Children in Poverty,
It Often Starts at Home

Published Sept 2011 - Updated Jun 2013

Children in poverty: the impact of the lack of basic services (education, healthcare, food)

A huge strain on people

There isn't much that children in poverty can do or say about their situation, because it was exclusively caused by adults. Extreme situations created by poverty put a huge strain on adults and push them to the edge.

Adults often become prone to violence, losing patience if not hope, and gradually lose a sensitivity that is vital for the healthy development of children. All things considered, it’s in fact a miracle that so many kids and parents come out of such experiences with only minor damages. But many also get out of this with scars for life.

Hostages in the poverty trap

A great number of children in poverty still widely suffer from physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and forced labor.

For other kids, their biological development is undermined by the limitations of their environment and education.

Child poverty sends us back to parents’ responsibility toward their descendants. There is nothing indeed that kids can do about their state of poverty - and they shouldn't have to. They have no choice and there's not much they can do about it but endure it or be sent to forced labor.

Child labor & child rights

The problem with children in poverty is so vast that it will need a few pages to cover it. This one will focus on child abuse and neglect resulting from poverty. Child labor (see right column) includes a great range of the dangers that jeopardize children's lives and health from unprotected agricultural work, to scavenging in toxic waste dumps or child "soldiering".

The question of child rights addresses the issue of international and national standards, and their efficiency in improving children's well-being.

For children in poverty, the worst sometimes awaits at home

Poverty equals more child abuse

The problem with abuse and neglect is that they’re passed on from one generation to the next. It's often the only way to raise a child that many adults have ever come to know. There’s also a proven, empirical link between poverty and different forms of child abuses and neglect.

Researchers have time and again insisted to eliminate the “myth of classlessness” concerning maltreatment. If child abuses do happen anywhere, in any social class, they are overwhelmingly more frequent in poorer families. Professionals often talk about the geographic concentration of violence, abuses and poverty.

Why kids don't matter (to some people)

This means that reducing poverty (and thus the number of children in poverty) should be at the core of policies concerned with reducing child maltreatment. Just as for issues of urban poverty, this issue is rarely considered a crisis or a priority. To quote the TV series The Wire: “kids don’t vote”, and their parents are often too preoccupied by their household’s (economic) survival to consider it a priority.

What about the middle- and upper-classes? Because most of poverty is often “limited” to specific areas, it’s as if the poor and the rich of a country lived in two different worlds. To the point that child poverty in a distant country seen on TV seems more real than children getting beat up in a poor neighborhood back home. There is a lack of social pressure, a lack of systematically taking action (from politicians and citizens), and a lack of responsibility of the media in driving people to act rather than just reporting a "spectacle" that gives them great ratings.

Physical abuse

In many countries, it's still very common to use physical punishment (other than the good old spanky spanky) as a way to educate a child. As tempting as it might be to slap your little brats again and again - hoping that they get to see the difference from right and wrong in the midst of their momentarily blurred vision - this most likely won’t work as expected. At least not entirely, even if you get to infuse some fear into the kid.

Any punishment that injures the kid leaves him with physical but also psychological traces. Physical injuries often don’t last long, but the results over the years range from mental disorders and aggressiveness to suicide (e.g. kids on whom parents put a pressure without limits). A great deal of these kids also develop drinking and smoking issues when growing up. If being harsh on kids is very dependent on cultures, this might not however be an organic part of cultures per se, but more stem from inherited ways from poorer times. This means that parents have to be part of the solution and need to be re-educated (as tactfully as possible, e.g. because of cultural sensitivities).

Neglect

Neglect is probably one of the most widespread form of abuse affecting children in poverty and it covers a large range of problems. Parents can for example fail to cater for their children's most basic needs (food, clothing, medicines (when available)), or fail to provide those essential to their kids' development such as love and education.

A child can be emotionally abused by his parents as well, not only ignored but aggressively, excessively and continually told off, embarrassed and such. This can dangerously affect a child’s growth: he can develop antisocial, aggressive if not destructive behaviors (cruelty, pyromania).

Alcohol, drugs and maltreatment

The consumption of drugs and alcohol is another factor that directly fuels child abuse and further entrench children in poverty. Social services worldwide report that the problem concerns more than ¾ of the families they try to help. But as adults are often more resistant to change, so are their behavior and consequences on their children.

Once more, there is a direct link between poverty and drugs & alcohol intake. The pressure people in poverty go through to provide the household with food, electricity, water, books for school, clothes and so on, is quite something to bear psychologically. On top of having to spend their days in exhausting and/or harmful jobs… for those who are employed. Their environment also won’t help, with most poor areas being the most violent ones, their daily lives are nothing short of stressful.

