Daunting impacts of child poverty cannot be ignored
Childhood is a magical time in our lives, full of precious experiences, memorable moments and adoration that our families curate for us. We only begin to appreciate this chapter in our lives as we progress into adulthood and see the value of all the factors that have shaped us. Sadly, the coronavirus disease pandemic has exacerbated struggling families’ living conditions and left parents with few or no resources to cover their children’s basic needs. According to UNICEF, the pandemic could plunge an additional 117 million children into poverty globally, bringing the total number of children living in poor households to 700 million.
Poverty causes multifaceted and long-term harm to children. In 2019, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a comprehensive study on the effects of child poverty on the American economy. Its cost estimates ranged from $800 billion to $1 trillion annually as a result of lost employment productivity in adulthood, the increased costs of crimes, and health expenditures. Additionally, the study found that there is a significant correlation between poverty and adverse child outcomes, such as poor educational attainment, impaired physical health, altered brain development, malnutrition, abuse, and mental health issues.
Poverty also places children at greater risk of going on to develop chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease, as well as ensuring a shorter life expectancy. Furthermore, children living in poor housing conditions and impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to develop physical and mental health problems, get injured, and witness violence or crime.
On the other hand, research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University highlights the importance of curating positive early childhood experiences and their lasting impacts. Science reveals that early experiences impact brain architecture, which in turn affects future learning, behaviors, and health outcomes. These neural connections thrive when a child is exposed to a variety of positive interactions, activities, and environments. It is also important to safeguard children’s emotional well-being and social skills, shielding them from chronic and toxic stress that could damage their developing brains and cause long-term learning and behavioral problems, in addition to affecting physical and mental health.
Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the “right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” And many governments around the world recognize the importance of tackling child poverty before it is too late. When it comes to supporting parents, it is important to create more jobs, raise the minimum wage, provide paid leave to care for children, and allow flexible working hours or part-time work. Secondly, it is important to provide financial assistance to families to cover their essential needs, such as adequate housing in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, subsidies for early childhood care and schooling, and physical and mental health services. Thirdly, governments can encourage social cohesion and reduce loneliness among children via the provision of cultural centers, sports activities, art clubs, and green spaces.
New Zealand has made great strides in safeguarding and promoting children’s well-being. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who also assumes the role of minister for child poverty reduction, is leading efforts to make the country the best possible place for children and young people to live. New Zealand’s Child and Youth Well-being Strategy, published last year, aims to deliver a range of policies, legislations, and programs to improve well-being, such as increasing employment support for parents, increasing the minimum wage to NZ$20 ($13) per hour by 2021, extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks, improving access to and the quality of early learning education, improving maternity and early years support services, and improving housing affordability, quality and security.
The government of Norway has a dedicated Ministry of Children and Family Affairs. Five years ago, it published a strategy to address child poverty, with interventions covering a variety of areas, such as family counseling services, housing grants, free core time in kindergarten, mentor programs for young people, and free sports and leisure activities.
There is a significant correlation between poverty and adverse child outcomes.
One successful program is the Family Nurse Partnership, which targets first-time parents who have limited support networks, are victims of abuse, have mental health problems or addictions, or live in poverty. The program consists of 64 home visits by trained health visitors to provide support and guidance. Countries with similar programs have seen improvements in the health of mothers and children, in addition to reduced behavioral problems and delinquency among children, increased workforce participation by mothers, and less dependence on state social support. Another great example is the Holidays for All program, organized by the Norwegian Red Cross, which arranges free holidays for children and their families.
Children can only experience a happy, healthy and unforgettable childhood once in their lives. It is imperative that we ensure all the factors that contribute to childhood’s preciousness are safeguarded and provided. After all, we expect them to grow up and reach their full potential, making the world a better place for us all.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.