Young lives stunted by poverty


An education lecturer charts the shocking statistics on poverty among children across the world and highlights some of the stark effects on their health and wellbeing.

Poverty and child poverty are widely recognised as serious global social problems which are complex and multidimensional. This means there are no simple explanations, causes or solutions.

Poverty and child poverty can be measured according to international or national sets of measurements, but this can be problematic. When comparing developed countries with developing countries, the estimation of a daily budget for survival can vary from a few dollars a day per person to around twelve pounds a day in a developed country (though these are quite literally set at subsistence rates).

Poverty and child poverty can be categorised as absolute and relative. Absolute poverty indicates a level of poverty that means people lack some of the basic needs required for human existence. Relative poverty is defined according to the living standards within a particular national context. Some of the key international debates are focused on issues such as poverty lines or thresholds; the impact of intergenerational poverty and the ‘low-pay no-pay’ cycle. The difficulty with poverty lines or thresholds is that they are often low so many people who are above the threshold also struggle to manage the limited resources that are available to them. Intergenerational poverty, a contested concept, suggests that poverty is ‘passed’ from one generation to another. The low-pay, no-pay cycle refers to those people trapped in a cycle of low paid employment and unemployment.

For the purposes of this short article, it may be useful to simply state that poverty and child poverty can be understood in terms of a lack of resource (commonly financial resources) to meet an essential material need, or a number of needs, such as food, health care, fuel, clothing and housing. In some parts of the world the effects of poverty are stark. Insufficient food or an inadequate diet leads to under nutrition for children and can result in distressing levels of stunting (40% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 39% in South Asia), underweight (33% in South Asia) and wasting (16% in South Asia). It is also important to note that there is a misplaced perception, especially in developed countries, that poverty is experienced primarily by people who are unemployed or who draw welfare benefits. A growing number of people are working but live in poverty.

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of Child (1989) defines children as those who are less than 18 years old (unless a different age is legally specified in a particular context). Child poverty is a global problem and is increasing. Recent statistics reveal that approximately one billion children across the world live in poverty – just under half of the total population of children of 2.2 billion. Children are dependents and, therefore, their circumstances are closely linked to the socio-economic circumstances of their families or households. It can be overlooked that child poverty is often very closely connected to women’s poverty. The extent of women’s poverty can be masked by measuring the poverty of households, rather than individuals; income in households may not be equally distributed and women may be economically dependent. Many women continue to carry the primary responsibility for the care of children and it is often the woman who has to manage the effects of poverty, including making decisions about the allocation of limited resources. Women are also more likely to attempt to protect the children from any external stigma related to poverty.

Globally, we can identify three groups of vulnerable children who can suffer from severe effects of poverty. These are: children engaged in work; ‘invisible’ children and disabled children. Unicef (The United Nations Children’s Fund) reports that of the 2.2 billion children in the world, there are 215 million children under the age of 18 who are working (the vast majority in developing countries). This is not necessarily exploitation in sweatshops or other forms of coercive and hazardous labour that can verge on forms of contemporary child slavery. Many of the children may be assisting the family or augmenting family income, such as working on family farms or some form of family trade; but these activities, nevertheless, will be interfering with their school education and will affect their educational progress and future prospects.

The term ‘invisible children’ can be used to describe a wide variety of children: those who live in temporary accommodation, children who are part of a family that is living illegally, children who are unaccompanied refugees or who are living on the streets. Unesco (The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) claims that there are 150 million street children today and identifies three different types: those forced to work on the streets to generate income; those who live on the streets by day but return to some form of home in the evening and those who have no other place to live. These children are at serious risk from abuse, illness, violence, and, in some cases, the risks will lead to death. These children will also have very little access, or no access, to school education.

There are 150 million disabled children throughout the world – four out of five of these children live in developing countries and they often face barriers in accessing school education. Wazakili et al. (2011) comment that 30% of street children have some form of disability and current figures indicate that 90% of children with disabilities who live in low-income countries are not attending school. In the UK four out of ten disabled children live in poverty.

It may be useful to conclude with an examination of levels of child poverty in the UK. Estimates vary but they range from between 2.3 million to 3.6 million children (UK Department for Work and Pensions, 2013). In other words, between one in five and one in four children currently live in poverty in the UK. According to Barnardo’s calculations, around a third of the children living in poverty in the UK are living in what they have termed ‘severe’ poverty. Severe poverty is similar to absolute poverty and entails people having to make choices between essential needs such as food or heating.

All this makes for bleak reading. But it reflects the daily experience of children throughout the world.

Dr Stephen J McKinney is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Glasgow. He is the leader of the Research and Teaching Group, Creativity, Culture and Faith.

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Wazakili, M., Chataika, T., Mji, G., Dube, K. and MacLachlan, M. (2011) Social inclusion of people with disabilities in poverty reduction policies and instruments: initial impressions from Malawi and Uganda. In A.H. Eide and B. Ingstad (Eds.), Disability and Poverty (pp.15- 29). Bristol: the Policy Press.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.