Add to that the rising issue of single parent families, sky-rocketing depression rates among the urban poor due to social exclusion and solitude and you’ll obtain the best cocktail for pushing anyone, just anyone, to the edge. And fall in the trap of drugs, alcohol and violence (even then, many manage to successfully resist the pressure). Then, in a twisted way, being neglected is almost the best thing that can happen to children living in poverty… well… hum... almost.

Living in the streets, an alternative for children in poverty?

Child beggar in India

Why leave home?

If child poverty and domestic violence thrive on the power of alcohol, from the outside the bruises and fractures heal sooner or later. What doesn’t heal so easily is the trauma inflicted to the child.

It’s one thing to get beaten by someone, it’s another to get beaten on a regular basis by your own father. Or get your clothes sold by your mom to buy drugs. Your parents are those who should be the most trusted, loving and loved persons in your life. The ones you turn to for protection don’t fulfill their role anymore, they do exactly the opposite.

Getting out of the streets - It's never over

The consequence of this is a clear path toward much more extreme child poverty. When the kids turn away from their parents and eventually from home, they risk ending up in the streets for good. Which rarely gets better. And if it does, and if they come to have children themselves, you can see they’re the least likely to become good parents… and the most likely to repeat their parents’ mistakes and contribute to feed the cycle of children in poverty.

Child development: a key for their future

Investing in children's wellbeing: their mental and physical development

Higher income, better chances

Where violence affects a child’s emotional development, the income of a household will influence his potential to grow to the full extent of his capabilities. This means that the child will be able to develop skills that will help him do well in life - aka make some cash, but also fulfill his dreams and cultivate a sense of dignity. The longer children in poverty suffer from hardships of all kinds (violence, lack of food and education) the worse it gets for them. Another reason - in relation to the definition of poverty - for understanding poverty in terms of how long people spend “in there”, and how it affects them over time.

Families living on "not much per month", and trying to send their kids to the schools in their own neighborhood (as you all know they’re of... "different" quality) will have higher chances of seeing them drop out before finishing high school. All of this highlights the importance of acting as early as possible to children in poverty from the consequences of growing up in the wrong environment.

Brain development - a sensitive topic

Our brains work in a specific way so that the more stimuli you get in your childhood, the more it stimulates your brain and helps it develop. Stimuli can be very different things nonetheless, it can be experiences (social, sports), it can be education, confronting certain situations etc.

Poverty does not impact on that directly but its effects do, and in a complex manner. Studies have shown that home is the most decisive and distinctive factor (that’s the biggest difference between poor and rich kids, if you assume they all go to school) in that lack of money and of rich environment won’t stimulate kids’ brains as much as they would need to. This also gives huge place to the parenting style, in finding the right balance between leisure, education, outdoor activities, etc. However there isn’t much you can do when you’re poor, heck there isn’t much you can plan at all.

Helping parents: the new front

Parenting skills' influence on child poverty

Being on all fronts to better help children in poverty

Nothing else but a comprehensive policy can successfully help children in poverty. Families need help with money (also to avoid child labor), coping with stress, and better their poverty-stricken environment. This includes schools, street violence, drugs, jobs for the parents, day-care services and even basic infrastructures such as access to water and hospitals.

The problem is often the absence of a broad and inclusive strategy that tackles these issues altogether, or at least coordinates the efforts of different agencies (if they even exist), such as job finding support and all kinds of social care services.

Empowering parents and post-recession welfare

The key here is to help the families get back the control over their lives and futures. Help them get rid of that feeling of total oppression and that their lives are slipping out of hand. And for that they need jobs. A good policy usually consists in complementing the parents’ low-paid jobs (often insufficient to lift the whole family out of poverty) with some kind of tax reduction or free health care, so as to push them to accept a job in the first place.

However this represents a lot of public spending at a time when the world economy is barely recovering from the 2008 crisis. This is a dilemma, and policymakers should be aware of the choices here: save money now (or not go bankrupt) but let poverty and the situation of children in poverty get worse, or spend money now and get a chance to solve the problem. In the long run this will increase the quality and efficiency of the future workforce, which will have been properly educated.

Further (useful) safety nets

Smart and cheap ways to help children in poverty...

A cost-effective form of social protection is to intervene directly with parents to improve their parenting skills, rather than trying to change everything at home. Among the most effective techniques, simple and regular visits at home help (re-)educating parents on the spot.

Aside from strictly parenting, great experiments have also managed to teach them how to best stimulate their children’s curiosity through books, magazines, specific toys, and also quality TV programs.

... Before it's too late

Such programs can be set up to target vulnerable families.

That way, they act before any harm is done to the kids and children in poverty are saved from abuse and/or neglect.

For example, sending nurses to visit homes to give advice but also cheer up and reassure new parents is a great and not too invasive form of prevention.

It’s crucial to preserve and nurture the human aspect of the issue and understand that most parents who mistreat their children would actually love to do a better job. Some living conditions can put the best of us in the worst situations.


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