3. Do children have the things they need?

Children’s material living standards are central to child well-being. For children, having access to basic material goods and activities is important in and of itself. Children often attach great value to the things that have, own, and want, with potential implications for wider life satisfaction (Bradshaw and Rees, 2017[1]; Main and Bradshaw, 2012[2]; Main, 2014[3]). But material well-being is also important for other aspects of children’s lives. At the most fundamental level, access to basic necessities like proper food, clothing, and shelter is central to children’s physical health and well-being. In a similar vein, access to things like age appropriate books and developmental toys and games are important for children’s learning and skill development, while other material goods and activities – like internet access – allow children to engage with friends and peers and participate fully in society.

To a large extent, children’s access to material goods and activities is shaped by family finances. Children in income-poor families are often at particular risk of experiencing material deprivation, that is, of lacking access to goods and activities that are typical in their society (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]; European Commission, 2018[5]). Those growing up in better-off families, by contrast, often benefit from a wider and higher quality set of basic material goods. But finances are not the only driver of material well-being. Not all children suffering material deprivation live in income-poor families, and not all children living in income-poor families suffer material deprivation. Many families try hard to prioritise children when making spending decisions, often sacrificing basic necessities for themselves. To some degree, some children may also be able to draw on goods and activities provided by the community to meet their material needs.

This chapter reviews the available evidence on children’s economic and material well-being and highlights the data required to develop better policies targeting children’s material needs. It starts in sections 3.2-3.4 with an overview of key aspects of child economic and material well-being. Section 3.2 looks at key child economic and material outcomes, including children’s access to basic necessities like food and clothing, their access to housing and shelter, and to basic learning and leisure materials. Section 3.3 examines two key sets of resources for children’s economic and material well-being: family financial resources, and resources provided by the communities in which children live. Section 3.4 then provide a summary of key areas of public policy for promoting children’s material living standards.

In section 3.5, the chapter turns to consider the data available on child economic and material well-being. It starts by reviewing the available cross-national data on child economic and material well-being outcomes, followed by cross-national data on resources for child economic and material well-being, and cross-national data on public policy for child economic and material well-being.

The chapter concludes in section 3.6 with a discussion of the way forward for data on child economic and material well-being, highlighting key gaps and setting out priorities for data development.

The main findings from the chapter are as follows:

  • Comparable cross-national data on child economic and material well-being outcomes is, in general, both scarce and inadequate. While at least some cross-national data are available for most of the key well-being outcomes highlighted in section 3.2, these data series are in almost all cases limited in one or more ways. These data are often limited in their conceptual relevance, in country coverage, and/or in the age-range covered.

  • Child-centred data on child economic and material well-being outcomes is especially lacking. There is a clear need for better data that reflects the material situation of children as individuals, and not together with other children in the household or, worse, all household members together.

  • Cross-national data on resources for child economic and material well-being is generally better and more widely available. While they have their limits, comparable data on family income in particular is readily available. There are, however, still important gaps in this area. For example, data on the costs of raising children – which are vital for policy formation – are imperfect. There is also little cross-national data on children’s access to resources provided by schools, local authorities, or community groups.

  • One specific area where data and measurement should be improved is the financial resilience of families with children. Where there is good cross-national data on family income levels, there is far less information available on family wealth, assets, and the ability of families to withstand income shocks.

  • Cross-national data on children with complex and/or precarious living arrangements is severely lacking. There is a general lack of detailed information on children’s living arrangements in mainstream surveys, making it difficult to properly establish the material living conditions of those living between two homes, for example.

  • Similarly, there is also a general lack of information on children in the most vulnerable or marginalised positions, including children with disabilities, children in out-of-home care, children in homeless families, and children experiencing maltreatment. These children are frequently either not easily identifiable or a missing entirely in the data.

  • As with other areas of child well-being, there is a strong need to better connect data on the many different aspects of child economic and material well-being. While at least some data exist on most of the key aspects of child economic and material well-being, these data come from a range of separate and disconnected datasets. This makes it difficult to identify clearly and cleanly the drivers of child material deprivation and isolate those most at risks. More connected data requires better data linking and/or new and better survey sources.

All children have a basic and fundamental right to a range of material goods. First and foremost, children need access to food and nutrition, to appropriate clothing, and to shelter and housing. Just as for adults, they are essential for children’s basic survival.

But good child material well-being goes far beyond just ensuring that children’s subsistence needs are met. To flourish and thrive, children need to have access to things that allow them to learn and develop, to engage with peers and adults, and to be connected and accepted within the societies in which they live (Sen, 1999[6]; Lahire, 2019[7]). For children growing up in OECD countries today, depending on their age, this often means access to things like a computer and the Internet, certain types of clothing and footwear, holidays, day trips, and a little money to spend on themselves (“pocket money”), as well as books, toys and other resources important for learning and development. These kinds of things are important to children – they tell us so, when asked (Main and Bradshaw, 2012[2]) – but also have wider implications. Material deprivation can have knock-on effects for other areas of children’s lives and compromise their wider physical-, cognitive-, and socio-emotional well-being.

Table 3.1 summarises key aspects of children's economic and material well-being. The top panel (Panel A) covers key child material outcomes. These are summarised versions of the material goods and activities that emerge from the literature as central to children’s well-being. They are organised into three broad categories – food, clothing and basic necessities; housing; and learning and leisure materials – and by age group. Panels B and C cover key aspects of children’s settings and environments and key public policies for child economic and material outcomes, respectively. These aspects are discussed later sections 3.3 and 3.4.

Adequate food and nutrition is a fundamental necessity for all human beings, but one that is especially important for children. As discussed in Chapter 4, access to adequate nutrition is critical for child development, especially (but not only) during the early years. Nutrition may also play an important role in children’s learning capabilities and behaviours (Dani, Burrill and Demmig-Adams, 2005[8]). Undernutrition during early childhood in particular is linked to lower educational attainment and lower earnings later in life (Victora et al., 2008[9]).

However, access to proper food and nutrition remains an all-too-common challenge for many children. For many, getting at least one hot meal a day is not guaranteed (Andresen, 2014[10]; Lahire, 2019[7]). In 2014, on average across European OECD countries, about 9% of children lived in households where at least one child (age 1-15) did not have either fruits and vegetables at least once a day or one meal with meat, chicken or fish (or vegetarian equivalent) at least once a day (OECD, 2020[11]). For children in low-income families, this rate increases to about 16%.

Access to clean and safe drinking water is a related challenge that continues to affect too many communities in OECD countries. Estimates from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) database suggests that, while clean water access is close to universal in most OECD countries, there are important exceptions (WHO/UNICEF, 2021[12]). In Mexico, for example, roughly only 43% of the population have access to water sources that can be considered “safely managed” – that is, improved sources that are accessible on premises, available when needed, and free from contamination (WHO/UNICEF, 2021[12]). Even in countries where clean water access is close to universal, some communities can continue to face issues. In Canada, for instance, access to clean drinking water is an ongoing issue for a number of First Nations communities (Indigenous Services Canada, 2021[13]). (See Chapter 4 for a discussion of the child health effects of pollution and contaminants.)

Possession of appropriate clothing and footwear is a second basic necessity for children. On an objective level, children, like adults, have a basic need for climate- and situation-appropriate clothing. Clothing has protective functions that are important for physical health, especially for children living in extreme climates. Certain types of clothing are also needed for children to engage in essential activities. Schools often impose uniforms or dress codes, for example.

