Health and Nutrition Fund

The Disease of Poverty

Poverty is a disease. It steals opportunity, kills the most vulnerable and destroys the lives of people living in its grip.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, nearly 30% of humanity bore the triple burden of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.1 The disparities and inequality in public health care that translated to shorter life expectancies then continue to stalk the poor today. They're made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and health poverty crisis.

The World Bank estimates that the coronavirus pandemic and global recession will cause over 1.4% of the world's population (88 million to 115 million) to fall into extreme poverty.2 The first increase in the global poverty rate in more than 20 years,2 and a clear illustration for the connectivity and relationship between poverty and health.

The Relationship Between Poverty and Health

The disadvantages poverty present to poor children born in low- and middle-income countries only grow larger as the children age. Poor children that fall behind during early stages of child development face considerable challenges trying to catch up. They become victims of a health-poverty trap without resources, support or hope for change.

Getting sick or experiencing a health emergency while living in poverty highlights the inequalities facing the poor, including lack of access to health care, affordable medication and basic lifesaving interventions. Poverty prevents children living in poverty from developing in a healthy manner, and unhealthy children are unequipped to overcome the obstacles poverty places before them socially, emotionally and economically.

Quite simply, a healthy child can perform better in school, enjoy a more productive adult life as a result, and someday raise their own children with better health outcomes because the generational cycle of poverty can be broken when a child is and remains healthy.

Why Does Poverty Cause Poor Health?

Poverty is a health risk factor, and the relationship and risk between poverty and health starts in the womb. Malnutrition in the mother harms the development of the fetus and contributes to low birth weight, which translates to shorter life expectancies for children born into extreme poverty.

Assuming a newborn survives the higher-risk birth experience, because of the health disparities and inequity in public health care compared to high-income countries, he or she still needs to fight to live.

Nearly half of deaths to children under age 5 occur in the first 28 days of life.3 And newborns in low-income countries are much more likely to die in the first month of life than newborns in middle-and high-income countries.

The fight for life continues further into the first several years of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 27 children die, mostly from preventable and treatable causes, before reaching age 5,3 and nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45% of the deaths.3

If a child is able to escape this reality, malnutrition has often left him or her with impaired cognitive abilities that hinder learning and school performance, subsequently affecting the child’s future quality of life and income earning potential. A child that grows up malnourished in extreme poverty is often an adult struggling to survive and provide for a family on a low income.

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.

Proper nutrition, especially during early childhood development, is a key determinant of health for establishing a child’s short-and long-term health outcomes. Any developmental gaps that appear in early childhood grow wider if left unaddressed. Without adequate nutrition, a child grows up with a weakened immune system, which contributes to a vicious cycle of infection and undernourishment that makes children more vulnerable to disease and death.

For children who avoid undernourishment or malnutrition and survive past their fifth birthday, the two-way relationship between poverty and health continues to harm them. Growing up in poverty increases the emotional and physical stress in a child’s life and can cause mental health issues. Aside from the worry, fear, insecurity and vulnerability, feelings of being unsafe and constant threats of violence and exploitation can place a child into constant survival mode. Prolonged survival mode experiences can cause negative changes in a child's immune, neuroendocrine and cortical systems, which can have long-term consequences for overall well-being, decision-making and learning.

The Health-Poverty Trap

How Does Poor Health Contribute to a Person's Inability to Escape Poverty?

Poor health makes it extremely difficult to escape poverty. Poor health reduces a family’s opportunity and ability to work and generate income. In most areas experiencing extreme levels of child poverty, there is no health insurance or access to health care. This means that when a child is sick, families may have to sell their assets to afford treatment. This increases the hold poverty has on the family and makes the family even more vulnerable to hardship.

When a family lacks economic resources, the children become vulnerable to exploitation, such as trafficking and child labor. Assuming they avoid the predatory violence directed against children, the children often grow into adults that pass on the cycle of low education, low wages and poverty to their children.

How Does Access to Health Care Help Reduce Poverty?

Access to health care facilitates good health through regular medical checkups, regular oral and vision care, vaccinations, basic and emergency medical treatments, medicine and lifesaving surgeries.

With access to affordable health care, proper nutrition, clean water and proper sanitation and hygiene facilities, good health gives a poor child the ability to survive long enough to complete primary school, obtain a higher education, earn a higher wage, and eventually pass this success onto his or her own children.

The Preamble of the WHO Constitution defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity," and the WHO Constitution claims the highest possible standard of health as a fundamental human right for everyone.

How Can We Safeguard the Health of Children in Poverty and Break the Cycle of Poverty?

As individuals, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such harrowing health and poverty facts and statistics, but together we can make a difference in the lives of children in poverty.

Developing physically healthy children, as well as children who are socially, emotionally and spiritually healthy, is a core aspect of our holistic child development model, and as the world’s leading authority in holistic child development through sponsorship, we understand that keeping children healthy reduces the hold poverty has on them.

Compassion and its local church partners in low- and middle-income countries track the key health indicators of children in their programs to ensure that the children are developing in a healthy manner. Successful health outcomes and healthy development is measured in numerous ways.

For example, successful health outcomes for infants, babies and toddlers in Compassion Survival include:

  • Attaining healthy physical development benchmarks.
  • Demonstrating age-appropriate curiosity and self-confidence in interacting and communicating with the world around them.
  • Enjoying healthy age-specific relationships and interacting and communicating with the world around them.

Millions of child deaths are preventable, and millions more lives are improved dramatically simply by good health and hygiene practices. Just imagine an entire generation of nourished children growing up unhindered by their health status. These children are able to dream and thrive instead of simply survive.

Your donation to Compassion’s Health and Nutrition Initiative will join your hands with those who need your support the most and will provide:

  • Basic and emergency medical care.
  • Oral and vision care.
  • Vaccinations.
  • Malaria and HIV/AIDs interventions.
  • Therapeutic feeding and food stability initiatives.
Donate to a child's healthy future today!

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1 World Health Organization. 2000. Turning the Tide of Malnutrition: Responding to the Challenge of the 21st Century.

2 COVID-19 to Add as Many as 150 Million Extreme Poor by 2021, The World Bank, 7 Oct. 2020,

3 World Health Organization Fact Sheet. Children: improving survival and well-being. September 2020.


Please call us at 800-336-7676, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. MT, to speak with a Compassion representative.