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

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zarkovic
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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

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

Post by Gerald Acho » Tue Mar 19, 2019 8:14 am

Thank you Jelena Zarkovic for these beautifully drafted piece. I see you are contending that the shaping of child allowance discourse outside the scope of child poverty effectively alienates the needy members of the nation (the poor) from benefits of child allowance programs. However, it is not clear the objectives of child allowance initiatives in Serbia. Are they intended to improve the plight of children or the parents? If intended for children what measures are placed to ensure that they are not channeled away. Furthermore, who is given the allowance; mothers or fathers? You also asked the question if a return to universalism is the solution to address child poverty?

Is universalism the answer? I will say no. I say no because history has taught us that states only comply with the principles of international law when it is in their national interest and when international institutions are designed to enforce observance of law. Universalism to some extent supplies weak institutional mechanisms to monitor and enforce regime norms, offering governments strong incentives to ratify such treaties as a matter of window dressing rather than a serious commitment to implement respect for the treaties in practice.

However, I acknowledge the positive institutional effects of universalism on local practices that operate not through the treaty system, but through nongovernmental actors. Nongovernmental actors have effectively influenced states to respect the rights of vulnerable groups like women and children. But we need to think seriously and pragmatically about what universalism will achieve, how it can achieve it, what new skills it will need, if any, to accomplish this, and what will be the relationship between international organizations and local governments.

The recently launched Human Capital Index by the World Bank-IMF shows that 56 percent of children born today across the world will lose more than half their potential lifetime earnings because governments are not currently making effective investments in their people to ensure a healthy, educated, and resilient population ready for the workplace of the future. Given this statistic how can we address child poverty?

My position is, if we are looking to address child poverty then we should empower women. Research strongly supports the thesis of women empowerment benefiting children and family well-being. At the same time, I agree with the thesis that a child has to be considered when discussing issues that relate to their well-being. This is because If we are not considering the position of the child in the whole equation, then there will be a missing link. Children must be consulted and listened to when drafting policies that concern them.

But what is consistent today is governments underutilized the countries resources only to give parents the option of an allowance which is not more than the minimum wage instead of looking for projects to utilize the resources and the need to empower the people economically. Children cannot live alone. Empower their parents and they will help their children. I will instead advocate for international institutions to provide the necessary support to states so as to promote robust and inclusive economic growth, reduce risks for child poverty, and foster competitiveness while strengthening fiscal sustainability and financial resilience. I cannot ascribe for universalism because the root cause of the problem is not being addressed. I believe that empowering the people economically can help speed the process of eradicating child poverty and boosting shared prosperity among children.

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