But access to appropriate clothing also has a strong subjective element. Clothing is often seen as reflecting status and can have important consequences for both parents’ and children's social lives. For disadvantaged families, the inability to provide children with clothing that is new, in good condition, or of the right type or brand may lead to social discrimination. Parents who do not want their children to be stigmatised may feel under pressure to decline invitations their children receive from their peers or class mates (Lahire, 2019[7]). Later in children’s life (i.e. from middle childhood on), clothing and dress code often become one way in which children themselves demonstrate status within their peer groups (Andresen and Meiland, 2019[14]). Evidence from studies such as the Children's Worlds survey shows that children often attach great importance to their choice of clothes (Bradshaw and Rees, 2017[1]).

Despite its importance, many children continue to lack access to even basic appropriate clothing and footwear. Financial hardship forces families into tough spending decisions, and clothing is one area in which many parents cut back (Feeding America, 2013[15]). On average across European OECD countries, around 20% of children in low-income families live in households where at least one child does not have either some new (not second-hand) clothes or to two pairs of properly fitting shoes (including a pair of all-weather shoes) (OECD, 2020[16]). In some European countries, these rates increase to 30% or more of children in low-income families.

Hygiene and personal care product needs vary considerably across groups of children. While some needs are common (e.g. access to soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, etc.), others are specific to children of certain ages or gender.

Babies and infants are one group with specific hygiene product needs. The parents of very young children need access to specific products such as diapers, baby wipes, and baby soap that cannot be easily substituted. One survey, from the United States in 2012, found that many families who cannot afford these basic goods opt for coping strategies such as delaying changing a diaper (48%), reusing paper towels (43%), brushing teeth without toothpaste (37%), and skipping washing dishes or not doing laundry (69%) (Feeding America, 2013[15]).

Teenage girls are another group with specific hygiene needs. One issue that is receiving increasing attention is so-called “period poverty”, that is, the inability of teenage girls to afford or access appropriate sanitary products. For instance, in the United Kingdom in 2017, one in ten girls from age 14 to 21 were estimated to have been unable to afford sanitary wear, and more than one in ten girls (12 per cent) reported improvising sanitary wear due to affordability issues (Plan International UK, 2018[17]). 49 per cent of girls also reported to have missed an entire day of school because of their period. Similar evidence is reported in New Zealand where nineteen percent of Māori youth have experienced period poverty, and 16 percent missed school because they couldn’t afford menstrual products (Fleming et al., 2020[18]). A lack of access to menstrual products such as pads, tampons or menstrual cups can also cause infections and health problems, as well as embarrassment and shame.

Having a stable home (“residential stability”) is central to many aspects of child well-being. It promotes security and continuity in many areas of children’s lives. It allows children to remain near to their support networks (e.g. extended family and friends, the family doctor, etc.), to avoid frequent moves of schools, and to maintain friendships and activities over time. By contrast, frequent residential changes are found to affect school readiness and educational achievements, as well as increasing the likelihood of children developing behavioural issues (Nathan et al., 2019[19]; Jelleyman and Spencer, 2008[20]). However, not all residential changes have the same impact on children; some can be more traumatic than others. For instance, in New Zealand, longer-distance moves and moves to areas of higher socio-economic deprivation have both been linked to increased socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties (Nathan et al., 2019[19]; Growing Up in New Zealand, 2020[21]).

Housing evictions are particularly destabilising events. They increase family stress and remove the psychological and material security of having a secure family home. Housing evictions are found to negatively affect children’s sense of emotional security and educational outcomes (Gaitan, 2019[22]). In addition, as housing evictions disproportionately affect poor families, they are likely to combine with other forms of deprivations, such as food (in)security. For instance, in the United States, the prevalence of food insecurity among five year olds was twice as high for children who have experienced an eviction from the family home over the first five years of life, (Leifheit et al., 2020[23]).

Homelessness is the most extreme form of housing insecurity. In addition to being deprived of stable home, homelessness brings with it a set of stressors and challenges for families and children. Homelessness involves not only repeated accommodation moves, loss of independence, overcrowding and a lack of privacy, but also frequently poor diet and missing meals, school placement disruption, loss of contact and support from family and friends, and in some cases loss of parental care if children and parents are accommodated separately (Cutuli et al., 2013[24]; Samuels, Shinn and Buckner, 2010[25]; Radcliff et al., 2019[26]; Buckner, 2008[27]; Schmitz, Wagner and Menke, 1995[28]). Homelessness also increases children’s risk of being bullied, experiencing stigmatisation and/or being excluded from social activities with peers (Kilmer et al., 2012[29]; Johnson, 2013[30]).

Homelessness (including people living in emergency accommodation) appears to affect a growing number of families with children (OECD, 2020[31]). For example, in Ireland, the number of homeless families almost quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. In England, it increased by 42% between 2010 and 2017. Often, these increases take place against a background where employment conditions are improving, but house prices are rising faster than wages, meaning that the possibilities for families to find affordable housing are diminishing (OECD, 2020[31]).

Beyond children’s basic need for stable shelter, housing quality also matters. About 4 in 10 school-age children in European OECD countries live in housing in which there are problems with basic sanitary facilities, overcrowding, or a combination of housing problems (OECD, 2019[32]). Housing quality is a key component of children’s home environment and has an impact on various dimensions of child well-being across childhood (Clair, 2018[33]; Gaitan, 2019[22]). First, housing deficiencies can affect children’s physical health. For instance, housing dampness issues are found to increase risks of respiratory issues of children, as they do also for adults (Beasley, Semprini and Mitchell, 2015[34]; CPAG, 2015[35]; Ingham T, 2019[36]). These effects may be long-lasting, as children can suffer lifelong consequences or even die prematurely from the effects of living in unhealthy homes (CPAG, 2015[35]; New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2016[37]).

Housing overcrowding refers to situations where the number of people in a household exceeds the capacity of the dwelling to provide adequate shelter and services to its members. The simplest measures of overcrowding provide comparisons between numbers of people and either rooms or bedrooms. The key measure is that there should be no more than 2 people per bedroom, adjusted for the age, sex and relationship of the people concerned. On average in European OECD countries, slightly less than 1 child in 4 is estimated to live in overcrowded households (OECD, 2020[38]).

Housing overcrowding raises health risks for children, including increased infection risks (Baker et al., 2013[39]). For instance, a New Zealand study found that children have at least twice the risk of being admitted to hospital with pneumonia if they lived in an overcrowded house (Grant et al., 2012[40]). Overcrowding is also identified as the most important risk factor for rheumatic fever (Jaine, Baker and Venugopal, 2011[41]) and a factor raising children’s risk to develop meningococcal disease (Baker et al., 2013[39]).

Children’s social and emotional well-being can also be affected by poor housing quality. For example, one study found that children who resided in lower quality housing during childhood showed greater emotional and behavioural problems in late adolescence than peers in higher quality homes (Coley et al., 2013[42]). One reason is that low-quality housing may induce stress in both children and parents and limit parent’s ability to regulate family activities, in turn affecting children's socio-emotional functioning. In addition, adolescents in poorer quality housing seem to have lower average reading and math skills than others. Growing up in low-quality housing seems also to be associated with poorer mental health outcomes (Rollings et al., 2017[43]). Hence, rather than providing security and a space to escape life's pressures, a home with quality deficiencies may add to other stresses experienced by poor families and children.

