Poverty destroys children

Child poverty is rife among low-income families and this is primarily because parents and/or guardians cannot afford to give their children a proper upbringing

Often, low-income families have few possibilities of improving their living conditions. Individuals do not choose to live in poverty and they struggle to make ends meet. Blaming them for being inadequate or lazy is insensitive and pointless. In many cases they come from a background and culture of poverty and many of their children are disadvantaged in their upbringing.

Child poverty is rife among low-income families and this is primarily because parents and/or guardians cannot afford to give their children a proper upbringing. Compulsory state education is free but there are ancillary expenses that restrict these children from leading a normal school life in line with their peers.

At present there are around 24,000 children coming from 9,000 low income families whose disposable income is below the poverty threshold. Most of them either belong to large families or single-parent households or whose parents are working poor or jobless. Many suffer material deprivation by way of their access to food – both in quality and quantity. Others lack basic components such as housing, health, clothing and personal care.

Education expenses related to school children are not as trivial as they may seem. School uniforms – which include daily winter and summer garments and PE attire – cost an average €200. These are expected to last for two years. We have helped such families by reducing the cost of uniforms, this is not enough. Besides uniforms children need funds for stationery material, school outings and other special activities organised by the respective schools. There seem to have been some changes in requirements for compliance or general social norms which necessitated an increase in costs (e.g. with respect to stationery and printing) schoolchildren may possibly be having more requests at the beginning of the scholastic year, such as for folders and workbooks; and printing of past papers – which is also becoming a frequent request.

Some low-income families simply do not have enough money to give these ‘luxuries’ to their children. Leisure and cultural activities all come at some sort of cost but children from this vulnerable section of the population find it difficult to participate in such activities. The state, local councils and NGOs provide free facilities but buying snacks and drinks, especially for families with two or three children, is always an expense that some could ill afford.

A recent research study, prepared by Caritas, shows that households with dependent children subsisting on one national minimum wage, or on Social/Unemployment assistance with applicable benefits and allowances, do not have an adequate income in relation to the established researched minimum for an essential quality of life. The report includes a recommendation that we should “ensure that entitlement to Education for Sustainable Development and related school subjects, such as Home Economics, are implemented comprehensively from the early years to nurture the right attitudes and skills from a young age towards becoming responsible citizens who make informed decisions and take action to promote and safeguard personal, family and community well-being”.

A higher at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion among young people derives from high school absenteeism, early school leaving and lack of vocational training leading to inappropriate or insufficient skills to enter the labour market. The negative effects of inter-generational poverty and other structural factors compound disadvantages for some young people, increasing their alienation.

In Malta, children at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion are significantly disadvantaged in educational attainment especially in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. Indeed, income inequality may affect children much more deeply than we realise because they are in the process of shaping their identity. “Inequalities in society and in our schools have a direct and demonstrable effect on our brains, our learning and educational achievement” (Wilkinson & Pickett). Where societies are investing in more educational equality and in strengthening the family, poverty and social exclusion are at their lowest.

We know that eradicating poverty is no easy task. We do not have a magic wand that can conjure up a solution. But yes, we have started introducing measures that will eventually have the desired effect. Education on its own cannot lead to climbing out of poverty. It needs to be supported and reinforced by socio-economic policies that improve the life of poor families. Work is another essential tool in the fight against poverty. But individuals who cannot work need to be supported as well and most of the poor in our society are those who cannot work, not because they are lazy but due to physical or mental health issues. We cannot abandon them.

Caring for children that come from poor families and who are being raised with limited, or in some cases absent resources, is the first step in our quest to seriously tackle this problem. Children in at-risk-of-poverty families miss out on their childhood. Child Poverty deprives them of the capabilities needed to survive, develop and thrive. It prevents them from enjoying equal opportunities. It makes children more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, violence, discrimination and stigmatisation. Recognising and responding to Child poverty is our first priority.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education and Employment