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The dynamics of child poverty in Ireland

June 8, 2021

A new research paper has been published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which evaluates the dynamics of child poverty in Ireland. The study is part of a research programme between the ESRI and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

This study has various aims: it profiles the long-term exposure to poverty during childhood; identifies the families most at risk of persistent poverty; examines the factors that trigger moves into and out of poverty; and explores the consequences of poverty for children across a wide range of domains.

The study is based on data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) survey. The survey follows the progress of two cohorts: cohort ’08 (the ‘Infant Cohort’), which follows children from 9 months to 9 years old, and cohort ’98 (the Child Cohort), which covers the period from 9 years to 17–18 years. Participants were followed over time between 2007 and 2017, a period of immense economic turmoil in Ireland. In this summary, we will focus on the findings related to the Infant Cohort.

A key finding is that exposure to economic vulnerability on at least one occasion was a common experience among families with young children (44%). At the extreme, 5% of families were always vulnerable during the period analysed. One-parent families, larger families (four or more children), those in the lowest maternal education categories and ethnic minorities all have a much higher likelihood of experiencing persistent poverty. Maternal education appears to be especially important.

The study identifies households experiencing economic vulnerability (EV) on the basis of three factors: those living in a household with a low income; experiencing difficulty in making ends meet; and experiencing material deprivation (the inability to afford basic goods and services). The recession not only led to large inflows to EV, but also led to a slowing of exits from EV, meaning that more and more families became trapped. Relationship breakdown and maternal and paternal job loss were found to be important triggers for moves into EV. Similarly, moving from non-employment into full-time work plays a significant role in moving families out of poverty. In contrast, transitions from non-employment into part-time employment are not associated with exits from EV, suggesting that part-time work is not enough to lift families out of poverty.

Results show that exposure to EV during childhood is associated with poorer outcomes at 9 years. These outcomes cover a range of key dimensions, including cognitive and educational attainment, school engagement, socio-emotional development, life satisfaction, self-concept, chronic illness/disability, obesity, and quality of relationships. Outcomes are poorer where a family is persistently or always vulnerable. But even transitory spells of EV are associated with worse outcomes compared to never experiencing EV.

In terms of policy implications, the authors argue that only full-time employment lifted families out of economic vulnerability. This would require significant childcare support, especially for those with younger children. Moreover, for those parenting alone, combining full-time work and caring may not be feasible. The value of core welfare supports for lone parents and other jobless households remains critical to reducing child poverty, as well as income supports for working families and policies to address low pay. Increases in child-dependent allowances for welfare recipients are considered to be a well-targeted way of reducing child poverty.

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