Children’s material needs go much further than just what is necessary for survival. In addition to basic necessities and shelter, children need access to goods and activities that allow them to learn and develop and to engage and participate in society. During early childhood, this means access to things like age-appropriate books and developmental toys and games. As children grow older, they also need access social and recreational activities and resources like the Internet that allow them to engage with friends and peers. Children themselves stress the importance of things like day trips and holidays with the family and a little pocket money to spend on themselves (Main and Bradshaw, 2012[2]).

Available evidence suggests that relatively few children are completely deprived of toys, books and other materials for their education or leisure. For example, in France, the French Longitudinal Childhood Survey (ELFE) shows that at the age of one year 96% of children have baby books, 94% have balls, and 88% have playground equipment (Octobre, Berthomier and Facq, 2018[44]). In general, families ensure that children have access to toys designed to develop the senses (e.g. hearing, touch, sight) as well as various aspects of development (motor and cognitive). However, children from culturally or economically disadvantaged families tend to have fewer and a less diversified set of toys (Octobre, Berthomier and Facq, 2018[44]).

From late childhood, many leisure activities occur outside the home and carry at least some financial cost, either in the form of purchase costs (e.g. riding a bicycle), entrance and/or travel fees (e.g. swimming), or participation fees (e.g. organised play events, such as football club fees). However, not all children participate in regular leisure activities: in 2014, almost 60% of school aged children from low-income families in European OECD countries, and 21% of their peers from high-income families, lived in households where at least one child does not take part in a regular leisure activity or go on holiday away from home at least one week per year (OECD, 2020[45]).

Home internet and computer equipment is also critical for children’s access to online educational and recreational resources. Children’s social lives are increasingly lived online, through social networks and video games. The COVID-19 crisis and shift to remote learning seen in many OECD countries have only underscored the importance of digital tools for learning as well as social connections. However, not all children have access to the Internet and digital resources. Data from OECD PISA 2018, for instance, show that, in some countries, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely than those from advantaged backgrounds to have access to a computer at home (OECD, 2020[46]). (See Chapter 5 for more discussion on digital tools and their potential impact on children’s social and emotional outcomes).

Many children start receiving pocket money from their parents in middle childhood as soon as they think children are old enough to understand the value of money and goods. For instance, in Denmark, two-thirds of children from age seven received pocket money in 2013, and older children (age 12 to 17) receive on average higher amounts than the younger (Bonke, 2013[47]). For parents, giving pocket money to their kids is one way for children should to learn how to spend money and be encouraged to save, to do their homework and contribute to household chore as a condition of receiving money (Furnham, 2001[48]; Furnham and Milner, 2017[49]). For children, pocket money is one way to purchase a few things that parents may not consider as essential. It also helps contribute to the sense of autonomy that children progressively develop with age.

The evidence available on spending money practices suggest that wealthier families place more importance on regular pocket money giving and financial education than doing those from poorer backgrounds (Furnham and Milner, 2017[49]; Wolff and Barnet-Verzat, 2008[50]; Bonke, 2013[47]). How children spend their pocket money yet depends on gender and age. For instance, in Denmark, boys receiving pocket money spend more than those who are without on food, sweets and drinks when they are aged 7-11, while adolescents aged 12-17 spend more money on clothes and shoes (Bonke, 2013[47]). Danish female adolescents on average spend less on food than their male counterpart, but they spend almost twice as much as boys on clothes and shoes.

With respect to the causal effects of pocket money on children's behaviours and outcomes, the evidence remains fairly sparse. There is little evidence of any clear relationship between pocket money received and children’s contribution to unpaid work in the home and or school efforts (Wolff and Barnet-Verzat, 2008[50]; Bonke, 2013[47]). Some studies point out that pocket money may carry risks for children’s eating behaviours and health status: compared with children receiving no pocket money, those receiving money show a higher propensity to consume unhealthy foods and are more likely to be overweight or obese (Punitha et al., 2014[51]; Ma et al., 2020[52]; Grammatikopoulou et al., 2018[53]; Van Ansem et al., 2014[54]). Positive associations are also reported between receipt of spending money and tobacco use (Cui et al., 2019[55]; Scragg, Laugesen and Robinson, 2002[56]; Wong et al., 2007[57]). However, there is overall little data on how children spend their pocket money. This is an area that warrants further research.

Families play a central role in the provision of good and services for children’s material needs. In many cultures, including most cultures in OECD countries, the family unit has first and primary responsibility for delivering food and nutrition, clothing, housing, and goods and services for leisure and recreation. To a slightly lesser extent, the family also plays an important role in providing children with material goods for learning and education, especially during the early years.

To a large degree, families’ abilities to meet children’s material needs are determined by household income. All else being equal, families with higher disposable incomes have the option of purchasing more and better quality material goods and services for their children. They are also more likely to live in good housing and in neighbourhoods that provide greater access to opportunities, such as good quality early childhood services, better schools and greater leisure amenities. Families with lower incomes are typically more restricted in their abilities to purchase material goods and services and, although many low-income families prioritise children’s needs, many children in income-poor families still experience material deprivation, often in several ways all at once (Cooper and Stewart, 2013[58]; Thévenon et al., 2018[4]; Chzhen, 2014[59]; Bray et al., 2019[60]).

However, finances are not the only determinant of families’ abilities to meet children’s material needs. In addition to income, differences across families in information, education, norms, values and attitudes all also contribute to differences in household consumption patterns (Lahire, 2019[7]). These factors often co-vary with income. In disadvantaged families, many parents face multiple constraints (e.g. time, education, social connections and networks) that may limit their capacity to search for, identify, and pay for goods to meet children’s material needs. Societal pressure can also play a role. For example, parents in low-income families may feel a need to prioritise certain types of material goods, such as clothing, in order to avoid stigmatisation and shield children from the hardships of poverty (Hamilton and Catterall, 2006[61]; Lahire, 2019[7]). Location is another potential driver: on top of the effects of geographic variations in employment, wages and the costs of living (see later in this section), some children may experience deprivation at least in part because they live in localities with fewer facilities or with comparatively inaccessible or low-quality services.

To a large extent, child economic and material well-being depends on the adequacy of family income. Among the many effects that low income can have on children (Box 3.1), one is that it restricts the ability of families to provide for children’s material needs. By many measures, children growing up in low-income households are among the most likely to suffer material deprivation and live without access to one or more basic material goods (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]; European Commission, 2018[5]; OECD, 2020[11]). Children from higher income households, by contrast, are often (but not always) shielded from material deprivation.

The degree to which low family income leads to child material deprivation depends in part on the costs of living, and especially the costs of raising children. These costs can vary a lot both across countries and within countries between geographic regions. One reason is that price levels can differ considerably. Housing costs are one example (Box 3.2). Another reason is that, in some countries (or regions), certain types of material goods and services for children (e.g. housing, child care, schooling) are heavily subsidised or provided free to at least some families (Förster and Verbist, 2012[62]; Verbist, Förster and Vaalavuo, 2012[63]). In others, they are not.

