is the situation, for instance, as regards the family allowances of families with three children or more. In this situation the goal is to give lasting extra support to the families with many children without spreading the increase to other groups.
The Programme proposes general and concrete measures and actions connected to each of its vertical targets. The key points of the Programme, which are also tools of high importance, stem from them. The key points of the Short Programme are: (i) the increase of family allowance for families with three or more children and for single parents; (ii) the start of early-age development programmes; (iii) the improvement of the situation of families living under the worst circumstances.
Two key points emerge in the Generation Programme: (i) to reduce school segregation by changing the outlook of all actors involved and improving conditions in poor schools; (ii) to set the improvement of community and personal services as an absolute priority aimed at a significant change in the acceptance of a more child-centred and tolerant social outlook.
Hungarian Academy of Sciences Programme Office