The State’s heavy investment in preschool education and childcare in recent years has seen efforts to tackle child poverty taking a back seat, former Barnardos chief Fergus Finlay has warned.
A new report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has found that introducing a second tier of child benefit could potentially lift nearly 40,000 children out of poverty.
On Breakfast Briefing this morning, report author Dr Barra Rowntree said the plan would see the universal Child Benefit payment remaining in place – with a means-tested second tier also introduced to supplement it for some families.
He said the move could reduce child poverty in Ireland by about one quarter.
On Newstalk Breakfast meanwhile, former Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay said the move would be a ‘very welcome step’.
Mr Finlay said the State currently spends about €2bn a year on child benefit – with between €300m and €400m going to families that don’t necessarily need it.
He said it is generally accepted that means testing the whole payment would not be practical, but said he believes introducing a second means-tested tier would have a “huge impact over time”.
He said Ireland's child poverty problem is something people often “don’t like talking about” – with child support neglected in recent budgets.
“Actually, the rates of child benefit haven't changed very much in recent years,” he said.
“The amount we spend hasn't changed very much in recent years.
“If you compare it to what's gone into education, into health and so on, it's been pretty miserly.
“I think what has happened in the last number of years is that we have begun to invest very heavily in preschool education, in childcare and the money that might have been invested in alleviating child poverty has tended to go there.
“Now, we needed to do that too, unfortunately, but I think a choice has been made that has said, 'We'll sweep child poverty under the table for now and we'll come back to it.'”
Mr Finlay said there are “only two ways” to lift children out of poverty – income and education.
“We've begun to spend a bit of money on doing things like making primary education fully free with the abolition of schoolbook charges, and that's extremely welcome – but this reform, I think, would be a very significant step in the right direction.”
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