Australia revealed as a world leader in supporting children through COVID, but new UNICEF report highlights risk of withdrawing critical social protection too early

Child poverty is expected to remain above pre-COVID levels for at least five years in high-income countries globally, a likely increase on the one in six Australian children living below the poverty line. Yet, only 2 per cent of government-provided financial relief across OECD and EU countries was allocated to support children and families raising children during the first wave of the pandemic, according to a new UNICEF report. With upcoming reductions to social security payments, Australia now risks backtracking on its strong leadership in this space.
 
Supporting Families and Children Beyond COVID-19: Social Protection in High Income Countries – produced by the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti – explores how the social and economic impact of the pandemic has affected children; the initial government responses to the crisis; and how future public policies could be optimised to better support children.
 
Of the 159 global social protection interventions up until July 2020, just 46 were for children or families raising children. Within policies for children and families with children:
 
  • 14 addressed childcare needs 
  • 8 addressed school feeding and/or 3 family food supports 
  • 12 extended family allowances
  • 1 extended maternity pay
  • All but 16 of the child and family policies are expansions on pre-existing eligibility – and so risked missing the near or new poor – or have work conditions and so risked missing children in poorest households.
In the report, Australia has been revealed as a world leader in providing support packages specifically designed for families and children. Of the four cash transfer packages globally that included coverage for families, two were in Australia, one in the Republic of Korea and one in the United States. As of July 2020, Australia had invested $2.9 billion in one off cash transfers for families, supporting 6.6 million people, as well as investing $8.5 million in temporary unemployment packages. However, both globally and in Australia, fiscal stimulus for businesses have been much higher.
 
“Millions of families in Australia have benefitted from the social protection interventions by the Government, including free childcare, increased JobSeeker allowances and the COVID Supplement," said Oliver White, Advocacy Lead at UNICEF Australia.  
 
"However, much of this support is temporary in its design, and risks excluding some of the most vulnerable children if there is not a long term and focused plan to address growing poverty and inequality. With the world’s attention turned to exciting vaccine developments, we must invest in sustainable long term solutions suitable for the projected length of this crisis and beyond." 
 
Earlier this year UNICEF’s Report Card 16 found that Australia was faring poorly in terms of child well-being compared to other rich countries. One in six children were reported to be living in poverty and Australia ranked 30th out of 38 countries for educational equality. The OECD found that these inequalities were on the rise, including a widening gap in reading ability.
 
While children are not a high-risk group in terms of physical effects of the virus, secondary impacts on education, child protection and healthcare have deepened existing inequalities. Throughout the pandemic, UNICEF Australia has been surveying young Australians to understand how they are coping with COVID-19, and the analysis has consistently shown a worrying trend of worsening mental health and anxiety about financial stability.
 
Globally, UNICEF is urging Governments to consider rebalancing the present fiscal stimulus to allow for increases in social protection expenditure; diversifying social protection responses to cover the range of needs of children and their families during COVID-19; ensure inclusive family policies are built into the heart of COVID-19 recovery responses; protect existing child and family benefits and services from future budget cuts; and longer-term, strengthen social protection systems, and child and family policies that prevent poverty.  
 
“The actions needed are threefold,” said Mr. White. “First, we need decisive policies that reduce child poverty. Second, we must strengthen services that directly support children’s needs. Third, we must prioritise lessons learned from the previous global financial crisis and build sustainable child-focused policies into our plans.”
 
“Specifically, increasing accessibility and affordability of quality early learning education for all children under the age of five and permanently raising the JobSeeker rate would deliver stability and help safeguard children from poverty.” 
 
The premature withdrawal of fiscal support designed to help the everyday Australian family will have lasting impacts on literacy, education, well-being, and mental health of young people. Support must be adequate, and it must be permanent, not only to protect children from the pandemic’s impact, but also to address the underlying pre-pandemic challenges Australia was facing.
 
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Notes to editors:
The full report will be available to read here once the embargo lifts.
 
About UNICEF Innocenti
The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit: www.unicef-irc.org