Meeting the social needs of minors (peopled aged 0 to 17) to a satisfactory degree is essential to a country’s social development. These needs are closely connected with financial and social welfare as well as health, access to housing and education. To analyse this, we have selected a range of indicators that measure each aspect, bearing in mind that education was studied separately in a previous report.
The indicators we use now measure the incidence, intensity and level of the chronicity of the poverty risk affecting minors, the degree to which their parents’ need for a decent job is met, along with, in general, the living conditions in their family as regards the comfort of the home they occupy and their health, in other words, their style of life and their ability to access the medical care they require.
1. Financial and material wellbeing and the labour market
The information offered by these indicators leaves few doubts as to the problems suffered by children in Spain. The child-poverty risk rates both before and during the recession were much higher than the rates among the population as a whole (Ayala et al., 2006; Ayllón, 2017). These rates were already high before the economic crisis, which merely exacerbated this tendency. The differences reached their peak in 2010 and have fallen since then, but there still remains a considerable gap between the risk rates affecting the general population (21.5%) and minors (26.8%).
In any developed society, the levels of poverty and social exclusion among children illustrate the welfare failings that affect a large proportion of the population: families with children. The financial and sociological literature leaves no room for doubt: the shortcomings experienced in childhood become unequal opportunities in adulthood. The minors growing up in poor families are more likely to be in a disadvantageous social position as regards their level of education, quality of employment, standard of health and social situation in general.
In addition, indicators on consistent poverty and chronic poverty show that since 2010, financial poverty affecting minors often goes hand in hand with material deprivation and that in recent years this has worsened and is becoming chronic. In 2017, almost two out of every ten minors had been living in poverty for three years or more, a situation that affects just over one in ten people living in Spain. There is a large body of empirical evidence that concludes that if poverty is intense and lasting, the family environment deteriorates and adults devote less time and resources to the children, which inevitably reduces their future social capital (Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal, 2009). Consequently, the consistent and chronic poverty and social exclusion children are suffering today will be among the factors that will determine the progress of our society over the coming decades.
The incidence of child poverty in a region and changes to it over time are not an inevitability but the result of the complex interaction between various economic, demographic and social factors. Of the various elements related to public intervention, the design and protective capacity of monetary transfers play an important part. The substantial rise in unemployment, particularly among young adults of an age to have children, and the increase in income inequality were the main social consequences of the change in the economic cycle in Spain. When such problems combine with the high prevalence of low-paid jobs among the younger generations and the level of mortgage debt owed by many middle-class families affected by the rise in house prices, it is not difficult to understand why many Spanish families, especially those with children, face serious difficulties in maintaining a decent standard of living.
As various specialist analyses have highlighted, the rise in poverty in Spain is connected with the repeated negative rates of income growth experienced by the poorest half of the population since the start of the economic crisis. The main reason for this drop in income in more vulnerable households is to do with the sweeping changes in the market income distribution structure as a result of the significant rise in unemployment and insecure jobs. The second is the lack of public policies on income maintenance that would provide minimum income levels when unemployment is particularly severe.
The available data show that the incidence of in-work poverty among households with children is greater than in other household types. Approximately two out of ten children live in households suffering from in-work poverty: even though there are people in work in the household, their disposable income is lower than the poverty threshold. This affected just over two out of every 20 people in the total population in 2004 and three out of every 20 in 2017. Even though in-work poverty in households containing children rose due to the recession, the gap between in-work poverty affecting children and the general population is gradually shrinking and is today half what it was in 2004.
With regard to the degree to which housing-related social needs are met, one of the priority fundamental needs to enable children to pursue their lives is for them to have a decent home that meets the minimum conditions to be able to live in it in a satisfactory manner. Virtually every home in Spain has basic sanitation installations (bath or shower and toilet), meaning that a fundamental need is essentially fully met. In contrast, far more people are affected by housing problems related to structural shortcomings or to inadequate maintenance, such as damp and leaks, or poor natural lighting. In any event, the picture painted by these indicators for minors is notable for the fact that the conditions of the homes occupied by children are no worse than those of the general population. Moreover, these conditions have improved in Spain in the last decade, with appreciable progress made in recent years. As in the case of housing conditions, the risk of energy poverty among minors is not noticeably different to that of the total population, with one in ten minors living in households that cannot afford to keep their home warm during the winter months.
