Children’s rights commissioner on breaking the cycle of poverty

Summary

With a new book, Flanders’ children’s rights commissioner, Bruno Vanobbergen, lays out a plan for tackling one of the most pressing issues of our time

Kid power

When Bruno Vanobbergen wrote his new book, he wasn’t thinking of winter at all. Instead, with Spelen in zwarte sneeuw (Playing in Black Snow), the children’s rights commissioner set out to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Over the course of the book, Vanobbergen (pictured) outlines the challenges to fighting child poverty in Flanders. The “fragile manifesto”, as he calls it, urges the government not to promote individual responsibility and self-reliance as the solutions, but to take a structural approach.

The office of the children’s rights commission is an independent body set up by the Flemish Parliament in 1997 to oversee the application of the UN convention on the rights of the child. The commissioner also represents children’s rights within the general public, examines government legislation and deals with complaints about breaches.

Vanobbergen has held the position since 2009. The reason he wrote the book, he says, is that the problem of children living in poverty keeps getting worse. About one in five children in Belgium lives in poverty, and the percentage of children born every year into a disadvantaged family has risen from 6.4% in 2004 to 12% in 2015.

Making ends meet

Children from large or single-parent families, or whose parents are foreign-born, unemployed or low-educated are at the highest risk of falling into poverty. “When Belgium held the rotating presidency of the European Council in 2010, child poverty was a hot topic and plans were made to significantly decrease its prevalence,” says Vanobbergen. “It’s very worrying to see that we have made no progress to achieve that goal since then. On the contrary.”

The second reason, he says, is that children and parents who live in poverty are framed as the innocent victims and the guilty perpetrators, respectively. “Children, of course, have a very active role, and many factors can prevent parents from escaping financial troubles.”  

The challenging financial situation creates a lot of stress, as it forces people to be stuck in survival mode

- Children’s rights commissioner Bruno Vanobbergen

He offers the example of a child who discovered where her mother kept her financial records and checked them regularly to see whether or not it was a good time to ask her for new clothes. The book also points out that children provide their parents with both emotional and practical support, such as when they go to work themselves or take a student job during school holidays.

For parents, overcoming poverty depends on a lot of factors, Vanobbergen says, and the government plays a crucial role. Education, income, housing, education, health care and leisure are all essential in determining people’s ability to take on active roles in the society.

“The government shouldn’t emphasise that people have to create their own opportunities to escape poverty and that they are responsible for their own fate,” he says. “I see how self-reliant people in poverty already are. The government has to be more aware of its own responsibility in creating the right conditions for people to improve their situation.”

Social exclusion

As the place where children spend much of their time, schools are an environment where social exclusion is very explicit. For one, children in poverty are bullied more often than their peers. Teachers also have lower expectations for them, and conflicts in which they’re involved frequently result in suspensions.

“Parents in poverty are often blamed for not raising their children properly, but studies show that there is very little difference between them and the parents who have more financial means,” says Vanobbergen. “The challenging financial situation, however, creates a lot of stress, as it forces people to be stuck in survival mode.”

As a result, it’s more difficult for parent to spend time with their children, he says, “to help them with homework, for example”.

As a result of their disadvantaged background, these children can easily end up in special education (BuSO). The M decree, introduced in 2015, is supposed to transition many of them to regular education, but it hasn’t yet created significant change, according to Vanobbergen. “We see that mainly children from higher-income families get mainstreamed.”

Setting the right example

In the book, Vanobbergen proposes a maximum invoice for secondary education, to limit the financial burden on parents. “This already exists in primary education and has resulted in an important mentality change,” he says. “There are also inspiring examples of certain secondary schools that have introduced it on their own.”

This suggestion has led to a wide-ranging debate in Flemish media and politics, with socialist party SP.A defending the idea. Flemish education minister Hilde Crevits (CD&V) is looking into the issue.

It’s heart-warming to see some schools offer free meals to children because they arrive with empty lunchboxes

- Bruno Vanobbergen

“That doesn’t mean schools aren’t putting enough effort into helping children in poverty,” says Vanobbergen. “It’s heart-warming to see some schools offer free meals to children because they arrive with empty lunchboxes.”

He also points to the positive trend of fewer youngsters leaving school without a diploma and to minister Crevits’ action plan to further reduce the drop-out rate.

One reason parents get stuck in survival mode, says Vanobbergen, is that many of the benefits they receive are too low – lower than the EU’s poverty-line standards. “Benefits should be adjusted to the parents’ needs,” he says, adding that child care services, for example, would need to be improved to allow parents to find a steady job.

Working together

 “In that respect, it’s unfortunate that the government recently tripled the lowest rate for child care,” he says. “There also have to be more services provided in poorer neighbourhoods, so that people can easily reach them.”

A good example, he adds, is the flexible child care service in Ghent, which parents can call on short notice if they have to schedule a job interview, for example.

Housing, he adds, is another area where Flanders has a lot of work left to do. “There is a lack of social housing, and the available accommodation often lacks in quality,” he says. With the average waiting period for a three-bedroom accommodation at more than three years, “larger families, especially, have to wait too long to get a place”.

Social-housing services, Vanobbergen adds, often complain that people are too picky. “While families sometimes have relevant concerns – like a lack of space – it’s essential for all services and professionals to establish a dialogue with people in poverty, to find solutions together.”

Invisible

Financial difficulties also severely limit leisure opportunities for families in poverty. “Recent research shows that 24% of children in Flanders live in a family that cannot afford to take a week-long trip once a year.”

Important work in this respect is being done by Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie (Holiday Participation Centre), a programme of Flanders’ and Brussels’ tourist agencies that helps families organise trips, like an excursion to the coast.

Concerning health care, Vanobbergen says, the federal government should maintain its investment in the VWGC health clinics. “These centres are crucial in providing interdisciplinary and accessible health care,” he says. “We need to actually be investing more in such initiatives, because good health is essential to participating in society.”

Parents are often ashamed and get into more trouble by trying to give their children everything their friends have

- Bruno Vanobbergen

In the book, Vanobbergen argues that child poverty is an issue that often remains completely invisible to the outside world. “Parents try to limit the visibility of financial problems and try to give their children everything their friends have, like nice clothes or a specific school bag,” he says.

Kids affected by poverty also don’t stand out in statistical data. “We need more figures on the problem to adjust the policy accordingly,” says Vanobbergen. “Without clear statistics on the number of children living in poverty who follow lessons in special education, for example, it’s difficult to evaluate the success rate of measures that were taken to tackle the issue.”

The office of the children’s rights commissioner recently set an example by revealing that some 2,000 children in Flanders lack a roof over their heads. This finding was based on a baseline measurement carried out by experts in Flanders’ universities in 2014.

The commissioner is now working on a report on the one euro meals measure for disadvantaged children up to 12 years old. At the end of 2015, minister Liesbeth Homans, responsible for poverty issues in the Flemish government, set aside €1.2 million to finance the provision of affordable, healthy meals in 22 Flemish cities and municipalities.

“We are still evaluating the measure,” says Vanobbergen. “But it’s clear that such a measure – one that doesn’t deal with the causes of the problem – cannot be regarded as a cornerstone of a child’s rights policy on poverty.”

Spelen in zwarte sneeuw (€19.99) is published in Dutch by Lannoo