Absence of child poverty in policy debates: is universalism a partial solution?

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Absence of child poverty in policy debates: is universalism a partial solution?

Post by zarkovic » Sat Nov 17, 2018 10:25 am

According to the Survey of Income and Living Conditions, the at-risk-of-poverty rate in Serbia for children, standing at around 30%, is well above the average poverty rates for the adult and elderly population . Despite these alarmingly high rates, child poverty is rarely considered in public policy debates. Two examples of recent policy reforms of family benefits in Serbia clearly show this.
First of all, a recent increase in parental allowance was motivated and debated as a pro natality policy with no consideration of its significant impacts on child poverty. When the reform was announced some government officials even claimed at one point that women who decide to have a third or fourth child could opt for stay-at-home parenting. This is because, with the reform, the total amount of the parental allowance for the third and fourth child would be some 25% higher than monthly minimum wage. Furthermore, parents receive this allowance until each child reaches ten years of age. However, there was no mention that this measure is also important in reducing child poverty, as evidence shows that families in Serbia with three and more children are significantly more exposed to poverty. Instead, in the public debate, the reform was largely criticized as having a low potential to increase natality.
A second example is that of the recent reform of the maternal leave income-replacement benefit to address a perceived fraud whereby, shortly before giving birth, a woman would enter into employment contract with a complicit employer, often with generous salary conditions. The benefit is now limited to women with at least 18 months employment prior to giving birth and a ceiling of three times average salary was imposed on the benefit (it was five before the reform). The reform was not very well accepted by the public, notably through protests by mainly upper-middle class interest organisations, and criticized as an attack on motherhood. Yet, these organizations did not mention that the reform also extended access to women, primarily poor women, with flexible working contracts, having temporary and occasional jobs, working in agriculture and, finally, those who were unemployed in the period prior to giving a birth (but who were employed at least some period during the 18 months before). More surprisingly, the government’s line in the public debate similarly focused on the prevention of benefit abuse, rather than on the broadening of benefit eligibility. The notion of child poverty never entered the debate.
One of the reasons for the low voice of the poor in Serbia could be found in the radical reform of social protection system in the first decade of the 2000s, which granted the middle classes access to reinvigorated social insurance programs, while targeting social assistance programs only to the poor through the strengthening of means testing and the reduction of benefits. This was especially the case for the child allowance, which is a major source of financial assistance for poor families with children. Following the reforms in 2002, the number of households eligible for the allowance dropped by31%, and continued to fall in subsequent years (UNICEF 2012:46). As a percentage of GDP, spending was cut from 0.82 to 0.31 between 2000 and 2008 and hasn’t recovered since. Today, only 30% of the children under the age of 19 receive the allowance. As Korpi and Palme (1998) predict, large coalitions are more likely to emerge in the presence of universal rather than targeted programs, as they get the voice and political weight of the middle class involved.
In the face of such high child poverty rates in Serbia, could a return to universalism be a solution?
Are there other ways to better bring child poverty and the voice of the poor into public policy debates?

UNICEF (2012) “Novčana davanja za decu i porodice sa decom u Srbiji.
Korpi, W. and Palme, J. (1998) The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries, American Sociological Review, Vol. 63, No. 5, pp. 661-687
Jelena Zarkovic Rakic
Director of Foundation for the Advancement of Economics
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade
Researcher, Partnership for Economic Policy

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