Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children: Building Opportunities and Resilience

On 19 November 2019, I delivered opening remarks and presented the findings of the OECD’s latest report “Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children: Building Opportunities and Resilience” in the opening session with OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría and champions Kailash Satyarthi and HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands.

Investing in children needs to be a priority for OECD countries. Childhood is a crucial moment in the development of individual. It is also a critical issue for societies and economies, as it determines the formation of human and social capital.

Across the OECD, public spending on families is low despite the potential for returns; for instance, six-times more is spent on the elderly than on families.   The potential for returns in public investment during childhood has the strongest returns of any part of the life-cycle, and returns on adult spending can be higher when there are positive spillover effects on children.

Investment in vulnerable children is most effective when it happens across the lifecycle. The factors determining the level of investment needed differs by country context. In some cases, it may mean greater investment. In other cases, it may means better investment into areas that improve value for money.

In response to rising inequalities, the OECD has called for a new growth narrative that puts people’s well-being at the centre of policy and moves beyond GDP as the sole metric of success. The OECD has developed a Framework for Policy Action on Inclusive Growth to offer countries guidance on how to design and implement policies that will give all people, firms and regions the opportunity to thrive- particularly those that are struggling or have been left behind.

This report deep dives and unpacks the first pillar (Investing in those left behind) with a focus on vulnerable children.

Current levels of income inequality are framing children’s life chances.

In OECD countries, income inequality has been growing rapidly; the average disposable income of the top 10% is now around nine and half times that of the poorest 10%, up from seven times 25 years ago. Globally, the share of gross national income held by the top 10% continues to grow and is particularly marked in emerging economies of India and Russia.  The more unequal a country is, the lower the rate of social mobility. In low-inequality countries such as the Nordic countries it would take 100 years or four for children born into low-income families to reach the average income and in high-inequality countries like such as some of the emerging economies- Brazil, Columbia and South Africa, it would take nine generations, or even longer. 

The share of middle-income households with children is in decline. It has fallen from 72% to 68% for couples with children, and from 55% to 44% among single parents.  Between the mid-1980s and mid-2010s, single-parent households increasingly dropped out of the middle-income group and, by the end of the period, a majority were on lower incomes.

Middle-income spending is rising faster than income and the middle class are spend more than half of their budget on core items such as housing, food, clothing, health and education. Housing is the largest spending item which increased from ¼ in 1995 to 1/3 in 2015.  In some countries, the rising costs of higher education threaten the ability of the middle-income class to send their children to university, as they have increased faster than inflation and median incomes.

Many middle-income households are financially vulnerable or struggle to make ends meet. Households with children are the most economically vulnerable meaning they lack the liquid financial assets needed to maintain a living standard at the poverty level for at least three months .

Children are vulnerable for different reasons. This report considers child vulnerability as the outcome of the interaction of a range of individual and environmental factors that compound dynamically over time. Types and degrees of child vulnerability vary as these factors change and evolve. For example, age shapes children’s needs while also exposing them to potential new risks. The independence of older adolescences makes them more susceptible to opportunities and risks in the community, making the presence of supportive adults, school quality and local economic opportunities important for well-being.

Individual factors include disability, mental health difficulties, immigrant background, experiencing maltreatment or being in out-of-home care. For instance, children with disabilities are more likely to live in low socio-economic households, to experience maltreatment and to be bullied. They are overrepresented in institutional care.

Environmental factors operate at the family and community level. Family factors include material deprivation, parents’ health and health behaviours, parents’ education level, family stress and intimate partner violence. Community factors are associated with school and neighbourhood environments.

Family factors shaping child vulnerability include material deprivation. OECD broadly defines material deprivation as the inability of a household to afford consumption goods and activities that are typical in a society at a given time.

For example, nutrition-  One in ten children in European OECD countries do not have access to a healthy diet as measured as access to fresh fruit or vegetables and/or one meal including meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian equivalent once a day. In low income households, the food budget is most likely to be cut.  Access to cooking and food storage facilities and locally available food options also determine children’s diet. Schools and after-school clubs can play an important role in supplementing the diet of vulnerable children. Poor nutrition negatively affects child development and health and interferes with children’s ability to preform well at school.

One third of children in European OECD countries experience deprivation in leisure activities as measured as not being able to participate in a regular leisure activity and/or go on a holiday away from the home at least one week a year.  The rate is two-times higher among income-poor children.

Participation in regular leisure activities help children develop social skills, friendships, and positive subjective well-being, and is associated with improved educational outcomes. Leisure activities are especially important for vulnerable children, as they provide natural opportunities to interact with supportive adults and mentors, as well as time away from stressful home environments.

Moreover, one in six children in European OECD countries experience severe deprivation measured as being deprived across four of seven dimensions. The risk of severe deprivation is closely related to poverty. On average, 36% of children living in poverty experience severe deprivation.

