BRUSSELS — The European Union's external auditor said Tuesday that child poverty has reached an "unacceptable" level across the world's largest economy, a situation likely to worsen during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to EU data, almost 23 million people under 18 — approximately one in four children — are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the 27-nation bloc.

In a report published Tuesday, the European Court of Auditors said member states should urgently coordinate their efforts in the face of COVID-19 as the euro area unemployment rate is expected to increase from 7.5 % in 2019 to about 9.5 % this year, with devastating consequences on people's livelihoods.

"Child poverty is a serious issue in the EU," said Tony Murphy, the Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report, during a video conference Tuesday. "Without a sustained and targeted action, the current unacceptable level is unlikely to decrease. It is becoming more critical because of the expected impact of the pandemic," he said.

EU auditors were alarmed well before the pandemic struck. Their audit was completed prior to the outbreak, and revealed a global lack of commitment to tackle the issue.

They noted that EU leaders have already failed to deliver on their promise to bring at least 20 million people out of poverty by the end of 2020, compared with 2008. According to Eurostat indicators, only 7.15 million people had been lifted out of poverty by 2018.

"EU legislation does not target funding directly at combating child poverty. Both the Commission and the Member States visited could not quantify the amount of funds allocated to projects directly tackling child poverty and therefore could not assess their effectiveness," they wrote in their report.

Noting the limited role the EU commission can play — fighting poverty is the responsibility of member states — auditors however recommended that the union's executive arm defines clear targets and guidance in support of member states as part of its next action plan to be unveiled next year.

Responding to the audit, the EU commission said it takes "the fight against poverty extremely seriously," and recalled its proposition this year that all member states allocate 5% of a more than 100-billion euros social fund to combat child poverty.