Child-raising costs also vary considerably across childhood; some periods of childhood are more costly for families than others. As discussed in later chapters, the pre-natal period and, more broadly, the first years of children’s life are particularly important for their physical development (Chapter 4) and for socio and emotional (Chapter 5) and cognitive (Chapter 6) outcomes. The early years are also one of the most costly for parents. During this period, families may need to cover (at least some of) the costs pre- and post-natal care and delivery, as well as equipment for the home, for travelling, and for nursing and feeding. Regular expenses to care for infants also kick in: food, clothing, and diapers make up most of the necessities in the cost of raising children. For working parents, early childhood education and care (ECEC) costs are likely to be one of the most important budget item during early childhood (Box 3.5). In some OECD countries, high net ECEC costs can substantially weaken incentives for single parents and second-earner parents to engage in paid work and frustrate families’ efforts to escape poverty (see also below) (OECD, 2020[86]).

For expectant parents, it is often very difficult to anticipate the cost of the arrival of a new child to the household budget. Household expenditures during the prenatal period and the first few years after a childbirth are not well documented in general household expenditure surveys and therefore are often rather poorly measured. The available but patchy evidence nonetheless suggests that prenatal expenses can be sizeable, with large cross-country differences. For instance, the cost of a hospital admission for standard child delivery was on average USD 11 200 in 2017 in the United States, three to four times the cost in the Netherlands (IFHP, 2019[87]). In the United States, the average proportion of costs paid by patients for delivery care has increased since 2008 (Moniz et al., 2020[88]).

Given the importance of the early years and the considerable costs involved, several OECD countries (including Australia, Finland, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) emphasise the need to strengthen their support during the early years with screening and preventive measures and a coordinated and tailored provision of services to best meet the needs of children and their families (Riding et al., 2021[89]). It is particularly important that parents and infants have access to pre- and post-natal services, as well as to appropriate nutrition and hygiene and personal care products, such as infant food, diapers or products that are specific to the hygiene of babies and toddlers. Austria’s Early Childhood Interventions Programme (“Frühe Hilfen”) provides one example of an integrated intervention programme that aims to support families in need during pregnancy and the early years through health, material and social supports (NZFH, 2021[90]; WHO Europe, 2017[91]).

As children grow up, other expenses become progressively more important, such as those related to education, transportation and leisure, which seem to become prominent for families with adolescents (Box 3.5). Housing costs are also likely to become prominent in the budget of large families and of households with middle-age children who move to larger dwellings to ensure that each child can have their own bedroom (Box 3.2).

While typically captured through objective measures, there is also an important subjective aspect to family income adequacy and its relationship with child well-being. Over and above the impact of income on families’ abilities to provide material goods, perceived poor finances can lead to family stress, in turn compromising relationships and damaging children’s well-being. Children pick up on financial stress within the family, and often adjust their requests accordingly, even if they have no clear knowledge of family budgets (Andresen and Meiland, 2019[14]; Ridge, 2011[96]; Pardali, 2019[97]). For example, children may not mention their preferences, or not tell their parents about the money they need for school excursions or leisure (Ridge, 2011[96]; Pardali, 2019[97]).

Household income is determined primarily by the employment situation of parents and/or other adults in the household. Joblessness is a strong determinant of poverty, and jobless families with children are on average six to seven times more likely in the OECD to experience income poverty than families where at least one parent works (OECD, 2020[98]).

Available evidence shows that parental joblessness or unemployment can have short- to long-term effects on children, especially if parental unemployment occurs at critical stages in a child’s educational trajectory. Parental unemployment is found to negatively affect children’s health and psychological well-being (Mork, Sjogren and Svaleryd, 2014[99]; Bubonya, Cobb-Clark and Wooden, 2017[100]; Schaller and Zerpa, 2019[101]; Sleskova et al., 2006[102]), educational ambitions and performance (Andersen, 2013[103]; Rege, Telle and Votruba, 2011[104]; Lindemann and Gangl, 2019[105]; Brand, 2015[106]; Coelli, 2011[107]), as well as attitudes towards work (Müllera, Riphahn and Schwientek, 2017[108]; Mooi-Reci et al., 2019[109]) and labour market outcomes (Mäder et al., 2015[110]; Oreopoulos, von Wachter and Heisz, 2012[111]; Brand, 2015[106]; Lehti, Erola and Karhula, 2019[112]). These adverse effects could arise because of negative consequences of unemployment such as reduced family income and increased levels of stress (Brand, 2015[106]). Parental joblessness and unemployment may have a significant role in enhancing educational inequalities and, in turn, economic and labour market inequalities further down the line.

The flip side of the coin is that parental employment provides protection against income poverty and is a key lever for influencing to the economic and material well-being of children (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]). Parental employment can be encouraged by multiple policy supports, including tax and benefit policies and leave entitlements. For single parents and second earners in couples with young children, access to affordable and high-quality ECEC can be central to efforts to engage in paid work (OECD, 2020[86]). For parents with school-age children, access to out-of-school-hours services (OSH) is also important for those who wish to work full-time (OECD, 2017[113]).

In many OECD countries, family living arrangements are becoming increasingly diverse. The number of children born to and/or growing up with unmarried cohabiting parents is growing (OECD, 2020[114]), while separations and reconstitution have become more frequent. As a result, child living and custody arrangements are diversifying and can be rather complex, with various implications on children’s material and non-material well-being (Steinbach, 2019[115]; Dinisman et al., 2017[116]; OECD, 2019[117]).

Family living and custody arrangements are also important determinants of families' living standards and poverty risks. On average across OECD countries, around 17% of children under age 15 are estimated to live with a single parent, and poverty risks for single-parent households are on average about three times higher than for households with two or more adults (OECD, 2020[98]).

One reason is that family living arrangements can have a direct effect on family income. Separation provides the simplest example: following separation, the household loses any income (such as wages and salaries) directly tied to the departing member. Where eligible, public financial supports and child support payments may help make up some of the shortfall, although social protection systems are not always well placed to provide support to some more diverse forms of family unit (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]) (see later in this section). To counter income loss, parents may look to increase paid work. However, child care and family responsibilities often restrict separated parents’ abilities to engage in paid employment, especially in the case of parents with sole or primary custody.

But family living arrangements can also impact the costs of raising children. Shared custody provides children with the opportunity to maintain a close caregiving relationship with both parents, and has become increasingly common. It also, however, comes with costs, such as the requirement for two dwellings to be equipped to accommodate children (Mortelmans, 2020[119]; Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]). Moreover, shared custody imposes additional material constraints on children’s daily lives since, for example, children sharing their time between two residences after family separation sometimes have to give up some of the leisure activities that they were doing before the separation (Merla and Nobels, 2019[120]).

While families usually have primary responsibility for children’s material needs, schools, local authorities, and community organisations can also play an important role in providing or facilitating children’s access to material necessities. Sometimes (but not always) aimed at disadvantaged families, school-, local authority- and community-level provisions can help ensure children have access to at least a basic range of material goods and services.

In many OECD countries, it is common for a range of goods and services through schools and the education system. For example, in many OECD countries, school-meal programmes are used as one mechanism for ensuring (school-age) children receive adequate food and nutrition (Riding et al., 2021[89]). These meals are often subsidised or provided free to children from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. In a similar vein, in many countries, school trips and visits are used to ensure children have access to cultural and recreational activities, as well as for educational purposes. School-based out-of-school-hours services can also be used to provide children with access to extra-curricular arts, sports and cultural activities at reduced or no cost to parents.

School-based provisions have their drawbacks, however. For one, they rely on children being physically present at school for delivery. Although an extreme case, the limits of this approach have been well illustrated through the COVID-19 crisis, where school closures have complicated the delivery of school-meal programmes and other provisions (OECD, 2020[121]). However, even in “normal times”, delivery may be compromised by non-attendance, which is often higher among children from disadvantaged background. For example, children who experience food insecurity at home are more likely than others to regularly miss school (Tamiru and Belachew, 2017[122]). School holidays and other breaks also limit the ability of school-based provisions to consistently reach those most in need.

