Understanding Child and Family Poverty: An Introduction to Some Key Themes and Issues

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Elizabeth Fernandez, Anat Zeira, Tiziano Vecchiato and Cinzia Canali (eds.)Theoretical and Empirical Insights into Child and Family PovertyChildren’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research1010.1007/978-3-319-17506-5_1

1. Understanding Child and Family Poverty: An Introduction to Some Key Themes and Issues

Elizabeth Fernandez 

School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, G56 Morven Brown Building, Kensington, NSW, 2052, Australia



Elizabeth Fernandez

Child and family povertyDeprivationSocial exclusionInternationalChild wellbeing

The international community has been struggling for decades with debates about poverty and strategies for its alleviation. This edited collection represents conceptual and empirical work from around the world on the experience of poverty and its impact on children, families and communities. It represents work from researchers, academics, practitioners and policy experts bringing together global trends in conceptual, methodological, policy and program interventions in relation to poverty and notably child and youth poverty. These issues of child and youth poverty are somewhat hidden in the broader conceptual and methodological debates of international social science about global and national poverty. The advances in explanation and intervention will be of substantial interest to readers across the world as will the outcomes that are being achieved. Child poverty is pervasive and persistent throughout the world (Save the Children 2012; UNICEF 2012). Although poverty in Western industrialized countries doesn’t compare with the extremes of deprivation faced by many developing countries, it does seriously affect children and families in many countries of the developed world (Alkire and Santos 2010). Evidence reviewed from both developing and developed countries alike, confirms substantial numbers of children continue to experience poverty, deprivation and social exclusion with their basic rights compromised (UNICEF 2012; Gordon et al. 2003; Busby and Busby 1996; Pells 2011; ACOSS 2014; Sandbaek 2013). Further this evidence reveals a strong focus on monetary and non-monetary dimensions which are known to have an impact on child poverty (UNICEF 2007). In contrast to some definitions of poverty which focus narrowly on income and economic hardship, others (e.g. European Union and Australia) highlight social inclusion/exclusion as crucial issues to be addressed by policy.

There is increasing awareness of the impact of inequality and social exclusion and the need for attention to children and families in the poorest groups who are the most difficult to reach, and who are the focus of social services and research. Poverty is the result of many overlapping dimensions of deprivation and non-fulfilment of children’s rights (Minujin and Nandy 2012). There is a growing emphasis on children’s rights, children’s agency and children’s subjective wellbeing in the context of understanding poverty and addressing poverty alleviation and social exclusion (Kahn and Kamerman 2002; Bradshaw 2010; Pemberton et al. 2012; Redmond 2008; Ben-Arieh 2010).

Poverty makes its influence felt in every aspect of a child’s life. Apart from the harm done to children through a lack of resources for full social participation, their education and health are seriously compromised (Bradbury 2007). Education of children living in poverty is an area of great concern. The socioeconomic environment of children has a strong impact on engagement and achievement in schooling (Wang and Holcombe 2010). The health poverty nexus alerts us to the social impact of ill health arising from material and nutritional deprivation, inadequate housing, homelessness and unsafe neighbourhoods (Yoshikawa et al. 2012; Blackburn 1991; Chen et al. 2007). Evidence from the UK, the USA and Australia shows a relationship between low socioeconomic status, homelessness and poor health of children and a link between low socioeconomic status and inferior healthcare. The link between poverty and maltreatment and the over representation of socioeconomically disadvantaged families in child protection and out of home care systems is also documented (Besharov and Laumann 1997; Drake and Pandey 1996; Pelton 1989).

The impact of poverty is experienced in different and unique ways during the life course, and particular groups may be more vulnerable than others. For instance impoverished environments experienced by children in the early years affect not only early developmental outcomes, but have continuing impact on later years (Melchior et al. 2007; Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal 2009). Researchers and policy makers have increasingly recognized the importance of the early years and the considerable developmental disadvantage children from low income families experience (Duncan et al. 1998). In both developed and developing countries, early intervention, particularly education programs have been an important policy response to the evidence relating to the significance of the early childhood years (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997; Karoly et al. 2005; Fernandez 2014).

