There have been calls for action and demonstrations over the number of children in Northern Ireland who are living in poverty.
Koulla Yiasouma, Commissioner for Children and Young People, said between 20-25% have been living in poverty consistently for the last 20 years.
She told an event at Feile An Phobail that she did not understand why people were not out on the streets demonstrating about the issue.
Her call was echoed at the Eradicating Child Poverty – It Can Be Done event at St Mary’s University College in west Belfast on Monday.
Dr Goretti Horgan, a senior lecturer in social policy at the Ulster University, said she fears disabled children and adults will die this winter if they are unable to heat their homes.
John Barry, a professor in green political theory at the Queen’s University, spoke of deep frustration at the situation, and called for groups to come together to demonstrate.
Dr Julie Anne Maney, a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine, described seeing the outworking of child poverty on a daily basis in her work, including seeing children who were so hungry they stuffed toast into their nappies.
“I’m seeing children day and daily who I’m patching up to send them home to lives that made them sick in the first place. It’s sticking plaster after sticking plaster,” she said.
“It’s abhorrent and it just has to stop.
“People ask me what can I do, donate to food banks. First of all you can vote for a government that will look after these children and so far they haven’t.
“We need to invest from the early ages, in pregnant women, we need early years intervention.”
This was the first year since the coronavirus pandemic that the annual event took place in person at St Mary’s University College in west Belfast.
Ms Yiasouma said child poverty had been among her priorities when she first became children’s commissioner seven years ago, and said while there has been progress on other priorities she identified, there has been “inertia around children in poverty”.
She said more than 110,000 children are living in poverty, adding that two out of three children in poverty are in working households.
Ms Yiasouma referred as a disgrace to a huge rise in the number of families relying on food banks to feed their children and predictions that by next January just over 70% of households in Northern Ireland will be in fuel poverty.
“It’s government’s responsibility to ensure that children are not living in poverty, it’s government’s responsibility to make sure there is an adequate social security system and safety net for our families,” she said.
She has called for an anti-poverty strategy to include a new child payment, restore the value of key social security benefits, reduce family outgoings, make education free, affordable accessible quality childcare and targeted interventions
“It’s not going to be cheap… but the price for not doing it is bigger, it’s bigger for our education system, it’s bigger for our health system but also it’s bigger because of what we’re doing to the life outcomes of our children living in poverty. We can’t afford not to do it,” she said.
Dr Horgan stressed the importance of both reducing costs for households as well as increasing income to make a huge difference.
She suggested universal pre-school meals, free public transport and that work is done for Northern Ireland to catch up on services for disabled.
“In this coming winter I really fear that we will see disabled children and adults actually dying because of being unable to heat their homes,” she said.
Professor Barry stressed that the climate crisis is part of the cost-of-living crisis, and called for measures such as free public transport as well as getting rid of school uniforms.
“We need to get angry, it’s raining reports on climate crisis and child poverty, we don’t need more reports, we need more action,” he said.
“People are going to be die because of a really bad winter, why isn’t that the major issue, why aren’t we seeing our politicians rushing to say they demand an emergency insulation schemes, even just one room in each low income home.
“We are going to need in my view more non-violent direct action up to and including occupying empty community centres,”
“We have to get ourselves organised… bringing together different groups in terms of a common cause, child poverty, inequality and the climate crisis.”
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