The global agenda must prioritise child poverty

Children bear the brunt of extreme poverty. This is not hyperbole; it’s statistical fact. The World Bank’s most recent poverty data show us that almost half of all the people living on less than $1.25 day, are 18 or younger. Yet, children under 18 represent only about 31% of the global population. And around 400 million children in the world under the age of 13 live in extreme poverty – that’s more than the entire population of the United States.

The world agrees that eradicating poverty must remain high on the agenda. In fact, it’s the first priority listed in the UN General Assembly Open Working Group document released earlier this year, on the road to setting new global goals, and the World Bank last year set its own target of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

Extreme poverty measures tend to capture the extent of poverty in lower income countries, and indeed in most regions of the developing world children fare the worst. But the same is true in the rich world: In OECD countries, more children than adults live in relative poverty (that is, in households with incomes below 50% of the median). UNICEF’s 2012 review of child well-being across 35 industrialised countries found that 30 million children – one out of eight in the OECD – are growing up poor.

Children are over-represented among the poor

Of course, there’s global consensus that poverty is not only about income. It’s people’s wellbeing that matters in the end. For a child, that means everything from whether she or he can go to school and learn, to whether she or he is well-nourished and healthy, to whether she or he is safe, happy and cared for in her family and community. The need to understand and measure these aspects of poverty is what led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Policy & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) to develop the Multidimensional Poverty Index. At UNICEF, we’ve developed child-focused multi-dimensional poverty measures, and currently have data for 25 lower income countries, with more to come.

Eliminating child poverty is of course a matter of child rights, and is also central to human progress. At UNICEF we cheered when the latter point was brought home by Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, who said, on releasing their new poverty data in 2013: “We can reach our goals of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity, including sharing that prosperity with future generations, but only if we work together with new urgency. Children should not be cruelly condemned to a life without hope, without good education, and without access to quality health care. We must do better for them.” We are glad also that the EU is working on a strategy to help countries address child poverty.

I’ve been struck since taking up my current job at UNICEF’s Headquarters about the passionate debate around how we should consider, and address, child poverty in the global development agenda – among my colleagues, and in the wider world. While the Millennium Development Goals gave the world something to strive for, and real progress has been made, it is also clear children living in poverty have benefited the least from these gains.Some of the questions that keep coming up include:

  • Is it worthwhile to measure the number of children living in monetary poverty?
  • Should we focus only on the more complex multi-dimensional approaches?
  • What’s the best way to ensure needed attention to children’s wellbeing and rights?

It seems to me that child poverty is absolutely multi-dimensional, and finding better ways to measure and address it is crucial. At the same time, studies routinely show strong correlations between income or wealth quintiles and poor outcomes for children. Moreover, mounting evidence from child-sensitive cash transfer programmes seems to suggest that income can make a difference. If a monetary measure is going to be part of the new goals, shouldn’t children be included?

So how should child poverty be measured and addressed in the new agenda that will guide development after 2015? This is a question on which UNICEF is looking for inputs from organisations and individuals from around the world. UNICEF has teamed up with the UN Major Group on Children and Youth and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to run open on-line discussions on this topic. We invite you to come take a look at what has been said and to join the debate. And if you miss the discussion, we can always continue the debate here on UNICEF Connect or via Twitter (@AlexandraYuster). We hope to hear from you one way or another.

How to get involved:

Join the live online discussion on 10:00 – 11:30 EST 10 April 2014. Participate here. More details here.

Share your views on child poverty on the online platform through 14 April 2014.

P.S. this post is written with thanks to my colleagues Martin C Evans and Antonio Franco Garcia, whose research and analytical work on child poverty has enriched the content.

Alexandra Yuster is an Associate Director at UNICEF’s Headquarters in New York, leading UNICEF’s work on social inclusion, child poverty and discrimination.

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  1. A recent meta-analysis from Canadian researchers supports the need for well-tuned MODA. They analyzed the results of every study they could find that looked at the relationship between families’ socio-economic status and their children’s intellectual and behavioural development. At first glance, income poverty seemed to impact how well children behaved or did in school. But the closer the team looked, the weaker this connection became.

    The true culprits were manifold, but most of them — such as home environment, parental attentiveness, discipline, community safety, postpartum depression, increased life stress, family support, and exposure to violence — had to do with the quality of a children’s home lives — or, more specifically, with their parents. Regardless of the family’s budget, children who had loving, engaged caregivers were better off than those who didn’t.

    Of course, poverty places many additional challenges on parents. When living in poverty, meeting even basic needs — food, clothing, shelter — can seem enough of a challenge, leaving little time and energy for the intellectual and emotional needs, which can be much harder to see and therefore much easier to ignore. Yet these needs, invisible or not, are vital to children’s long-term development, and their absence causes untold damage.

    In this sense, the greatest challenge children face isn’t financial poverty, but relational poverty.

    – See more at:

  2. Relational deprivation is a critical dimension added to this discussion.. but so hard to define and measure. Particularly among adolescents, it chaotically leads to depression and expresses itself through withdrawal symptoms, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, etc.. what we call as `second generation issues’ in Kerala (India, where I work for UNICEF in social policy, planning, monitoring and evaluation).

    I think it is important for us to find from our researches an answer to what is the threshold `income’ which keeps families secure to fight away child deprivation. This threshold would be a combination of a certain proportion in money terms and a certain proportion of socio-psychological variables which cannot be easily quantified in money terms.

    In our experiments with child sensitive cash transfer, we must find out how people make the decisions they do to build a latrine, dig a bore-well, seek better health seeking behaviour etc. as supplementary money alone cannot be the reason.

    Child poverty has a lot to do with poor governance at different levels including local levels up to family.

  3. Thanks for this food for thought – your message reminds of the complexity involved, and the need to look at both monetary poverty and other types of deprivations. these are usually related, but rarely the same. I’m not sure we can come up with a monetary threshold that can always be applied to judge the risk multi-dimensional deprivation, but national poverty lines are certainly a good place to start.

    There are a few useful techniques used to look at relative monetary poverty: in Europe families earning 60% or less of the median income are viewed as poor in some policy contexts. The World Bank’s shared prosperity goal considers the wellbeing of the poorest 40% of the population relative to the top 20%. and glad you raised governance as well. I agree – and so do many of us, which is why we’ve explicitly included attention to governance and accountability in our Social Inclusion work.