Tackling Child Poverty in the Twenty–first Century, February 8, 2012On Wednesday, February 8, Equity for Children at The New School presented a symposium entitled Tackling Child Poverty in the Twenty-First Century by the Young Lives Project , a group of researchers at the University of Oxford. Co-hosted with The City University of New York (CUNY) and Rutgers University’s Department of Childhood Studies, the discussions offered a unique opportunity to learn about emerging trends from Young Lives’ ongoing longitudinal study of 12,000 individuals conducted over 15 years in four countries: India, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Peru. Those in attendance represented policy makers and academics from around the world who are dedicated to alleviating childhood poverty.
The Young Lives study is unique in its scope, length and its focus on the children in the developing world. Not only does the study promise to present a tremendous wealth of information, but also offers the opportunity to transform the way policy makers think about and analyze issues related to childhood poverty.s
Dr. Jo Boyden, Director of Young Lives, University of Oxford, launched the session by offering the idea that policy makers tend to address children through individual sectors that often fail to coordinate effectively to describe and address children’s needs. The Young Lives study attempts to provide information to bridge these gaps and promote policies that are more reflective of the challenges impoverished children face. This framework enableresearchers and policy makers to trace the intersections of multiple forms of deprivation and understand how poverty and inequality are transmitted generationally. The approach attempts to combine policy with, as Dr. Boyden explains, “the lives that are lived”.
Panelists identified the gap between policy at the international and national level, which depict the needs of children as universal, offering solutions that tend to be rigid and indicative of a fundamentalist approach to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Instead, the researchers assert, due to the world’s rapid economic growth and globalization, childhood is quite variable both socially and spatially. For example, respondents indicate that education programs and targets often embrace universal standards for school attendance that are inflexible and prove to be incompatible with poorer children’s important roles as caregivers and earners within the household.
The Young Lives study aims to provide better evidence of the actual rhythms of children’s lives in the context of their families, in order to better address the real needs of poor children. Dr. Boyden pointed out that policy often targets risks to young and adolescent girls that are not necessarily shared by parents, and may be perceived as dismissive of parents’ concerns about the social issues their daughters face by forsaking their traditional roles in order to obtain an education.
Young Lives Researchers Paul Dornan, Senior Policy Officer , and Andreas Georgiadis, Research Officer , spoke about the rapid economic growth experienced by all four countries since the study began in 2002, and its effect on the research and analysis. They noted the resulting positive effects in the lives of children, such as decreased stunting in all countries except India, increased levels of household consumption, and increased school enrollment rates across the board. These gains, however, often mask growing inequalities such as the poorest children frequently gaining the least and the least needy benefitting most.
Dr. Georgiadis emphasized that persistent inequality on one dimension can lead to persistent inequality on another. He referred specifically to stunting, which has been shown to predict poor cognitive performance later in life. Stunting at age 8 is linked to increased rates of lower self-esteem and lower aspiration levels at age 12. Both negatively impact adult performance in the labor market.
Dr. Martin Woodhead, Professor of Childhood Studies at The Open University , spoke about public and private education and their value for parents and children. Despite assumptions that parents may fail to understand the benefits of educating children, and therefore block enrollment, Young Lives research shows that parents are in fact very aware of, and optimistic about, the benefits of education. Their active search for better schools is described by Dr. Woodhead as a major reason for the growth of private schools in India. The privatization trend has important ramifications for the international community’s attempt to ensure universal education through partnerships with national governments. It has the potential to further exacerbate inequalities if public education is increasingly abandoned.
The panelists noted that a growing gender gap exists in both private and public schools, with poorer families increasingly sending sons to private schools and daughters to public schools. In interviews with parents about how they determine who to send to private school, gender was rarely mentioned as a deciding factor. This illustrates another theme raised several times in the discussion: gender discrimination is not expressed in a simplistic fashion, but is instead reflected in parents’ economic rationality and their desire to protect their daughters both physically and socially.
Another important aspect of the Young Lives study is the qualitative interviews with children about their personal feelings and understanding the poverty they experience. The study reveals that children often define poverty differently than adults do. They do not worry as much about potential environmental and economic shocks as their parents, but are much more concerned with chronic illness within their households. They reflect much more frequently on the pain of social isolation and stigmatization. The voices of these children offer a unique opportunity to move beyond the technical face of deprivation and gain an understanding of how these impacts are internalized and interpreted by children.
Professor Alberto Minujin from Equity for Children and the New School Graduate Program in International Affairs responded, challenging participants to question whether rather than talking about poor children and their circumstances, we should look at how the structures of society and economics reinforce inequalities. He drew attention to the need to analyze horizontal and vertical inequalities (both across societies and across the life-course) and commented that intra-household analysis of this type develops unique survey evidence.
A wide-ranging and lively discussion ensued, particularly around growth and disparities that are emerging between different groups but also within urban areas (which will be a focus of the forthcoming UNICEF report on the State of the World’s Children). Young Lives is a multidimensional study. Most policymaking for children, however, occurs in sectoral ministries or silos within international organizations, making it difficult to generate policies that work together instead of competing for resources.
A comparison was drawn between some of the approaches that have been adopted in relation to children’s rights and a recent strategy adopted for women’s rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in which the ‘venacularization’ of human rights at the local level was bringing about gradual alignment of local and globalized values. From a child-rights perspective, it is important to develop child protection policies that recognize on-the-ground realities, enabling families to do the best for their children rather than making use of punitive measures to regulate their decisions and actions.
A final comment was made about how poverty can be defined to widen this to include other indicators alongside economic ones – to reflect participation or powerlessness.
For those of our viewers that could not attend the panel discussion ‘Tackling Child Poverty in the Twenty-first Century’, the presentations given on February 8th at The New School can be downloaded HERE .
A 10-minute video synopsis of the panel discussion is also available via Equity for Children’s YouTube channel, as linked HERE.