Around 80% of the world's 2.2 billion children lack even the most basic social safeguards to protect them from disease, exploitation and abject poverty and to ensure they have access to basic health care and education, the U.N. reports.
In a new report made public Wednesday by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization, researchers say that 1.77 billion children up to the age of 18 lack access to a child or family cash benefit, a fundamental pillar of a social protection system. Among those, about 1.46 billion children are younger than 15.
Children are twice as likely as adults to live below the extreme poverty line – which the World Bank defines as those who struggle to subsist on US$2.15 per person per day. Around 800 million children survive on less than US$3.20 a day, the report says, while 1.3 billion others live on less than US$5.50 a day.
"The impacts on children are both immediate and lifelong," the report says, exacerbating human rights violations, like child labor and childhood marriage, while diminishing children's aspirations and opportunities.
More than a billion live in multidimensional poverty, depriving them of access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation and clean water. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children living in multidimensional poverty increased by 15%, erasing previous progress in reducing childhood poverty.
Positive impacts are beyond question
Social protection systems can help poor and vulnerable people cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, invest in the health and education of their children, and protect the aging population.
“Ultimately, strengthened efforts to ensure adequate investment in universal social protection for children, ideally through universal child benefits to support families at all times, is the ethical and rational choice, and the one that paves the way to sustainable development and social justice,” said Shahra Razavi, director of the ILO's Social Protection Department.
Evidence shows that social protection for children reduces poverty while contributing to income security in households, with broader significance for child health, education and food security.
Additionally, the study says, it makes households more resilient, allowing them to boost their productivity and earning potential, while reducing the risk of inter-generational poverty.
"In this way, investment in social protection for children expands human capabilities and productivity, and creates a virtuous circle, fueling economic growth and contributing to more sustainable tax and transfer systems that will enable further expansion of social protection for all, including children," the report asserts.
Lacking social protection, even the basic conditions for well-being are less likely to be met during childhood, creating conditions and problems that are difficult to fix later in life.
Disability, gender, climate change and war
For disabled children and their families the daily struggle to get by is often even more onerous.
They are more likely to live in poverty because of the associated costs, such as medical bills and the incomes lost by the caregiver and the person with the disability. Even where social protection systems offer support, it rarely covers the extra costs associated with a disability.
Gender can also play a pivotal role, especially in cultures where females face deep-seated discrimination.
This can shape a young girl's well-being, from denying her an education, or forcing her into an unwanted marriage or shuffling her into a low-status, poorly paying job. Studies show that children living in households headed by women are more likely to live in extreme poverty than children from male-headed households.
The devastating effects of climate change, wars and conflicts, and the cost-of-living crisis all impact the lives of the world's children in ways they can neither comprehend nor change.
The report, "More than a billion reasons: The urgent need to build universal social protection for children," says that millions of children and their families are not getting a critical social protection provision: monetary benefits that are provided to families either in cash payments or tax credits.
UNICEF and the ILO say that all countries, rich or poor, have the choice of pursuing a "high road" strategy of investing in social protection or the cheaper "low road" option that traps countries in a "low cost-low human development" trajectory that will jeopardize the achievement of sustainable development goals.
“As families face increasing economic hardship, food insecurity, conflict, and climate-related disasters, universal child benefits can be a lifeline,” said Natalia Winder-Rossi, UNICEF's director of social policy and social protection.
“There is an urgent need to strengthen, expand and invest in child-friendly and shock-responsive social protection systems," she said. "This is essential to protect children from living in poverty and increase resilience particularly among the poorest households.”