3. Health and lifestyle habits
To complete the picture, another area related to children’s social needs is the functioning of the health system, with two key indicators for measuring its impact: the extent to which the need for medical care is met, measured by the percentage of minors who received healthcare late or not at all due to long waiting lists, and the percentage of poor children whose medical care represents health spending that is very high in comparison with their family’s ability to pay. The results indicate that the delay experienced by children is slightly less than that of the general population, though there was a widespread increase in cases of delayed medical attention since 2014. This positive result is in contrast with another that is somewhat less promising: the percentage of minors in modest families whose households suffer from excessive health-related spending in relation to their ability to pay is higher than that found in the total population. Between 2006 and the present day, the incidence of this problem has risen by almost 40% across the entire population.
With regard to lifestyle habits, even though the sedentary lifestyle has declined in recent years among the general populace and the consumption of fruit and vegetables has risen, it is worrying that the trends in both indicators among children are precisely in the opposite direction: the sedentary lifestyle is more common and the consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen. Consequently, even though this is not a widespread situation, a greater prevalence of obesity among children is to be expected, which may become a serious public health problem in the future.
CHILD BENEFIT IN SPAIN AND IN OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRIES
DTwo of the key features of the Spanish benefits and tax system are the considerable redistributive impact of contributory pensions and benefits and the extremely low level of means-tested benefits, in particular those aimed at families (Cantó, 2013, 2014). Family-related policies have traditionally been an insignificant element of social policies as a whole in Spain and, at the start of this century, allocated resources did not even reach half the amount set aside for this purpose by other countries in the eurozone.
In any event, the level of spending on family policies is not the only important factor, as the way the benefits system and tax deductions are structured is also relevant. Family policies of a financial nature in Spain consist fundamentally of central government and autonomous community tax allowances, autonomous community minimum incomes and some income-capped financial benefits per child. The studies that have analysed the financial significance of the various family policies of a monetary nature in Spain demonstrate that the policy of greatest economic importance is the income tax allowances per child and not, as might be thought, financial benefits (Cantó and Ayala, 2014). Consequently, given that a significant proportion of households below the poverty threshold are exempt from income tax, these allowances do not help to reduce child poverty.
With regard to the financial benefits, the central government system is dominated by contributory benefits linked to pregnancy and motherhood or fatherhood and caring for children aged 0 to 3 years old, together with a non-contributory benefit for each dependent child which, rather than being aimed at reducing the rate of child poverty, is focused on meeting the needs of families with children with disabilities. Spain is at the bottom of an EU-country ranking of benefits per child. Benefits per dependent child were allocated a budget in 2019 of just over €500 million for minors without disabilities. It is payable for children living in households with very low income levels (around €12,700 per annum for households with a dependent minor) and the annual amount per minor is very low (€341 euros a year unless the family income is extremely low, raising the amount payable to €588 per year). This policy affected 1.3 million minors without disabilities in 2017, around 17% of all minors, but the amount is so low that its ability to reduce child poverty is extremely limited.
The rest of the family benefits system is extremely disjointed, as it is divided up into various policies on payments for childbirth or adoption and others regulated by autonomous communities. Even though the latter of these rose to extent prior to 2010 and were to a certain degree important in terms of the number of recipients in autonomous communities such as Catalonia, Asturias and Cantabria, they were abolished or drastically cut back during the economic crisis (Cantó et al., 2014).
Do we have quality education? In this report we analyse three fundamental
dimensions: access to sufficient educational level, obtaining of adequate
knowledge to contribute to economic and social development, and degree of
inclusion of the education system.
In Spain barely 3.3% of the total of social transfers in the year 2016
targeted children, against the European average of 9%. However, this study
shows that it is the most effective way of eradicating poverty.
Deprivations during childhood become unequal opportunities in adulthood.
Understanding the conditions in which this population segment lived prior
to the covid-19 crisis can help to prepare for the future.