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10 Ways Poverty Affects Children

Poverty affects children each and every moment of their lives. Its effects build and build, intensifying the damage and destruction as the child grows older.

Once the deprivation of poverty has grabbed hold, it’s difficult to free a child. Successful interventions to save children approach the problem of poverty holistically, which is why our child development model addresses the physical, social, emotional, economic and spiritual needs of children living in extreme poverty.

  • Poverty stunts physical growth and development.
  • Poverty hinders social and emotional development.
  • Poverty shortens life expectancy.
  • Poverty inflates infant and child mortality rates.
  • Poverty increases the likelihood a child will have a chronic health condition.
  • Poverty ravages children with preventable diseases.
  • Poverty creates, perpetuates and widens achievement gaps.
  • Poverty increases parent stress and impairs parenting practices.
  • Poverty introduces hunger, neglect, insecurity and instability into children's lives.
  • Poverty increases the violence children personally experience and witness.

How Does Poverty Affect a Child's Development?

Inequality starts at birth, but poverty attacks and affects children before they’re even born.

Starting in the womb, issues such as maternal malnutrition and disease often compromise an infant’s ability to survive. Premature birth, which significantly diminishes a child’s chance of survival for children in low- and middle-income countries, is common to the global poor with about 10 percent of babies born prematurely each year.1

Assuming a child survives the birth experience, his or her need to fight for life continues. In 2018, an estimated 2.5 million children died in their first month of life.2 That’s approximately 7,000 babies every day. Most of them died in their first week of life; 1 million died on their first day, and another 1 million died within the next six days.2

"Deaths in the first month of life, which are mostly preventable, represent 47 percent of total deaths among children under five." — UNICEF
A smiling mother holding her baby

Our Survival initiative focuses on promoting development and survival of the most vulnerable babies while also providing education and support for the mother or primary caregiver.

Compassion Survival helps babies and mothers in poverty by:
  • Arranging for birth attendants to assist mothers during childbirth.
  • Providing education in prenatal care and early child rearing.
  • Offering connection and support from other moms to combat isolation, insecurity and anxiety.
  • Assisting financially with medical treatments and care.
  • Monitoring and supporting the growth of the child.

Any developmental gaps that appear in early childhood grow wider if left unaddressed. Children who lag behind in learning, knowledge and socio-emotional development find it increasingly difficult to catch up. Any lack in early childhood development can close doors later in life, trapping them in a life without resources, support, opportunity, and hope for improvement or change.

Growing up in poverty increases the physical and emotional stress in a child’s life. Lack of economic resources within a family increases a child’s vulnerability to exploitation, including child labor and trafficking.

This stress can also prompt negative biological changes in the cardiovascular, immune, neuroendocrine and cortical systems, which can have long-term implications for learning, decision-making and overall health and well-being.

Poor children also experience a disproportionate amount of neglect and social deprivation thanks to poverty. They are less likely to feel valued and loved. They often have lower self-esteem, less self-confidence, and greater incidences of mental health problems. They feel unsafe, marginalized, exceedingly vulnerable, and constantly threatened.

Children living in poverty are also more likely to be exposed to environmental toxins and other hazards, including crime and violence. Consider growing up in a slum without proper sanitation and clean water, where alcoholism, gang violence and drugs are prevalent. Even if not directly caught up in any violence, simply witnessing it, especially regularly, can adversely affect child development.

In the context of poverty, a holistic approach to child development is especially powerful. Breaking the cycle of deprivation, desperation and hopelessness offers poor children positive opportunities for growth. It helps untangle the culture of poverty and the lie of worthlessness before it can strangle a child.

What is the Culture of Poverty?

The culture of poverty is essentially the environment that a person lives in, the soil that either allows poverty to take root or prevents it from doing so.

Culture includes tangible elements, such as: living conditions and infrastructure, environmental circumstances, and access to social services, health care, education, food, clean water and proper sanitation facilities, etc. It also includes less tangible elements, such as: aspiration, diligence, self-esteem and self-confidence, leadership potential, and personal values, to name a few.

Individually, these internal and external factors are often used as justifications to explain the causes of poverty and why a person, family or community is poor.

To fight poverty we must understand it. Compassion Alumni Olive Aneno describes what poverty it, the effects of poverty on the poor, and the importance of hope in their lives.

How Does Poverty Affect Children's Health?

The likelihood of lifelong health or illness is set in childhood. A healthy diet throughout childhood and life protects against nutritional imbalances, malnutrition and malnourishment, as well as chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

A developing body that is given the food and nutrition needed to grow and thrive will develop a foundation for a sturdy brain architecture and the accompanying range of broad physical, social, and emotional skills. And optimal nutrition is particularly important in the first years of life. Without a nutrient-rich diet, children are more likely to die before reaching age 5. More than five million children died before the age of 5 in 20183, and 45 percent of those deaths were linked to undernutrition.4

Because children growing up in poverty don’t get the food and nutrition they need to develop properly, tens of millions of children under age 5 are severely wasted (low weight-for-height) and hundreds of millions are stunted (low height-for-age).4

Additionally, poor children are more likely to live with food insecurity, not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food that allows them to remain healthy and lead an active life. Sponsor a child with Compassion International today and give children living in poverty access to healthcare, food, and basic necessities.

Food insecurity affects about nine percent of the global population, with hundreds of millions of children experiencing hunger as a result.


Child Poverty and Mental Health

The consequences of not addressing the mental health needs of children in poverty shorten their life expectancy and impair them as adults, limiting the possibility for them to lead fulfilling lives.

