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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Future generations of Europeans risk falling through the cracks in the social support system as the debt crisis saps economic growth and countries resort to austerity, just as their hardest-off citizens need help the most, child welfare campaigners say.
The difficulties resulting from high unemployment and the prospect of further cost cuts in social services are among the issues that sparked protests across southern Europe last week.
And among those hit by budget cuts are children in poverty.
"Members of Eurochild are witnessing significant cuts in public spending on child services, which is where we see the most long-term benefits," said Jana Hainsworth, director general of the Eurochild network of child welfare campaigning groups.
"These cuts are being made by local and regional authorities due to their need to reduce debt," she told Reuters on Monday.
Given increased demand for help, and the economic slowdown, social spending as a proportion of output is now at least 6 percent higher than in 2007 on average in the 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a report by the OECD shows.
The needs of ageing populations are also set to drive up the costs of pensions and health care in coming years, said the report from the OECD, which includes 21 EU countries.
Among those are Spain, Portugal, Greece, France and Italy, where demonstrators clashed with police last week as workers challenged austerity policies.
The OECD report said public social spending-to-GDP ratios increased to 22 percent of GDP in 2009 from about 19 percent in 2007, and have remained at this increased level since then.
Ireland, Britain and Spain have provided proportional increases in social spending, despite flagging economic growth. While Italy, Portugal, Greece and Hungary experienced slower social spending, as well as reduced economic output.
Pervasive unemployment and stagnating GDP levels have played a large part in the rising ratios, the OECD said, with income support growing more significant since the start of the crisis.
Hainsworth said too much of a focus on unemployment benefits could leave those under the age of 18 in the shadows.
"We would not be at all advocating any kind of decline in unemployment benefits," Hainsworth said.
"But there need to be accompanying mechanisms. The unemployment benefit is not a long-term solution. Unemployment is incredibly damaging to children, also."
Hainsworth said budgets had been cut in family support services, healthcare and early childhood care. And this has happened as demand for child protection services has increased.
"There are cases of children falling through the system and into juvenile justice. Kids who are committing crimes at 14, 15, 16, are incredibly traumatized, abused, children that have had family breakdowns," she said. "They could have had support, which would have saved longer term costs."
OECD countries with young population profiles are much less likely to have higher social-spending-to-GDP ratios than countries with older populations, the report found. On average, the elderly receive 40 percent of all public spending on education and social policy.
Yet the generation of European citizens under the age of 30 remain especially hard-hit by the crisis. Youth unemployment stands at 23 percent across the 17 members of the euro zone and one in two young Greeks are out of work, figures from the European statistics agency Eurostat show.
Portuguese statistics also show it has been hit hard, as has Spain, where 50 percent of people under the age of 30 are out of work. With GDP shrinking and sluggish social spending, the Spanish Red Cross is being stretched thin, said the organization's secretary-general, Leopoldo Nuno Suarez.
The organization currently has 800 branches around Spain and serves more than 300,000 people with a budget of 600 million euros, Suarez said.
"We are looking to 20 million euros more to provide more services," he said.
Those who are young and without skills are the most vulnerable, he said.
"The most important thing is employment," he said.
"When you have employment, you have money, you have a social network and you can do your work as a citizen."
Reporting By Madeline O'Leary; editing by Rex Merrifield