Child poverty a global concern

It is time poverty alleviation policies and programmes get child-centric, to lay a solid foundation for a future generation that is healthy and prosperous

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 19 December 2023
Representational photo from iStock

At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity, we have more poor children than poor adults — which is not exactly a sign of escaping poverty. In September, the World Bank and Unicef estimated that every second extreme poor individual in the world is a child, surviving on less than US$2.15 a day. This translates to 333 million children (under 18 years of age) growing up in extreme poverty in 2022. Going by this estimate, we have added more children to poverty than adults.

While inequalities in income and wealth are often talked about globally, their impact on children has not been studied much. A poor child is usually an indicator of his or her household’s economic condition. So, this data also indicates the overall prevalence of poverty. But in an unequal world, the pertinent question is whether a poor child is able to escape poverty in the short-term to pursue a decent life — what happens to a child who lives with extreme poverty for a longer period? Will he or she remain poor forever if the childhood poverty conditions persist? More to it, what kinds of social and economical impacts does a child have to bear while growing up in extreme poverty?

As expected, extreme child poverty is more prevalent in poor and least developed countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, says the World Bank and Unicef estimate. In 2022, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 75 per cent of the world's child population living in extreme poverty. Data from the countries having high extreme child poverty levels showed a worrying trend — even when they record impressive economic growth and adult poverty level dips, the rate of child poverty does not decrease proportionately. For instance, take India, a lower middle-income country having impressive economic growth. It reduced its extreme child poverty rate by just 0.2 per cent in six years (2017-22), according to the World Bank and Unicef assessment.

Recent data also shows that child poverty is a universal development challenge. A report released by Unicef in early December, “Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth”, shows that child poverty is widely prevalent in the high-income and upper middle-income countries of the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This report’s finding is important because it shows that when it comes to children, countries and their respective policies have not been effective in eradicating poverty. There are some 69 million children who live in extreme poverty in these countries, many of them considered among the richest, like the US. “National wealth does not guarantee that a country will prioritize the fight against child poverty. Indeed, there is only a weak tendency for the wealthiest countries to have lower child poverty rates,” says the report.

“The consequences of being poor last a lifetime.” This is the answer the report offers to the question on what persistent poverty in childhood means for the long term. Poverty in childhood, and its continuation, means that there is a very low chance of accessing education. This, on the other hand, will result in a lack of skills that are crucial to pursue a decent sustenance. In another observation, the Unicef report has quoted studies which show that “a person born in a deprived area is likely to live 8-9 years fewer than a person born in a wealthy area.”

This means that poverty during childhood is similar to the challenges of malnutrition and lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation. These have similar impacts on how a child grows and ultimately whether they would be able enough to follow a healthy and decent enough life. It is time poverty alleviation policies and programmes get child-centric, to lay a solid foundation for a future generation that is healthy and prosperous.

This was first published in the 16-31 December, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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