Data from 22 countries across the region featured in the study shows children are bearing the heaviest burden of the economic crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. While children make up 25 per cent of the population, they account for nearly 40 per cent of the additional 10.4 million people experiencing poverty this year.
The Russian Federation has experienced the most significant increase in the number of children living in poverty, with an additional 2.8 million children now living in households below the poverty line, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total increase across the region. Ukraine is home to half a million additional children living in poverty, the second largest share. It is important to note that this is a conservative estimate which uses a GDP drop of 10 per cent.
The consequences of child poverty stretch far beyond families living in financial distress. The sharp increase could result in an additional 4,500 children dying before their first birthday, and learning losses could be equivalent to an additional 117,000 children dropping out of school this year.
The poorer a family is, the greater the proportion of their income that is committed to necessities such as food and fuel. When the costs of basic goods soar, the money available to meet other needs such as health care and education falls. The Ukraine war and subsequent cost-of-living crisis means that the poorest children are even less likely to access essential services and are more at risk of child marriage, violence, exploitation and abuse.
For many, childhood poverty lasts a lifetime. One in three children born and raised in poverty will live their adult lives in poverty, leading to an intergenerational cycle of hardship and deprivation.
The challenges faced by families living in or on the brink of poverty deepen when governments reduce public expenditure, increase consumption taxes or put in place austerity measures in a limiting effort to boost their economies in the short-term, as this diminishes the reach and quality of support services that families depend on.
The study sets out a framework to help reduce the number of children living in poverty and prevent more families from falling into financial distress:
Provide universal cash benefits for children and ensure minimum income security.
Expand social assistance benefits to all families with children in need, including refugees.
Protect social spending, especially for vulnerable children and families.
Protect and support the delivery of health, nutrition, and social care services to pregnant mothers, infants, and pre-schoolers.
Introduce price regulations on basic food items for families.
UNICEF has recently partnered with the EU Commission and several EU countries to pilot the EU Child Guarantee initiative to mitigate the impact of poverty on children and provide them with opportunities to thrive in adulthood. With more children and families now being pushed into poverty, a robust response is warranted across the region.
UNICEF is calling for continued and expanded support to strengthen social protection systems in high- and middle-income countries across Europe and Central Asia; and the prioritization of funding for social protection programmes, including cash assistance programmes for vulnerable children and families.