Ireland has made vital progress in tackling child poverty but no child can be left behind

If we do not pay attention to children today, they may force us to pay attention to them as troubled adults tomorrow

Earlier this week, the annual Child Poverty Monitor published by the Children’s Rights Alliance spelled out the reality of life on the breadline in Ireland. A total of 260,773 children had experienced “enforced deprivation” – where a household experiences two or more “deprivation items”. “These are children that might go to bed hungry in a week or do not have clothes or shoes that fit for school,” the alliance said. The number involved amounts to “more than the population of Clare and Waterford combined”.

Across Ireland and Britain, a generation is entering their teenage years never knowing what it is to be free of poverty or to ever be economically secure. It is an international crisis that requires governments to adopt a war-footing.

Child poverty has, of course, always been with us.

The town where I grew up – Kirkcaldy, in Scotland – was one of the very special close-knit industrial communities at the heart of Britain’s coal-mining industry. And it was witnessing first-hand the devastation caused by poverty and unemployment in Fife in the 1960s that made me decide to go into public life. It formed my fundamental belief that every single child should have the chance to develop their talents to the fullest and that action on child poverty is the most important social obligation this generation owes to the next: to thousands of children who, because of poverty, deprivation and the lack of opportunity, have been destined to fail even before their life’s journey has begun.


These are the children going to school ill-clad and hungry; children in families having to choose between heating, eating and keeping clean; children whose mothers queue up at food banks; children in deprived areas who deserve a government on their side.

We know from all internationally available evidence that a child who grows up in a poor family is less likely to stay on at school, less likely to attend regularly, less likely to get qualifications and go to college, less likely to find a good job or any job at all, and more likely to reproduce the cycle of deprivation in childhood, exclusion in youth and disappointment that is lifelong.

Child poverty could be reduced substantially in Ireland with a second-tier child benefit many have proposed for families who need help most

In April 2022, of 1.22 million children in Ireland making up 24 per cent of the population, 14.3 per cent – approximately 175,000 children – lived in households at risk of poverty (with income less than 60 per cent of the median disposable income).

However, while the United Kingdom is approaching the biggest number of poor children in living memory, Ireland is announcing a programme with the aim to make it the best country in Europe for children to grow up. And today, I will be meeting Taoiseach Simon Harris as he outlines a new strategy that will move Ireland towards the top of the European league for the reduction of child poverty.

From having some of the worst rates of child poverty 40 years ago, Ireland is already climbing the league. And now, rejecting the idea we develop only some of the potential of some children in some parts of the country, the new strategy focuses on developing all the potential of all children in all parts of the country.

And while in other countries things are getting worse, Ireland’s record is improving. The European Union statistics based on “children at risk of poverty and social exclusion” show a rate of poverty below the EU average and outperforming France and Germany. Impressively, Ireland has made more progress than most others – indeed, according to a report by Unicef, published in December, child poverty in the Republic fell by 19 per cent – almost one-fifth – helped largely by the targeted anti-poverty interventions between 2014 and 2021.

And it was these cost-of-living measures in previous Irish budgets that prevented the poverty rate for children rising to 16 per cent and contributed to it instead being 14.3 per cent – which means approximately 27,000 fewer Irish children were living in consistent poverty last year and the proportion of children at risk of poverty is now at its lowest level in 20 years.

That’s why the recently published Social Justice Ireland report stated: “Recent years have seen long-overdue improvements in Ireland’s child poverty rate; driven in particular by targeted welfare payments for families.” But as it also says, “the scale of this problem remains alarming”.

I learned three practical lessons drawing on my experience in government, which may assist Ireland in its determination to address child poverty. If we do not find it within ourselves to pay attention to children in their youth today, they may force us to pay attention to them as troubled adults tomorrow.

First, we need a hopeful vision that extends right across all government services in partnership with the voluntary sector, the aim being topping the European league table for the least proportion of children at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

Setting bold targets on child poverty is important. It must be a national objective to ensure that no child will go without help. In the UK, this cross-government strategy meant a range of measures from setting up the child trust fund so every teenager at the age of 18 had some funds to enable them to make decisions about their adult future to education maintenance allowances to enable children from low-income families to stay on at school.

We know from all internationally available evidence that a child who grows up in a poor family is less likely to stay on at school

The UK’s anti-poverty strategy also understood the importance of direct cash transfers that back up ambitious targets. Universal benefits provide protection for all families with children, giving all children a vital safety net. But I want to argue for the importance of what I call “progressive universalism”. What I mean by this is setting a floor of basic social rights for all, but with more support for those who need it most. In the UK, we borrowed from the experience of Ronald Reagan’s America and their earned income tax credit when we introduced tax credits for children in families on low incomes, including on low pay. And the evidence suggests child poverty could be reduced substantially in Ireland with a second-tier child benefit that many have proposed for families who need help most and which would reflect the progressive universalist principle.

Third, we know from evidence that the first 48 months of a child’s life is more important for their development than the next 48 years – and the UK has been able to show this to the whole world with the success of Sure Start, introduced after 1998 for children in their early years. It provides playgroup, learning and health support for preschool children and the evidence is that performance among those children by school-leaving exams age improves considerably.

The Irish Government has just announced the establishment of Equal Start, a new model of government-funded supports to ensure children experiencing disadvantage can access early learning and childcare, which will benefit 35,000 children through supports including funding for additional staff time, meals and a new family community liaison. This Irish Sure Start should help Ireland to achieve its goal of becoming the best country in which a child can grow to adulthood.

Gordon Brown is a former prime minister of the United Kingdom and was leader of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2010