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Defining Poverty and Child Poverty

What is poverty?

The most common definition of poverty gives us an economic answer — living on less than $2.15 a day. This earned income poverty measure establishes poverty rates for communities and countries based on income inequality and financially drawn poverty lines.

What is child poverty?

In the context of poverty as income disparity, child poverty typically gets defined as children living in low income families at or below this poverty line. However, it’s important to realize that an economic view of child poverty is incomplete.

If poverty is strictly about finances, spending money to address the problem wouldn't just reduce the child poverty rate, it would end deep poverty altogether. But when we consider what actually causes poverty, we realize money is only part of the solution, particularly when children are involved.

Because poverty impacts a child’s development, it affects a child's entire experience of the world by shaping the child’s attitude, behaviors, beliefs, and dreams, as well as the child's physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

1 in 3
live in poverty1

living on less than $2.15 a day are children1

die each day2

Source: UNICEF

How Does Poverty Affect Children?

In the United States, we often think of childhood as a time of innocence. It’s a time for learning, a time for play, a time for exploring the world and all the possibilities it offers you.

Children living in poverty don’t have that experience. Their world is not a kind, caring place. In their world, they struggle to survive.

Growing up in poverty injures a child’s emotional and physical well-being. When early childhood development is hampered, we see a host of long-term effects.

Children living in poverty are more likely to develop chronic illnesses, due to a lack of adequate nutrition and health care early in life. Anxiety, fear, and a lack of self-confidence can keep them from pursuing new opportunities. If they are abused or taken advantage of, they often don’t have the skills or resources to speak up for themselves, and can easily be ignored, which leads to more abuse.

Growing up in poverty also affects a child’s psychology. Children who might have otherwise grown up confident and secure instead believe the world wants them to fail. So they do. They stop trying to make life better. They give up. What’s the point, they ask—this is how life is supposed to be.

Children living in poverty grow up in a set of circumstances that teaches them hopelessness. They grow up believing that the world doesn’t get better, and their situation is never going to change. It didn’t change for their parents, it wasn’t any different for their grandparents, and their own children will be poor children.

What are the effects of poverty on child development?

The effects of poverty on children are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Consider the different types of poverty and how they can influence and impact a child's life.

Social poverty, including being undervalued and denied basic rights, influences the view children have of themselves, as well as their ability to connect with others. As children approach adolescence and then adulthood, they can become disconnected and isolated, and often become easy targets of abuse.

Educational poverty, including lack of access to education or vocational training, makes the future seem as bleak and dark as the present. Education helps children dream. It opens up a world beyond the one they see, and encourages them to try new things, experiment, and grow. It also provides marketable skills. Without these skills, children are unlikely to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Health poverty, including physical and emotional health, impacts a child’s quality of life. The first five years of life are critical to child development. Lack of proper nutrition, illness, and disease can cause permanent physical damage, or worse, death. Health problems also impact emotional health. It’s very hard to do anything when you don’t feel well.

Spiritual poverty, or the belief that you are worthless, is one of the most insidious lies of poverty. It destroys hope, and without hope, how do you find the strength to work, to play, to connect, to love, and to be loved? When children grow up believing the lie that they are worthless, it can take an excruciatingly long time to dismantle that lie and show them that they truly do matter.

Environmental poverty, including things like drought, famine, lack of nutrition and a lack of clean water, can cause or exacerbate health problems. This creates a vicious cycle, because illness makes it hard to work or learn, which in turn feeds the hopeless situation. Environmental factors like war and lack of housing expose children in poverty to additional risks. They become the easy targets of abuse and exploitation.

Economic poverty, or a lack of financial resources, underlies all the other characteristics of poverty just mentioned, and can fuel feelings of anger and desperation.

What Does Child Poverty Look Like?

Poverty affects what childhood looks like. To be a child in poverty means to live without. Without resources. Without choices. Without a voice. Without hope. Poverty is a life defined by what isn’t there.

Think about these common experiences that children in poverty face on a day-to-day basis.

Child poverty is…

…going to bed with a rumbling tummy, the same way you always do, and having no idea if you’ll get to eat anything tomorrow.

…hiding when you get hurt, because you don’t want your mom to worry about you or feel guilty that she can’t afford to take you to see the doctor.

…wondering if you should steal food to feed your baby sister. You don’t want to be a thief, but your sister’s been crying and shaking for four days because she’s so hungry, and you want to help.

…putting buckets around the house to catch the rain that leaks through the holes in the roof.

…walking everywhere you need to go and hoping the drivers and bicyclists don’t hit you. You have to walk in the road because there are no sidewalks.

…not having any protection when someone hits you, hurts you, or steals from you.

…being scared all the time because you’re powerless. If someone does something awful to you, what you are going to do about it? You have to take it. You have no choice. You have no voice.

…taking care of younger siblings, even when you’re 3, 4, or 5 years old.

…never thinking about what you want to be when you grow up. To children born in poverty, this question about the future is confusing. Why would anyone think about something so vague? You’re hungry, cold, and forgotten. That’s what you think about.

Poor children experience all these things and more.

Poverty deeply damages a young person’s physical, social, and emotional development. But it doesn’t have to.

A somber-looking child stands in the doorway next to an alley

Why is Child Poverty a Problem?

Child poverty is a problem because it steals hope. Children born into poverty live lives defined by what they don’t have. Every child is born creative. Each one has a unique personality, a powerful voice, and skills that are waiting to be developed. Poverty steals that. It tells children a lie. Poverty says, “You’re worthless. No one will listen to you. No one cares about you. Life is never going to get better.”

Hopelessness is the great lie of poverty. Child poverty is an especially hard problem, because children born into poverty have never experienced the freedom that comes with having choices and resources. All they know is deprivation.

As they grow up, they take these beliefs and experiences into adulthood and an ingrained belief system that takes a very long time to unravel.

At the same time, offering holistic care to a child in poverty has incredible power. Breaking the cycle of deprivation, desperation and hopelessness offers poor children opportunities for growth, like education and vocational training, and offers safe spaces that foster emotional and spiritual healing. It helps untangle the lies of worthlessness before they take root and grow.

Releasing children from poverty is why we were founded by Rev. Everett Swanson. It’s why we’ve adopted a holistic child development model that is supported by child sponsorship, and it’s why we work with children some of the world’s poorest countries.

What Can I Do to Help Reduce Child Poverty?

Given the level of poverty around the world, it’s easy to look at child poverty and feel hopeless. Poverty reduction can seem impossible. But the truth is that child poverty isn’t an impossible problem. The answer is holistic or whole-life care. It’s a long-term, comprehensive approach addressing all types of poverty. It’s the work we have been committed to since 1952.

Sponsor a child through our holistic child development program. Children in our sponsorship programs receive care for their social, educational, health, spiritual, environmental, and economic needs.


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1 “Child Poverty.” UNICEF, Feb. 2020, www.unicef.org/social-policy/child-poverty.

2 “Child Mortality.” UNICEF DATA, Sept. 2019, data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/.