Intimate partner violence in the home is increasingly recognised as serious problem in OECD countries.

At the EU level, 22% of women report physical and/or sexual assault by their current or previous partner, and 43% disclosed psychological abuse. 73% of women reporting IPV are caregivers of children who also witness the abuse.  The life-time exposure of children to intimate partner violence ranges from 14% in Sweden to 28% in the United States.

Intimate partner violence has serious consequences for child well-being. Exposure during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight and pre-term delivery. In early childhood, it can have long-term consequences on social and emotional development. Children affected by intimate partner violence benefit from the risk of exposure to intimate partner violence being reduced and/or eliminated, but also from interventions to strengthen parent-child relationships.

In developing countries, where a child lives and household wealth determines access to basic rights and services. Far too many children do not have their birth registered. Birth registration is a prerequisite for accessing government services and social protection, and provides protection from exploitation and access to juvenile justice.

Birth registration is 30% lower in rural areas.

Children from the wealthiest families are 1.5 times more likely to have their birth registered than children in the poorest households.

Furthermore, children in the poorest households are much less likely to have access to a favourable learning environment at home or through an Early Childhood Development Programme. In least-developed countries, an estimated 29% of children in the wealthiest quintile were enrolled in a programme compared to only 7% of children in the poorest quintile.

Child labour remains a critical children’s rights issue. Child labour has declined but progress has slowed. In 2016, about one in ten children aged 5-17 years engaged in some form of child labour, and nearly half in hazardous forms of work. About nine in ten children in child labour live in Africa or in Asia and the Pacific region. In Africa, one in five children are in child labour. 

The OECD is recommending countries to approach improving the well-being of children through cross-cutting child well-being strategies with a particular focus on vulnerable children, and deliver policies that develop these children’s resilience.

Vulnerable children need consistent, coherent and coordinated support throughout childhood and this requires a whole-of-government approach to child policy.

The OECD has put forward six areas of policy action around which child well-being strategies could be organised.

These policies reduce risks and increase protective factors, thereby building children’s resilience. Protective factors mitigate risk and reduce negative outcomes. They allow children to benefit form positive experiences , form key capabilities, and access resources in favour of good outcomes. Protective factors are present in the family and the community; some are embedded in relationships children have with adults and others through local resources such as effective schools and neighbourhoods and strong child protection systems.

For children who experience high levels of adversity, enhancing the quality of children’s environments and making available resources to nurture and sustain well-being are the most important interventions.

Improve children’s educational outcomes by increasing vulnerable children’s participation in ECEC. Participation in early childhood education and care can be an important protective factor in the lives of vulnerable children. Vulnerable children access ECEC at a much lower rate, in some countries up to half.

PISA 2015 show that 15 year-old students who attended ECEC for two years or more score a significant 26 score-points higher in science test the PISA test assessing sciences performance than their counterparts who attended ECEC for less than two years. This is roughly worth half an academic year of schooling.  The magnitude of benefits depends on the quality of ECEC. High quality ECEC can have a stronger positive effect on children whose mothers have lower-level of education.   Evidence suggests that ECEC can help parents engage more frequently in cognitively stimulating and less passive activities, helping close the gap between disadvantaged children and children from non-disadvantaged families. 

Many countries gave already have integrated social and emotional skills development into their national and sub-national curricula. For example, Norway has introduced building life-skills and learning about mental health as a cross-curricular theme. Ireland has introduced a framework for use in early years and primary school setting to promote well-being and a sense of identity and belonging.

Policy Action: Strengthen child protection.

One area for greater investment is in improving outcomes for children in out-of-home care as the outcomes for these vulnerable children is much lower than the general population, across education, health, adult employment and futures earning.

Enhancing the well-being of children placed in out-of-home care requires greater investment in resources that build protective factors.

We know that children do better when they come into care at a younger age, have minimal care and school placement disruptions, when they are placed in kinship or foster care, when they are supported to have positive contact with their birth family, and when the receive support on leaving the system. We need to have policies in place that support better outcomes. For example, policies are needed to support positive contact with children and their birth family.  Child protections services can influence the quality of contact by supporting parents and children by supporting parents and children during and between contact visits to make full use of this time .

Countries should have in place policies to support the transition of young people ageing out of the care system. This entails a statutory entitlement for support until reaching a particular age and/or completing education. For example, New Zealand offers young people the option of remaining or returning to live with a carer until 21 years of age and to access transition support and advice until 25 years of age.

We need to better understand the policy determinants of child resilience. We need to understand which protective factors contribute more to positive well-being.

OECD can take on an active role in designing a child well-being framework and ensure the cross-national comparability of the definitions used to categorise family situation and to compare children outcomes.  New Zealand is one example of a country that is starting to implement a child well-being strategy close to this set of policy actions outlined in the report Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children. 

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