Outside of schools, local authorities often provide local facilities and services aimed at meeting children’s material needs, sometimes in partnership with non-government organisations and/or other voluntary or community bodies. Public libraries are one example: libraries help ensure that children have access to books and learning materials, usually at little or no charge. Local authorities may support children’s access to cultural, sporting and leisure/recreational activities through subsidised facilities (e.g. public recreation centres) and services or activities (e.g. lessons). In some countries, local authorities may also have action programmes that provide material assistance to families in emergency situations (Riding et al., 2021[89]). Social housing provisions (see below) may also be provided through or with the assistance of local authorities.

In addition to school and local authority provisions, community organisations can also provide goods and services to help meet children’s material needs. Food banks – organisations that collect and distribute food to those in need – are one of the most common and high profile examples. Although sometimes operating with public financial assistance and/or in co-operation with local authorities, food banks are typically run as non-profit, charitable organisations. Other examples include children’s charitable organisations and religious organisations, which may provide a range of material goods and services to disadvantaged families, including clothing, personal care products, and books and toys.

All OECD countries provide policies aimed at supporting families and ensuring that children’s material needs are met, though the levels and types of support, as well as the exact underlying objectives, differ widely (OECD, 2011[123]; Adema, Clarke and Thévenon, 2020[124]; Thévenon et al., 2018[4]). Some OECD countries, most notably the Nordic countries, provide service-heavy family supports aimed primarily at promoting full-time dual-earning by parents. One of the basic goals is to ensure that families can meet children’s material needs mostly through employment and labour earnings. Other OECD countries put more emphasis on supporting family living standards through family cash benefits and tax breaks, either in the form of universal cash benefits for all families, or targeted benefits aimed at specific vulnerable groups, such as single-parent families or families on low incomes. A small number of OECD countries provide only limited public family supports, though this is usually combined with comparatively low tax rates and tax incentives for parents to engage in dual-earning.

Over the past few decades, paid maternity, paternity, and parental leaves have become common features of family support packages in most OECD countries. Designed to be used around childbirth and when children are very young, paid leaves can have a range of objectives, from protecting and promoting the health of mothers and their new-born children, to promoting gender equality and a more even distribution of unpaid work at home. Perhaps most important from the perspective of child material well-being, paid leave helps keep mothers in paid work and promotes parental employment continuity (Adema, Clarke and Frey, 2015[125]; Rossin-Slater, 2017[126]). Depending on the level of payment, paid leave also helps families maintain income when one or more parents are off work when children are very young.

Following leave, parents looking to engage in paid work need access to affordable, quality, early childhood education and care (ECEC). All OECD governments support and help fund ECEC in one way or another, but the scale, means, and methods of assistance are diverse (OECD, 2020[86]). Some countries, like the Nordic countries, provide comprehensive publicly operated ECEC systems, with children entitled to a place in subsidised public care from a young age. Others provide extensive pre-primary services for children from around age three but offer less support for parents with younger children, or make greater use of market-based services, with public support instead directed through cash supports to parents (OECD, 2020[86]). The net out-of-pocket costs of ECEC after public support can differ sharply from country to country (OECD, 2020[86]). (See Chapters 5 and 6 for more detail on ECEC and ECEC policies.)

Parents with school-age children also need access to affordable care services if they are to engage in full-time paid work. Out-of-school-hours (OSH) services provide formal care for school-age children both before- and after-school, and also during school holidays. However, while participation in OSH services is common in some OECD countries, only a relatively small number provide extensive public out-of-school-hours services or support (OECD, 2017[113]). In many countries, parents must still look for private solutions or adapt their working hours to the needs of school-going children.

Separate from paid leave and child care supports, cash transfers and other forms of financial assistance are common features of family support packages in OECD countries. All OECD countries provide financial support to families in some form (OECD, 2019[127]). The exact design and objectives of supports differ considerably but, in almost all cases, the broad aim is to boost families’ living standards and support families with the costs of raising children. In many countries, public financial supports to families are critical for protecting children from poverty (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]).

Cash supports for families can be separated into two main types. The first are family-related cash benefits, most often taking the form of family allowances (also known as child benefits or child allowances). These benefits can be universal or means-tested (i.e. with eligibility and/or payment levels conditional on income and/or assets). Payment levels frequently vary with child age and family size. Some countries also provide benefits targeted at specific groups or for specific purposes based on family situations (e.g. single-parent benefits), child characteristics, and/or the parents’ labour market situation (OECD, 2019[127]).

The second main type is tax-based financial support for families. Over three-quarters of OECD countries provide some kind of family-related financial support through the tax system, most often either through a child tax allowances or through tax credits (OECD, 2019[127]). In many (but not all) countries, the amounts directed through tax breaks for families are only small in comparison to the amount spent on family cash benefits (OECD, 2020[128]).

In many countries, public financial assistance depends at least in part on the civil status of the parents, which can lead to substantial inequalities in children's economic security (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]). While families with informally cohabiting parents can sometimes benefit from individual tax systems, children with non-married parents may get a lower level of legal protection in the event of parental separation or death if protections do not systemically apply to children with non-married parents.

In combination with the broader tax-benefit system, public family financial supports can further influence child economic and material well-being through the incentives (or disincentives) they create for parental employment. Women’s employment, and especially mothers’ employment, tends to be particularly responsive to the incentives created by the tax-benefit system (OECD, 2011[129]). The overall work incentives produced by tax-benefit systems are the result of a number of factors, including the tax unit, the level and progressivity of the tax schedule, the structure of social security contribution systems, and the ways in which any tax credits, in-work benefits, and means-tested benefits interact with earnings and the number of earner in the family (OECD, 2016[130]; OECD, 2017[131]).

Child support (also called child maintenance) refers to cash transfers made between parents following separation or in cases where children are born outside of a relationship. For low-income single parents, these payments are an important source of income and can help protect children against income poverty (OECD, 2011[123]).

Most OECD countries have formal child support systems that aim to ensure parents meet their child support obligations (OECD, 2011[123]). In many countries, governments first allow parents an opportunity to agree privately on support payments, with intervention occurring only when an agreement cannot be reached. Even so, non-payment of child support is frequent and can undermine the material well-being of children. In order to avoid immediate shortfalls in case of non- or late payment, some countries make advance child support to resident parents, which are then recovered from non-resident parents through enforcement mechanisms (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]).

Although not usually considered a part of “family” or “child” policy, housing policy and public housing supports can play a key role in child material well-being and in ensuring that children’s material needs are met. As discussed above, housing costs are consuming an increasingly large share of household budgets (Box 3.1). High housing costs not only limit the extent to which families are able to meet their children’s housing needs, but also, through their impact on after-housing disposable income, damage families’ abilities to provide other material goods and services for children.

OECD countries use a range of policy supports to help families with the costs of housing. Housing allowances – that is, means-tested transfers to households aimed at supporting households with housing costs – are one common option, and can be valuable in reducing family income poverty (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]). However, allowances have their limits, particularly as they cannot guarantee housing quality, and may adversely affect rent prices (Salvi del Pero et al., 2016[132]). Social housing is another frequent measure, albeit with considerable differences in the size, scope, and target population of the sector across OECD countries. In many OECD countries, social housing is targeted at low-income households that cannot otherwise afford market-rate housing, but others (e.g. Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands) have traditionally adopted a more universalist approach, with social housing open to many middle-income as well as low-income households (OECD, 2020[133]). Other forms of public housing support include rent controls – where the state specifies rules for how rents are set – and other types of support for private rental housing, such as the provision of guarantees and rent tax relief for tenants (Thévenon et al., 2018[4]).

