Child Poverty: A threat to childhood

Poverty: "Damaged Child", Oklahoma City, OK, USA, 1936 - Photo Credit: Flickr

Children living in poverty are denied a good start in life —if any start at all. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) acknowledged this in December 2006, when it said that: “…while a severe lack of goods and services hurts every human being, it is most threatening and harmful to children, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, to reach their full potential and to participate as full members of society”. In reply to this, UNICEF, the UN branch responsible of promoting international child welfare, affirmed that it is precise to separate child poverty assessments from those of general poverty, as the latter usually focus solely on lack on income. This analysis is insufficient when gauging the atrocious effects of child poverty, as it hinders children’s access to things like nutrition, shelter and education, all of which are paramount for their  “survival, well-being and development” (UNICEF, 2007).

Child poverty is an issue that demands immediate action. A 2013 press release from the Word Bank states that although the number of people living in extreme poverty around the word decreased significantly over the last three decades, as of 2010 an estimate of 400 million children lived below the absolute poverty line. This is roughly one-third of the global poor demographics for that year.

Morning in Mugunga Camp - Photo Credit: Flickr


The statistics mentioned above paint a grim future if child poverty is not at the top on the priority list of policymakers. As said by Fajth and Holland (2007) “children experience all forms of poverty more acutely than adults because of their vulnerability due to age and dependency, and because lost opportunities in childhood often cannot be regained later in life”.

The fact that child poverty exists is the very definition of injustice. These children are being starved not only of food, but also of the emotional and spiritual resources that are vital in the formation of balanced adults. These are children who are often subjected to child labour, or to take on the responsibility of parenthood before due time, as they have to look after their younger siblings so their parent can work. Moreover, children in poverty experience physical and emotional abuse at higher rates than their non-poor counterparts.

Working boy in Senegal - Photo Credit: Pixabay

Child poverty also impacts from within. Children born into poverty usually have a low birth weight, which is a key risk factor for infant mortality and can cause physical and mental stunting, as well as a plethora of health complications. Poor children also present emotional and behavioral problems at a higher rate than non-poor children, often externalizing behaviors (e.g. aggression, fighting and acting out) or internalizing them (e.g. anxiety, social withdrawal and depression). These continue onto adulthood, as adults who experienced poverty as children, even briefly, show difficulties at handling stress and other negative emotions, according to a study conducted by Pilyoung et al (2006). Further problems encompass abuse of alcohol and other substances as a coping mechanism or issues like stress, social exclusion and discrimination.

Finally, the effects of child poverty reach society as a whole, not only the individuals who experienced poverty as children or who have lived in poverty throughout their lives. According to the Word Bank press release quoted above, child poverty has the potential of creating inter-generational poverty traps. This does not come as a surprise, if factors like child labor and abuse are taken into account. In addition to these, children who live below the poverty line often have restricted or no access to education, and those who do attend school, enter it behind their peers and fail to level out during their academic career. Poor children also make up the majority of the statistics for school drop-outs.

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