Why Are Poor Children Always with Us? Theory, Ideology and Policy for Understanding Child Poverty

View of poverty

Social selection


Social causation









Relative deprivation








Source: (Serr 2006; DiNitto 2011)

Table 5.2
Two views of child poverty and effective policy strategies

Social selection

Social causation

Direct resources to children and their families: universal or targeted?

This view advocates means testing, residual and targeting of children’s need to particular areas or locations of low income parents or carers. In some cases education and other programs are provided to lift people out of their locational disadvantage. Nonetheless, there can be ‘territorial stigma’ and social category stigma associated with such practice notably for single parents and the unemployed

This view is concerned to move to the causative social and economic factors of poverty. It is aligned with situational, institutional and structural explanations for poverty and intervention strategies. As well as income support, key social and economic strategies for anti-poverty policy then become providing employment opportunities, formal education and adequate health and housing for those in poverty who are on welfare benefits and for the working poor

Parental employment and parenting skills

These are deemed effective because they provide work related skills and parenting skills that change the locational and intergenerational nature of poverty in communities and amongst family members and groupings

The capacity of parents to socialize their children with values about education and hard work are seen as enabling children to bring them selves out of poverty. Nonetheless there is an element within this of blaming the family for their lived conditions of poverty rather than social structural causes

Resource transfer and school policies

Again the poorer communities and their attitudes are expressed in poor engagement with education and schooling and the need to provide pathways out of poverty through formal learning and credentials

This view fits with redistribution and social capital arguments generally in anti-poverty measures in that school programs and resources provide a source of learning, community activity and possible social mobility through higher learning in the future to earning better wages

Successful policies effective future programs

Programs have been less successful underpinned by selection as they fail to fully acknowledge the barriers particularly structural in bringing children out of poverty. Nonetheless, engaging parents in school activities and partnering with parents and guardian in local communities through school and social services can provide hope and help change material circumstances encouraging parents and children to continue education, volunteer and/or find employment

Family payments schemes such as the AFDC in the USA have be successful in topping up income measures for poor families with children on the back of social security payments. Apart from income maintenance, nutrition, health and social services all provide structural redress to child poverty. Education and parent (mother) based payments in particular are effective in providing material aid and capacity building for children

In modern welfare states it is important to distinguish the types and depth of poverty through social science and the existing available data and evidence on national and global poverty. In general the contemporary European view of poverty is the one that is adopted to look at poverty rates across rich countries and related to the dynamics of social exclusion as relative poverty to the inequalities of the rest of society (Schraad-Tischler and Azahaf 2012). This view relates child poverty and relative poverty itself to exclusionary processes or the inability to participate in society and this lack of participation is due to inadequate resources (Marx et al. 2014: 5). This view ties in with social exclusion approaches and Sen’s (1999, 2009) pioneering work on the capabilities approaches to poverty. The definitions of absolute poverty as existing with basic survival needs and a subsistence level is based on the most extreme conditions of poverty in the world today commonly associated with hunger and malnutrition e.g., in India and African communities or amongst Australian remote Aborigines communities and sometimes today referred to as ‘extreme poverty’. The measurement of the levels of extreme global poverty is still contested (Deeming and Gubhaju 2014) though it is argued that relative poverty in affluent societies means that poverty is relative to one’s position in the social structure and in terms of resource distribution. The concept ‘disadvantaged’ or lower socio-economic status implies both the idea of relative advantage or social exclusion. In the English speaking welfare states it is more accepted that a set poverty line (also poverty level or index) is a measure of minimum physical survival.

Poverty is measured in OECD countries using a poverty line as well as social exclusion indicators and these are both useful and contested tools for poverty alleviation strategies and anti-poverty policy. There are also developing multidimensional measures of child poverty in order to collect more rounded and accurate data on poverty rates. In Australia the Henderson poverty line was developed in the 1970s to include the sum of the basic wage (of two parents and two dependents) plus the child endowment benefit and is still used today with some adjustments. Global poverty facts give a thumb nail sketch of the magnitude of income and wealth inequalities across societies and thereby indicate how poverty rates are an outcome of such inequalities in general. More wealth has been created in the past six decades than in all previous history and it has reduced poverty. The percentage of people living on less than $1 a day fell from 40 % in 1981 to 18 % in 2004. Nonetheless, too many people at a global and national level across both developing and developed countries still live in poverty – half a billion on $1 a day, and 2.6 billion on less than $2 a day.

As with the issue of global inequality so too poverty needs to be understood in the local context and with initiatives and program interventions around poverty reduction and also the more difficult matter of redistribution. For this to be effective on a global scale issues of development would have to be addressed whereas poverty itself is merely a symptom but potentially a devastating one for children and families in all countries (Weber and Berger 2007).

5.4 Causal Assumptions in Anti-child Poverty Programs

This Chapter draws on an Australian social policy and child and family welfare perspective. This country’s post-welfare state context is one of heavy liberalization and marketization of social policies after an auspicious beginning in the early twentieth century as a progressive social experiment in social welfare measures backed by the industrial and political labour movements over the twentieth century. In this new more efficient and lean welfare climate the means to redress, prevent or reduce policies is limited within these fiscal and relational understandings of poverty (Fenna 2004; Jamrozik 2009; Fawcett et al. 2010; Carson and Kerr 2014). As Jamrozik (2009) acknowledged the post-welfare state context of English speaking liberal states is one that is heavily privatized and oriented explicitly and implicitly to growing and not reducing inequalities and therefore poverty itself.