Policies aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness are diverse. In many countries, policy responses to support the homeless comprise of a patchwork of services managed by different public and non-public agencies, including emergency shelter, supported housing and subsidised housing, plus also various types of social supports and services (e.g. health services) (OECD, 2020[31]). One promising model for policy support is the Housing First approach to homelessness – an increasingly common approach in OECD countries, which prioritises immediate, permanent housing to the chronically homeless, along with integrated service delivery (OECD, 2020[31]; OECD, 2020[92]). Emergency support, including rapid rehousing, can help the transitionally homeless ( (OECD, 2020[31]; OECD, 2020[92]).

Obtaining internationally comparable data on children's economic and material well-being can be challenging. While researchers and national statistical offices have developed a range of sophisticated household surveys and other tools aimed at collecting information on the living standards of populations generally, these surveys are not always well suited to delivering information on children. In some cases, children are not included. In others, the survey or data collection doesn’t contain many or all of the items most relevant to children.

A particular issue is that surveys and data collections do not always focus on child-centred information i.e., information that reflects the situation of each child as an individual (Dickerson and Popli, 2018[134]; Leturcq and Panico, 2019[135]). Instead, it is common for data to be collected at household level and refer to the situation of the household as a whole. For example, information on income usually relates to the household, and does not take into account differences in intra-family allocations whereby children in a low-income households may not be deprived because their needs are prioritised. In the absence of detailed information on household budget allocations, variations in household income provide a proxy for differences in living standards and in households’ capacity to invest in children.

Annex Table 3.A.1 provides an overview of available and comparable cross-national data on children's economic and material well-being, arranged by the aspects of child economic and material well-being highlighted in Table 3.1. The availability (or not) of relevant data in each area is discussed below.

Detailed, quality, comparable data on children’s material environment and the fulfilment of children’s basic material needs is generally relatively scarce. At least some data is available for many of the main aspects of children’s material needs highlighted above, but in many cases, this information is limited in scope, detailed, and/or regularity.

Child-specific surveys are one source of information on children’s material environment. The information available can be more or less detailed, depending on the focus of the survey. National child cohort surveys often provide rich information on children’s material environment, including the goods and services available to children at different ages (see for instance the UK Millennium Cohort study in Box 3.3). However, these cohort studies are often highly country-specific, and thus comparability may be limited. The Children's Worlds survey, a child-centred cross-national survey that covers children from age 8 to 12, includes valuable questions on both children’s possessions and children’s satisfaction with money and the things they own.

Some general purpose cross-national surveys also include questions on children's material well-being, even if it is not the main focus. For example, in 2014, an ad-hoc module in the European Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey contained a few child-centred or child-relevant questions designed to capture whether children’s (perceived) basic needs with regards to food, clothing, education, leisure and social areas were being met (Box 3.4); in the case of needs not being met, parents are asked if the main reason was that the household cannot afford to. An analysis of the items included in the survey shows that they coincide with what parents consider as desirable, making them “reliable” in the sense that they represent a coherent set to describe a situation of relative deprivation (Guio et al., 2018[137]). However, the main limitation of this source is that it covers children in European countries, only. While a few OECD countries outside Europe do ask similar or related questions in national household surveys (e.g. New Zealand through their Household Economic Survey), either regularly or on an ad-hoc basis, this is not the case for most. A further limitation is that questions were asked in reference to all of the children together in a family, whereas in practice children’s experiences of deprivation may differ, even within the same family unit (Box 3.4).

Many household surveys also include basic information on housing conditions and dwellings characteristics, which can be used to capture children’s material housing well-being. This typically includes information on the surface area and/or number of rooms in the dwelling, which can be used to develop indicators on the share of children living in overcrowded housing, as well as information on the state of the dwelling. For European OECD countries, EU SILC provides comparable information on housing quality issues, such as the lack of basic sanitary facilities, a leaking roof, darkness in the dwelling, dampness, difficulties to keep the dwelling warm and/or other housing quality issues (OECD, 2020[138]; OECD, 2020[11]). These data are particularly useful to assess children's exposure to severe housing deprivation, defined as the simultaneous occurrence of overcrowding together with at least one of the following housing deprivation measures: leaking roof, no bath/shower and no indoor toilet, or a dwelling considered too dark (Eurostat, 2016[139]). Some child surveys (and some ad-hoc modules in general purpose household surveys) also ask for more specific information on the availability of a quiet space for children to study or play.

However, comparable information on children’s access to basic shelter and residential stability is harder to come by. Even at the national level, data on children exposed to extreme forms of housing deprivation such as homelessness, living in emergency shelters or evictions from the family home are scarce. The situation of homeless people is, by its nature, difficult to assess. Homeless people are more or less "invisible" to authorities and support agencies. Authorities may use administrative data (e.g. registers of shelters and local authorities), point estimates (e.g. street counts), or a combination of both. However, these methods give an incomplete picture of the situation and none of them capture 'hidden homeless', i.e. those whose homelessness is not visible or who do not appear in official statistics because they do not apply for public assistance, or are accommodated by relatives, etc. (OECD, 2020[31]). The situation of children experiencing homelessness is particularly difficult to assess. These children may have been left in the care of family members, or placed temporarily in foster or residential care (Berg and Brännström, 2018[140]). Similarly, there are very few official statistics at national level on the numbers of children who have experienced an eviction as this would require a statistical reporting of court decisions, which in many countries is not the practice.

Given the importance of family income for children’s access to material goods, measures of family income – and in particular, measures of low family income, such as the relative income poverty rate – are often used as indicators of children’s economic and material well-being. Indeed, in many instances, measures of low family income are used as some of the default indicators of children’s material well-being. Building on research into income, poverty, and inequality more generally, researchers have developed a range of comparable cross-national data series capturing family income levels and families and children living in income poverty. For OECD countries, detailed comparable information on family income and income poverty is available in databases such as the OECD Income Distribution Database. This information is available in most countries where household income and living standards surveys are conducted and is usually updated on a regular, often annual, basis.

One of the strengths of income poverty indicators is that they allow comparisons to be made according to the severity of income poverty (and hence poverty lines), and to consider how the risk of poverty changes with factors such household working status and children’s living arrangements. Poverty rates are generally estimated on the basis of 'disposable' household income (i.e. after receipt of social benefits and net of tax), but it is also possible to calculate poverty rates before payments of benefits to determine the impact of redistributive policies on child poverty.

However, while valuable, existing measures of low family income and poverty have their limits. A first issue is that, even where information on family income is available, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how much is actually devoted to children themselves. Accurate data on children’s actual living standards requires detailed data on intra-family budget allocations and expenditures, and complex decisions on how to allocate income spent on shared family goods, like housing. Where this data is not available, a common approach is to “proxy” children’s access to income based on aggregated household disposable income, adjusted for household size and/or composition. However, this approach assumes all families allocate a certain share of household income to children, and does not account for the ways in which families may (or may not) prioritise spending on children’s needs over other goods.