The need for such interventions also extends into youth (Garcia Bacete et al. 2014). The vulnerabilities of youth in the transition to adulthood arising from family change and family stress is also well documented. A large number of youth living in poverty are victims of structural changes in family, inadequacies of social care, some entering the labour market or choosing to leave prematurely because of economic stress or conflict. Many are forced to transition out of out-of-home care with inadequate supports. Their journeys through these circumstances often begin at early ages and are exacerbated by the material and emotional hardship they experience during their youth and into adulthood. The impact of such youth based social exclusion and poverty on families can also be devastating (Stein 2012; Chamberlain and Johnson 2013).

The challenging environments in which families and children find themselves today means that multiple strategies are needed to combat social exclusion, adverse health, poor education and other outcomes associated with transient and persistent poverty (Ghate and Hazel 2002). Various policies, program initiatives and research agendas have emerged to address the issues that give rise to poverty. The evidence of the effectiveness of these responses to tackle poverty and assess need is also the subject of evaluations to identify short and long term outcomes.

Assumptions about the causes of poverty, factors that shape poverty, and theories of change are also debated and serve to underpin policy responses that either emphasise individual responsibility, or inform politically liberal views that advocate and support change to economic and social institutions that lead to poverty, recognizing individuals are limited by the opportunities available to them (Bradshaw 2006; Huston 2011).

1.1 About This International Collection

This volume grew out of the 2013 Annual Seminar of the International Association for Outcome-Based Evaluation and Research on Family and Children’s Services (iaOBERfcs)1 held at the Haruv Institute at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem building on discussions on poverty at the previous annual seminar in Glasgow. The Association’s focus on poverty emanated from a growing awareness that poverty is a recurrent theme in research and practice in the human services, and a conviction of the need to integrate knowledge of poverty into its research agenda and the analysis of social concerns. This international collection on poverty designed to re-ignite interest in issues of poverty and its impact on children, youth and families is assembled to coincide with the fiftieth Anniversary of The Fondazione Emanuela Zancan which hosts iaOBERfcs.

This edited collection brings together a range of theoretical and empirical perspectives on conceptualization, measurement, multidimensional impacts, and policy and service responses to address child and family poverty. It takes a wide ranging approach to integrating theoretical and empirical analyses with anti-poverty programs, poverty alleviation policy responses and practice interventions. It brings together the voices of different stakeholders, children and families, practitioners, policy makers and researchers. Issues and trends are illuminated through country level chapters to shed light on dynamics of poverty in different jurisdictions. The approach taken documents poverty outcomes through an economic and a social lens drawing on multiple methods and indicators to illuminate the multidimensional nature of poverty, its manifestations and deleterious effects, and to identify those at most risk. Chapters have a combination of theoretical, methodological, policy and practice level content.

Collectively material in this book reflects three strands of work. Early chapters canvas key debates around definition, conceptualization, measurement, and theoretical and ideological positions. The relationships between child poverty and children’s rights, and child poverty and children’s subjective wellbeing are also crafted into these chapters. Building on the above themes the second strand of work represented in the book covers impacts of poverty on specific domains of children’s and families’ experience using snapshots from specific countries and geographic regions. These include issues related to health, housing, education, maltreatment, and out of home care. Impacts are also structured around life stages, and specific vulnerable population groups who experience entrenched inequalities and disadvantage. Methodologies eliciting children’s, youth and family perspectives are effectively integrated here.

A third focus illuminates programs, policies and interventions to address poverty and its impact. These chapters showcase innovative, holistic, strength-based programs and interventions that attempt to de silo issues of poverty, homelessness, child maltreatment, and violence and foster community building. Specific interventions, programs and policies aimed at responding to children and families and communities and how they are, or might be evaluated, are incorporated. Policy frameworks, theoretical concepts, empirical data and value positions are considered in relation to the issues in focus, while highlighting inherent challenges and barriers to achieving outcomes, and presenting key strategies to enhance outcomes. Cross national case studies and evaluations illustrate the diversity of approaches and outcomes.

Contributors to this collection are internationally recognised researchers who have contributed in significant ways to knowledge building in their respective countries. There are some of the most respected and distinguished academics in poverty research, social justice and social policy who have made life long theoretical and empirical contributions to these subjects. We are however aware of having omitted other significant work by experts in this field. It is beyond the scope of this book to include the extensive body of research in this burgeoning field and to represent all countries. A further caveat is that while we have selected work from different countries and regions we have not addressed the transferability of concepts, policies and research conclusions. We hope that readers will exercise judgement about the applicability and relevance of content to their specific context.