Universal child benefits critical in reducing poverty, new ODI and UNICEF report finds

As the economic fallout of coronavirus pandemic deepens,investment in universal child benefits would promote social protection and prevent families from catastrophic levels of deprivation and financial hardship

Home > Media Contacts and Press Releases > Universal child benefits critical in reducing poverty, new ODI and UNICEF report finds

NEW YORK, 17 June 2020 – Universal child benefits are critical in the fight against child poverty, yet nearly 9 in 10 countries worldwide do not provide universal child or family benefit schemes, according to a new report published today by the Overseas Development Institute and UNICEF.  

The report Universal Child Benefits: Policy Issues and Options highlights that universal cash benefits provided to children in middle-income countries at a cost of just 1 per cent of GDP would lead to 20 per cent decline in poverty across the entire population.  

In 15 high-income countries delivering full or partial universal child benefits led to an average reduction in child poverty of 5 percentage points. Universal child benefits are proven to reduce deprivation, improving children’s health education and food security.   

Commenting on the report Unicef UK Director of Advocacy, Joanna Rea said:  

“The impact of Coronavirus risks a rise in the number of children facing inequalities both here in the UK and around the world.  

“The report highlights the steps taken by the UK government to address child poverty in recent decades, by providing means tested child benefits to the most disadvantaged children at home, and through its work with organisations including UNICEF to ensure millions of children and families receive such support in low income countries.   

“There is a risk that progress for children will be reversed due to the impact of coronavirus. We urge the Government to recognise the severe impact of the crisis on children and commit to a comprehensive recovery package and action plan that puts children’s rights at its core. We also urge the government to continue its support to social protection programmes in countries that provide vital support to children and families who are struggling in the face of multiple challenges.” 

Universalising benefits also reduces risks often associated with narrow means testing whereby families most in need are left without financial support due to exclusion errors. Universalising social protection programmes such as cash transfers or tax transfers also helps to remove stigma associated with benefits schemes overall.   

“Universal child benefits play a critical role in reducing poverty while promoting social cohesion and public support for social protection. In countries with established universal child benefits, they constitute a cornerstone of national social policy systems and are effective in scaling up social protection in times of crisis,” says Francesca Bastagli, Director, Equity and Social Policy, at ODI. In practice”, Bastagli says, “countries have achieved high child population coverage, or full UCBs, following different trajectories. Progressive realisation is common, through an iterative process involving the adoption of UCB legislation and policy regulation, strengthening administrative and financing capacity, and building political and public support for policy”. 

Importantly, the report notes that cash transfer programmes do not lead to reduction in participation in paid work among the working-age population. Rathercash transfers help parents balance the demands of employment with the needs of their families, thus supporting family cohesion and reducing potential costs to the state.  

The report makes clear that expanding coverage of child and family benefits schemes requires national prioritization and international solidarity in financing – especially for lower income countries grappling with high populations and more constrained budgets due to coronavirus – and that universal child benefits must be supported by comprehensive social protection systems and quality social services, including healthcare and education. 

The report also highlights different paths to achieving universal coverage, including by starting with investment in transfers for younger children and scaling up. Steps including the adoption of legislation and policy regulation, strengthening administrative and financing capacity, and building political and public support for policy are all critical.  

The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest and most urgent global crisis children have faced since World War Two. UNICEF has launched  “Save Generation Covid” – the largest ever appeal for children in its 73-year history to raise urgently needed funds for lifesaving support and services to ensure that children survive this crisis – and thrive beyond it. 



Notes to editors: 

For further information, please contact: 

Yemi Lufadeju +44 20 7375 6199, YemiL@unicef.org.uk 

Unicef UK Media Team, 0207 375 6030, media@unicef.org.uk 

About Unicef 

Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. 

Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. 

For more information please visit unicef.org.uk 

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