Tomorrow's Child in an Age ot Austerity

Harvey, B. (2011). Tomorrow's Child in an Age ot Austerity.
In autumn 2008, on the eve of Ireland’s economic collapse, Barnardos published Tomorrow’s child. The picture it painted was one of an Ireland in which four-fifths of children led reasonably prosperous lives: they were in good health, well educated, ambitious and had strongly embraced and were competent in the new technologies. In an international perspective, Ireland was a positively rated environment for children, one of the happiest in Europe. Despite the economic changes of the celtic tiger, family life and structures were remarkably stable, with most children belonging to two-parent families and marriage more popular than ever. Families were becoming smaller, typically one to two children, with parents marrying and parenting from their early 30s. This picture was blemished by child poverty, with a fifth of children living in poverty, concentrated in alienated working class communities; a poorly performing education system; serious shortfalls in children’s services; a significant proportion with health problems; and particular groups at high risk of disadvantage, such as Travellers. Three years later, many aspects of this picture are still recognizable. The ‘baby boom’ of the early 2000s continues unaffected, requiring an expansion of primary and then secondary education in the coming years. Although immigration has fallen off sharply, it has by no means stopped and most of the new communities remain in Ireland to stay. The most dramatic changes have been the resumption of high emigration, 76,400 in the past year, and unemployment, 14%. Diminished prospects for children and young people will have a corrosive effect. The most educated will travel to distant, even antipodal destinations, a new brain drain. But there is little for those without such advantages. The financial collapse, especially the dramatic rise in unemployment, from 4% to 14%, has put families with children under enormous pressure, while others, due to pay cuts, face a rapid rise in debt, utility arrears and increasing difficulty in meeting educationrelated costs and charges. Decisions by government have, it can be argued, made the situation for children much more difficult. Cuts in welfare rates immediately affected the standard of living of all welfare-claiming families, while the reduction in child benefit will in time force child poverty rates upward. Those children most immediately impacted were those who lost teachers and educational resources, especially those with disabilities and Travellers. Key institutional and agency ‘champions’ for the welfare of children were abolished, making children less visible in the policy-making chain. The budget for already inadequate children’s welfare services was further reduced. Voluntary and community organisations working with children suffered disproportionate reductions in their budgets at a time when demands on them soared and donations fell. The short-term future for families with children promises to be, for a majority difficult and for a minority, grim. The IMF programme envisages substantial further cuts in state and public services, much lower levels of child support, with an even sharper squeeze on household incomes. Unlike previous cuts, the IMF programme targets welfare and education and will inflict much more damage than earlier comparators. The state will become ever less competent. Foreign comparisons suggest that the process of impoverishment will last much longer than government expects. This is childhood in an age of austerity. Even still, some long-term social trends are likely to continue relatively independently of the country’s economic fortunes or misfortunes. A growing part of the school system will become independent of the catholic church. Few children will attend religious services and most will marry in civil ceremonies. Children, already adept at mastering new technologies, will increasingly live online. Science may become a more important driver of career choices and life changes. The new communities will continue to integrate into the Irish educational system and drive up its standards. Demographers and futurologists predict an Ireland which has both a youthful and an ageing population, with significant environmental and landscape change. The fundamental challenge posed by the original Tomorrow’s child (2008) remains. As long as Ireland persists with its current model of development, then services and standards for children are likely to remain inadequate and divide Irish children between a prospering majority and a suffering minority experiencing hardship. International example and our own previous experience suggests that there is a real danger that the one fifth of Irish children who have poor economic, social and educational prospects will grow to a quarter, or worse. The financial collapse does provide an opportunity to reflect on and consider alternative solutions. These lie in halting the impact of austerity on the poor and in following more enlightened continental European models of social development that would achieve more positive outcomes for all children.