A second issue is that it is complicated to determine exactly how much income families need in order to meet children’s needs, that is, how much income is adequate to cover the “costs” of raising children. These costs vary a lot across time and place. Price levels differ considerably across and within countries, and while economists have developed sophisticated tools for correcting price differences (e.g. purchasing power parity indices), these tools may not always be well suited to capturing the prices of material necessities for children. In an effort to better capture how much income family needs to meet children’s needs, researchers have developed a range of measures to identify the costs of raising children (Box 3.5). However, these measures all build on complex methodologies, involve a series of debatable assumptions, and themselves have their drawbacks.

A further issue is that, in general, the underlying survey sources used to produce data on family income and child costs (e.g. household income and household expenditure surveys) are not well-equipped to deal with children between two households and/or in other complex living arrangements. Indeed, in many surveys, individuals (including children) can be classified as living in one household only, with no ability to link to or even indicate that they live between two households (see below). This can have major implications when looking to produce estimates of children’s living standards (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]). Child income poverty estimates, for example, are almost always based on the income level of the child’s “main” household only, and cannot take into account the income they may (or may not) enjoy in a second home.

Given the limits of standard income and cost measures, as well as the degree of subjectivity involved with family income adequacy (see above), “hard” income measures like those outlined above can be complemented by “softer” measures that look to capture families’ and children’s perceptions of their financial situation. Some households surveys, including EU SILC, include household-level questions asking for the degree to which the household has difficulty “making ends meet”, or similar. And some child surveys also include questions on children’s perceptions of family finances. For example, the Children’s Worlds survey asks children about the frequency with which they worry about how much money their family has (Children’s Worlds, 2020[146]). The OECD PISA study asks an almost identical question to its sample of 15-year-old students (OECD, 2020[147]).

Some level of information on children’s backgrounds and family environments is often available through household, income, and labour force surveys. This includes information on basic family living arrangements and household working status. Labour force surveys in particular are relatively standardised and can provide (mostly) comparable information on household working status across countries. These surveys usually have large samples, which allows for data to be disaggregated by children’s age group and other socio-demographic characteristics (OECD, 2020[148]).

However, there are limits to the information that standard household, income, and labour force surveys can provide on children’s backgrounds and family environments. For example, as mentioned above, these surveys are generally poorly suited to capturing children’s increasingly complex living arrangements, making it difficult to properly establish the material living conditions of those children living between two homes, for example. For European OECD countries, plans to collect more detailed information on children’s living arrangements through an ad-hoc module in EU-SILC 2021 (Box 3.6) may go some way towards addressing this.

Household surveys are generally also not well suited to providing information on the material situation of children in the most vulnerable positions, such as children with disabilities, children in out-of-home care, children in homeless families, and children experiencing maltreatment. These children are frequently either not easily identifiable or a missing entirely in the data. Similar issues apply to many child-focused cross-national surveys too (Richardson and Ali, 2014[149]). Part of the reason why vulnerable children are poorly covered by these surveys comes from the survey questions often asked: relatively few household surveys contain the questions needed to identify children with disabilities, for example. But part of the reason also lies in survey coverage and design: many of the most relevant surveys cover private households only, for instance, and exclude people (including children) living in other types of living arrangement, such as homeless families and those in care institutions. Even where relevant information is collected – such as, for example, information on children with a migrant background – issues relating to sample size can limit the reliability and usefulness of results.

Comparable cross-national data on children’s use of or access to school-, local authority- and community-level resources are relatively scarce. There is little existing cross-national information available on children’s use of free or subsidised school meals, for example, or on children’s use of/access to local authority services and facilities, such as public libraries. The OECD’s PISA study does provide some information on children’s extra-curricular activities at school. However, as with all PISA-based measures, this information is limited to 15-year-olds only, and does not cover younger ages. There is also little existing reliable cross-national information on the proportion of children whose family make use of food banks or other community-level resources.

Part of the reason for the lack of data in this area lies in the scope of many existing comparable/cross-national child-centred or child-relevant surveys. Many are household surveys that mostly capture children’s economic and material well-being inside the home, only. Some surveys (e.g. OECD PISA, the Children’s Worlds survey, and the Health Behaviour in School-age Children survey) are more cross-cutting and cover several aspects of children’s lives but provide limited information in this particular area, most likely because their focus lies elsewhere (e.g. on learning, in the case of OECD PISA). However, to differing extents across countries, data on children’s use of or access to many school-, local authority- and community-level resources may be available from government databases, national surveys, and administrative records. New data collection and co-ordination efforts could be one way to produce cross-national data in this area.

OECD and other cross-national databases provide a great deal of valuable comparable information on public policies aimed at supporting families’ and children’s material and economic well-being. One example is the OECD Social Expenditure Database, a cross-national database containing comparable information on public and private social expenditures in a range of policy areas, including on families (OECD, 2020[128]). Another is the OECD Family Database (OECD, 2020[150]), which contains detailed information on a variety of family- and child-relevant public policies, as well as on family demographics and the labour market situation of families.

In terms of specific policies, detailed cross-country policy information on statutory paid leave entitlements and public support for early childhood education and care is available in the OECD Family Database. The OECD Family Database also contains some information on the actual use and uptake of leave, as well as, together with the OECD Education Database (OECD, 2020[151]), valuable information on the coverage and use of early childhood educated and care and out-of-school-hours care. This information is itself drawn from a combination of administrative data, household surveys and dedicated child care surveys. Generally speaking, administrative data do not provide information on differences in coverage according to income level or other socio-demographic characteristics, whereas survey data allow information to be disaggregated, particularly by family income level.

Data on levels of public spending and financial support for families with children are available in the OECD Social Expenditure Database and OECD Family Database. The Family Database also provides a valuable breakdown of public spending on families and children by child age, which shows that the distribution of spending by stage of childhood varies widely across countries (OECD, 2020[152]). Unfortunately, the update schedule for this data series is currently uncertain.

Information on public financial support entitlements and how these entitlements can affect family income is available in the OECD Tax-Benefit Data Portal and from the OECD Tax-Benefit microsimulation model more generally (OECD, 2020[153]). Assessing how tax and benefit systems support families with children is not straightforward, as it is necessary to take into account the multiple interactions between the tax system and the payment of family, welfare and housing support. The OECD's Tax-Benefit Model provides a methodological framework for how these considerations can be managed, and can be used to simulate the amount of financial support received by families according to the number and age of children, for typical cases of household income levels and distribution. It can also provide information on the work incentives (or disincentives) faced by parents with children looking to enter or expand paid work. However, a key limitation of many microsimulation models is that they typically provide information for hypothetical or “model” families, only; they do not provide information on the actual situation of families, such as in this case, the real-world use of public financial supports and their impact on family income. There is a need for greater and more detailed information on the use of family- and children-related supports, and their adequacy for lifting families out of poverty and to cover part of the cost of the children. The difficulty in gathering such information lies in that family cash transfers take various forms including, family and child allowances or family-related refundable/non-wastable tax credits (OECD, 2020[154]).

One area of public policy where comparable information is severely lacking is child support. While some household surveys contain information on child support payments received by families, comparable information on the non-payment of child support is scarce. This complicates efforts to assess child support policies and their impact on child poverty, to measure progress made, and to identify what needs to be done to strengthen policies in this area (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]).

Families’ socio-economic status has a crucial bearing on children's well-being and development. It has an impact on the quality of the home environment in which children learn, play and spend much of their time; and, it influences household expenditures and practices regarding child health, nutrition, clothing, education, leisure and social activities. Collecting information on the economic and material situation of children and families is therefore key for developing policies to enhance child well-being.

