Poverty through a child-centred lens

As poverty is handed down from generation to generation, children—who make up 40% of our population—are the ones caught in a poverty trap that can impact their entire adult lives and limit the prospects of our country. We need to start investing in our children if we want to break this intergenerational cycle of poverty and inequality.


“As many as two-thirds of children live in poverty, surviving on less than R515 per person per month, and yet they are often invisible in poverty research and policy debates,” explains Katharine Hall, from the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town. She has embarked on a study highlighting the situation of children in South Africa and the many forms and severity of poverty they face.
“Children (constitutionally defined as a person under the age of 18) carry a disproportionate burden of poverty in South Africa, but household-level and population statistics mask the poor conditions in which they live,” she says.

In other words, official indicators, like income poverty and unemployment rates or access to adequate water and sanitation, often conceal the extent of deprivation among children. Children are on average poorer than adults and have lower levels of access to services and adequate living environments.

Location, location, location
In fact, a crucial aspect coming out of Hall’s study is that children are poor precisely because of where they live; and this is why analysing living environments from a child-centred perspective is so important if we are to address poverty and inequality. According to a paper entitled A profile of children living in South Africa in 2008 by Hall and fellow researcher Gemma Wright from the Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy (CASASP) at the University of Oxford, programmes targeting housing and service infrastructure, for example, do not always consider children, presumably because it is assumed that they automatically derive the benefits targeted to households in general. But this is not so.


Children are more likely than adults to live in areas that are historically under-resourced and under-serviced—particularly rural, former homeland areas—and some official indicators are benchmarked to a minimum that is not suitable for children. For example, the minimum standards for ‘adequate water’ are considered to be safe drinking water within a 200m radius of the dwelling. The minimum service level for sanitation is a ventilated pit latrine, also within 200m. “But off-site communal services like these are not appropriate for children—they can be difficult, and even dangerous, for them to access,” explains Hall.

Inadequate services
Of course, basic services are essential for everyone’s hygiene, health and survival, but children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of inadequate services. For example, 11% of deaths in children under the age of five are attributed to diarrhoea. Overcrowded conditions, in which over a quarter of all children live, place even more pressure on limited households resources and services. Living in these conditions has other serious implications for children’s well-being, from the risk of contracting infections to the risk of abuse, from the loss of privacy to the lack of space to play or do homework. Malnutrition is one of the worst manifestations of child poverty, in both urban and rural areas.

“About a third of the six million preventable deaths of young children occurring in poor and middle-income countries each year have been ascribed to under-nutrition,” explains Julian May from the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His paper on inequities in malnutrition among children under five was part of a broader study which sought to identify the effect of income and poverty on measures of child well-being in South Africa. “Research has shown that experiencing malnutrition in a child’s first five years reduces their potential for cognitive development and therefore their ability to engage in the labour market and perform well in the future.”

Legacy issues
And so the cycle of poverty continues. Moreover, it is clearly divided along racial lines. The fact that almost 90% of black children are poor compared to only 10% of white children shows just how lasting a legacy apartheid has left in perpetuating inequality in South Africa. Historic patterns of migration still dominate: parents go work in the cities and their children remain ‘at home’ in the rural areas. Nearly a quarter of all children in South Africa do not live with either of their biological parents, for a range of reasons from orphaning to adult migration, and are cared for almost entirely by relatives. This explains the persistence of child poverty and inequality, but the severity is directly related to the fact that over a third of children live in households where no adults are employed.

“It is important to understand children’s household and care contexts because many of the policies, interventions and benefits for children are targeted via their households, parents or caregivers, like social grants,” explain Hall and Wright. “Millions of children are cared for in households that have no income from employment, and the implications of this are enormous because there are no social grants for the unemployed,” says Hall.

“Social grants are critical for reducing poverty levels, but the widest reaching grant, the child support grant, makes a relatively small impact on child poverty because the amount of the grant is set very low (R260 per month). “Many of these unemployed households are likely to include pensioners—and larger grants like the old age pension (R1 140 per month) have a far greater effect on reducing child poverty, even though they are not intended for children.”

Nevertheless, May’s study reveals that there has been an improvement in the nutritional status of children living in the poorest households of South Africa and this is at least in part due to the impact of social grants. These are all crucial factors to consider if we want to address the deep roots and intergenerational cycle of poverty. But there is another, and equally important, reason we need to prioritise children; and that is because, as Hall points out, we have a moral imperative to do so. “This is not a matter of benevolence or choice. It is a promise that is written into the Constitution. Children have rights and it is our duty to protect those rights if we are to achieve the socially just society that was envisaged for a democratic South Africa.”

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a sponsored feature

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