  • Mental health conditions account for 16 percent of the global burden of disease and injury in children aged 10–19 years.5
  • Childhood behavioral disorders are the second leading cause of disease burden in children aged 10–14 years.5
  • Nearly 90 percent of the world’s adolescents live in low-or middle-income countries and more than 90 percent of adolescent suicides are among adolescents living in those countries.5

Childhood and adolescence are crucial times for developing habits important for physical, emotional and mental well-being. Poverty amplifies the difficulties, challenges, stress, and trauma directed against babies, young children and adolescents at a time when they are unequipped or completely unable to handle them, which is why early childhood interventions, youth development programs, and programs that help provide a stable environment for children to grow up in are vital.

Help us reduce the common mental health struggles in children in poverty by sponsoring a child.

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What are the Effects of Poverty on Children's Education?

When it comes to education, poverty creates and widens achievement gaps. It causes children to underachieve in school and to have greater difficulty finding employment as adults. It denies poor children access to resources and limits educational opportunities; poor children are disproportionately less likely to attend school than their peers.

"Consider two children born in 2000, one in a very high human development country, the other in a low human development country. Today the first has a more than 50-50 chance of being enrolled in higher education: More than half of 20-year-olds in very high human development countries are in higher education. In contrast, the second is much less likely to be alive. Some 17 percent of children born in low human development countries in 2000 will have died before age 20, compared with just 1 percent of children born in very high human development countries. The second child is also unlikely to be in higher education: In low human development countries only 3 percent are."6

Tens of millions of children around the world have no access to education. And tens of millions more children aren’t benefiting from their time in school.

Inequalities in income, gender, culture and health deny children in poverty the basic human right of education. Unable to attend school and on the margins of society, these children do not develop intellectually and socially, and do not have the skills necessary to improve their circumstances as they grow up.

Poor children who do attend school have more difficulty developing intellectually and cognitively as well. Living conditions including substandard housing and homelessness, along with inadequate or non-existent access to health care, and poor nutrition and hunger contribute to childhood disease and sicknesses, as well as wasting and stunting, all of which hampers a child’s physical and cognitive development.

Poverty, and all the ills associated with it, such as hunger, disease, inequality, violence, exploitation, and unemployment, increase the risk of non-schooling and increase the school drop-out rates. Poverty takes away the opportunity for a quality education. It limits future potential. It increases risk for trafficking and exploitation. It prevents children from dreaming and hoping for a better life, trapping them in a life of misery. And the trap can extend to their children and last generations more. For only $43 per month, you can sponsor a child's education and give them access to everything they need to succeed in school.

"Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope…For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right."

— Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

What is the Impact of Poverty on Behavior?

As poverty negatively affects a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, children living in poverty are more likely to feel their lives are out of control and to have poor emotional and behavioral self-control. They are at higher risk for behavior issues and conduct disorders, including academic disciplinary problems in elementary and middle school and delinquency in adolescence. Poor children also experience higher levels of anxiety and depression and often develop a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

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What are the Effects of Poverty on Child Development?

Children living in poverty are neglected, undervalued and denied basic rights. They often don’t have access to education or vocational training either. This negatively influences how they feel about themselves, makes it difficult to have healthy relationships with others, and makes it almost impossible to take care of themselves and their families when they are adults.

As teenagers, and on into adulthood, children with low self-esteem and self-confidence can become disconnected, isolated, angry and desperate. They often lose hope and become easy targets of abuse and exploitation.

Environmental aspects of poverty, like drought, famine, dirty water, inadequate sanitation, war, and natural disasters exacerbate health problems and already difficult living conditions. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty, because illness makes it hard to learn, work, or find healthy food, which in turn feeds disease, hopelessness and marginalization.

When this environmental stress is persistent and prolonged, the body responds with toxic levels of stress hormones which can further disrupt and impair social, emotional and cognitive development.

What are the Effects of Child Poverty on Society?

In 2000, the United Nations identified eight contributors to human suffering; one of the eight causes was poverty.

Along with hunger, inequality, infectious diseases and child mortality, poverty affects our ability to create a sustainable future for our children. Child poverty tears children down through lack of food, clothing, medical care, education, and work opportunities. It marginalizes and traumatizes children, creates dependencies, and fosters a society that feeds upon its weakest members.

What Can We Do to Stop Child Poverty?

Given the level of poverty around the world, it’s easy to look at child poverty in the world and feel hopeless. But child poverty isn’t an impossible problem. Our long-term, comprehensive approach to save children addresses each of the types of poverty.

When you sponsor a child through our holistic child development program or donate to help meet critical needs, you’re helping reduce the consequences of child poverty in Jesus’ name.

Your sponsorship or donation reduces the side effects of poverty by ensuring that each child in our program receives care for their social, educational, health, spiritual, environmental, and economic needs.

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Sources for Child Poverty Facts and the Effects of Poverty on Families and Children:

1 Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Bernadeta Dadonaite (2020) - "Child and Infant Mortality". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality' [Online Resource]

2 "Newborn Care." UNICEF DATA, Oct. 2019, data.unicef.org/topic/maternal-health/newborn-care/.

3 "Children: Reducing Mortality." World Health Organization, 19 Sept. 2019, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/children-reducing-mortality.

4 "Malnutrition." World Health Organization, 16 Feb. 2018, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition.

5 "Adolescent Mental Health." World Health Organization, 23 Oct. 2019, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health.

6 2019 Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program.