The information available on the economic and material well-being of children and families covers, to differing extents and with limitations, a fairly wide range of dimensions: children’s material needs in terms of food, clothing, housing, education, and recreation, income levels and living standards, household working status, and public policies aimed at supporting the economic and material well-being of children. However, data collection can be improved to fill the gaps. As highlighted in the previous section, there is a need for more and better child-centred cross-national data on children’s material outcomes, on the costs of raising children, and on the provision of material goods and activities by the community. In addition, there are several further areas where information on children’s economic and material well-being could be improved.

The information available on children's living standards and material living conditions mainly covers children living in private households that are the subject of household surveys. By definition, some groups of children living in particularly vulnerable situations are not covered. This includes children from evicted or homeless families, refugee children or Roma children (Frazer, Guio and Marlier, 2020[155]), as well as children in out-of-home care. Some other groups of children – including children with disabilities and children experiencing violence – are also not well covered and/or are poorly identified in household surveys. These children are too often "invisible" in mainstream statistics, and as a results there is little regular statistical information on their economic and material well-being. A big challenge is to develop better data on children in these situations, as well as on the flows of children entering or leaving vulnerable situations.

Child income poverty rates are key indicators to measure the risk of children of experiencing material deprivation and/or family financial stress. However, as pointed out in the previous section, the economic and material situation of children in non-nuclear family living arrangements is often poorly assessed. In order to improve, it is necessary to collect good quality information on the resources available to children in all the households in which they reside, particularly when they are in alternating custody arrangements, as well as to know more about any transfers and/or sharing of resources across households (Toulemon, 2012[156]; Miho and Thévenon, 2020[118]).

In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that earnings losses can be extremely rapid and sharp, suggesting that traditional poverty measures may not sufficiently reflect family financial vulnerability. A significant number of households are financially vulnerable yet would not be classified as “poor” based on conventional income thresholds. For instance, before the pandemic, in the OECD, it was estimated that more than one in three individuals did not have enough financial assets to keep their family above the poverty line for more than three months, should their income suddenly stop (Balestra and Tonkin, 2018[157]). In such situation, it is important to monitor financial vulnerability of families, that is, their financial capacity to cope with a rapid drop in income without falling into extreme poverty. From a child's perspective, it is important to be able to measure financial vulnerability in order to put in place rapid responses when crises arise.

Family financial vulnerability has several determinants, including their level of constrained expenditures and indebtedness. Constrained expenditures are those which are essential to daily life, such as food consumption at home, or those realised within the framework of contracts that are difficult to renegotiate in the short-term – e.g. rents, utilities, etc. These expenditures represent, on average, almost 75% of disposable income of the poorest 20% of households (OECD-Eurostat, 2021[158]). Housing costs have a substantial bearing on families’ financial situation and risk of experiencing poverty. For example, in the United Kingdom, around 30% of children are found to be income poor in 2017/18 when housing costs are deducted from income – more than 7 percentage points higher than the rate obtained when housing costs are not accounted for. Another measure of children’s exposure to financial vulnerability could be the share of children living in households paying high housing costs, along the lines of the OECD indicator on housing cost overburden, which measures the share of population spending more than 40% of disposable income on mortgage or rent (OECD, 2020[138]).

Tracking debt burdens of families with children is also a way to measure their financial vulnerability. Across the OECD, one in five middle-income households spend more than they earn. Around 11% of middle-income households on average across the OECD are over-indebted, a share that is higher than the over-indebtedness rates among households with lower or higher incomes (OECD, 2019[159]). High levels of both constrained expenditure and over-indebtedness leave many households with very few resources to cope with income shocks.

Significant progress has been made in recent decades to develop child-centred data that takes the child as the unit of analysis, rather than the household. As a result, it is now possible to obtain measures of various dimensions of children’s economic and material well-being, specifically. However, there are limits to this data, and available data series might not always provide an accurate reflection of the actual situation of children.

One reason is that some data on family resources are still collected at household level with no information on intra-family distribution, making it impossible to accurately identify the resources directed to children. For example, households are frequently asked whether they have an internet connection and a computer, with this information is used to estimate the proportion of children who live in households with or without access to an internet connection. However, these data do not allow an assessment of whether children themselves can effectively use the resources that are available at home. The data on child material deprivation available in EU SILC 2014 are similarly limited, in that they take all children in the household together. Child-specific information is crucial to enabling a better monitoring of children’s needs. The COVID-19 crisis, with its many implications for children and child well-being, has only underlined the importance of child-specific data. For instance, having better information on the number of children with real access to the Internet and a computer for their own use at home is key to understanding how many children can receive remote education.

Data on children’s material resources and sources of deprivation are unevenly distributed across stages of childhood. Most international child surveys cover only school-age children. For younger children, a few countries collect data in child cohort surveys from childbirth, but these data are developed to follow children over time and not to provide the regular updates on children’s well-being that are needed to monitor child policies. One notable information gap concerns children under three years of age, who, as noted earlier, have specific and relatively costly material needs for families. Information on whether or not the material needs of children are fulfilled is important to collect especially in the early years of life as infancy is a period that lays the foundations for children's development. Similarly, there is also a need for better information access to personal care products generally, especially with respect to teenage girls’ exposure to period poverty.

A more systematic collection of information on how children use pocket money would also help to better identify the health risks for children that may be associated with particular uses, and thereby possibly highlight the need to inform children and families about the proven risks.

Information on the economic and material well-being of children is valuable in itself. Children attach importance to their material living environment and the goods they can buy. This can vary with age and differ from parents’ views. But information on children’s economic and material resources is also important because these resources have implications for other areas of children's well-being and development. It is therefore critical to have indicators measuring the strength of the relationship between family economic status and child outcomes, and to assess whether measures taken to tackle economic inequalities translate into a reduction of disparities in child well-being more generally.

In order to improve children’s living conditions, it is important to target support at the dimensions of economic well-being where policies can have the most influence. For this purpose, policy-relevant information on whether children experience material hardship, along with the main driving factors, is crucial. For example, material deprivation could result from a lack of adequate income, or it could arise from service supply shortages in the communities where families live. The type of family support that should be prioritised depends on whether this hardship arises primarily as a result of low income, a lack of affordable services, or a lack of information or trust in the goods and services offered.

As noted earlier, some children experience severe material deprivation in the sense that they encounter material deprivation in several areas. Experiencing severe deprivation is often due to the fact that more vulnerable children and families live in localities with fewer facilities or with comparatively relatively low quality services (OECD, 2018[160]; Thévenon et al., 2018[4]). This highlights the need for a coordinated provision of services to address different patterns of child material deprivation.

Last but not least, deprivation in multiple life areas is described as extreme poverty, and is much more frequent among families with low incomes. For instance, data from EU-SILC 2014 suggests that 25 to 40% of school-aged income poor children experience “severe” deprivation (severity being defined as being deprived in at least four domains among nutrition, clothing, housing, educational materials and social and leisure opportunities). The identification of factors that increase the risk of exposure to forms of extreme poverty – of which low income is only one of the factors – would enable policies to better identify the groups of children and families for which public support could be prioritised. Pinpointing the links between income poverty and child material deprivation also provides important background information highlighting that policy effectiveness to reach the most vulnerable families can be strengthened by combining cash and in-kind support (Riding et al., 2021[89]).


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