When the theory and ideology behind the study of child poverty is explored this raises questions not only of fact but also issues such as adequate housing, health, education, leisure, transport income and other social policies. Further, the questioning of the causes and effects of poverty also raise issues of perception and attitudes towards the lens by which we view poverty. Several different perspectives on poverty can be discerned in the social sciences and some of these are discussed below along the continuum of social selection to social causation views of poverty provided by this chapter. Tables 5.1 provides an overview of these views along this continuum and shows that some perspectives can take a more singular view of poverty and some can reflect an overlap of the social selection views with those of social causation. For example, the behavioral view is concerned with individual characteristics and motivations and could be used to advocate children like their parents have internalized a ‘learned helplessness’ about poverty.

This view seems completely unfounded given children especially young children have little control over their circumstances and harks back to English Dickensian times when children became socialized in work houses and the miseries of early nineteenth century poverty. Whereas the cultural and relative deprivation views can be both about selection and causation depending on how they are measured or analyzed. Nonetheless, children do have social agency. It is just more likely that their voices and choices in society are not heard by adults, and children in poverty are in deeply powerless positions in modern society.

An understanding of these different perspectives is important because their underlying philosophies impact on the nature of poverty, on public and social policy, and in particular on the modes of intervention and programs used to alleviate or redress poverty. Within the two perspectives on poverty in social sciences we also consider some of the possible modes of intervention and programs that have been targeted to redress or alleviate poverty that are underpinned by such perspectives. The successes and failures of policies across modern western societies are however often debated. For the remainder of this section we discuss as mentioned above three major policies: universal versus targeted resources to children and families, policies targeting parental employment and parental skills, and resource transfers and school policies.

5.4.1 Direct Resources to Children and Their Families: Universal or Targeted?

Direct resource transfers to children and families refer to governmental support in the shape of housing, food or clothing, or cash and tax benefits for children and families identified as income poor. In a longitudinal study of data from 18 Western countries Engster (2012) investigated the impact of child poverty and family policies on child poverty rates. They found that child cash and tax benefit, paid parenting leave, and public support for child care correlate significantly with lower child poverty rates. In allocating such benefits however it is important to use comprehensive measures to target impoverished families as there is a risk that welfare reforms work for children closer to the poverty line, those worse off being left behind when income poverty measures alone are used (Adelman et al. 2012). Furthermore, the use of a poverty line to define poverty is questionable in developed countries where although individuals may be identified as income poor they benefit from the welfare state in ways not available in developing countries (Sandbaek 2013). For example, a study drawing on children’s voices in a qualitative survey in Norway and Sweden found that while living with economic hardship children did not experience a lack of necessities such as food, housing and clothing. This is seen as a success of Scandinavian welfare (parents and the state taking responsibility for children’s wellbeing) (Harju and Thorod 2011). However disadvantages in education outcomes prevailed with more children living in poverty joining the labour market early and taking on more responsibilities than their better off peers.

Despite the positive impact of direct resource transfers to impoverished families on child well-being, such as reduced maltreatment (Cancian et al. 2010), or higher participation in education, there is a broader discussions to be had on whether such transfers should be in the shape of universal or targeted benefits. The main arguments are around creating dependency, not reaching the target and in the long term increasing poverty. Welfare dependency is a major policy challenge; when the generosity is reduced, usually in order to engage individuals in paid labour and avoid welfare dependency, as children suffer (i.e., child poverty rates increase). On the other hand, when the generosity of the program increases children benefit but the program increases welfare dependency. A number of strategies can and have been adopted over time to reform the welfare program such as: social service strategies, institutional strategies, human capital strategies, job creation and subsidization strategies, income strategies, and child support strategies (Corbett 1993; Carson and Kerr 2014). However reviews of the impacts of welfare policies in the US point to adverse effects of welfare reform on child welfare involvement (Waldfogel 2004; Lindsey and Martin 2003). Researchers in the US analysing the impact of welfare reform notes reduced welfare benefits are associated with increased numbers of children in care (Paxson and Waldfogel 2003) and increased numbers of children not living with parents (Bitler et al. 2002). Similarly Lindsey observes that data from food stamps and free lunch programs point to increased numbers of children and families living in poverty (Lindsey 2009).

Universal child benefits are currently under attack by a number of countries due to economic difficulties in the past years (Bradshaw 2011). Nevertheless child and family benefits are important for a number of reasons: they promote horizontal equity, halt the recent fertility decline, reduce poverty rates and gaps, increase child and maternal mental health and wellbeing as well as child physical health and school performance, general take-up (which avoids stigmatising the recipients as poor), they are much easier and cheaper to administer than means-tested alternatives (as most of the time a birth certificate is the only evidence necessary), they provide a benefit to the mother regardless of the household composition. Finally, because they are provided to all, child benefits do not contribute to the unemployment trap or to the poverty trap. Cons to universal child benefits are that they are likely to be misspent, that governments can’t afford to pay them (although they must consider the long-term price of un-tackled child poverty – poor health, low educational attainment, worse outcomes in employment, family instability, crime, squalor etc.), and some argue that it is better to target only children who need the benefit most but such targeted benefits usually fail because they lack the political support of universal benefits, they concentrate on the very poor excluding others in financial struggle (Bradshaw 2011).

Busby and Busby (1996) identify six basic deficiencies of the subsidy approach in the UK and based on the multidimensionality of poverty suggest that a power perspective on poverty should be adopted. They argue that people should be supported not only economically but also by restoring their hope and undermining the sense of hopelessness, and help should be provided not when the bottom line is hit, but the focus of welfare policies should be on maintaining coping capacity rather than restoring it. A universal system is suggested through: a healthy economy, realistic minimum wage, a universal education system, universal health care system, child care voucher program, enhanced earned income tax credit, workable child support system, children’s allowance, universal housing programs and a progressive income tax with no deductions. Direct payments in the form of children’s allowance programs found in several nations play a significant part in enhancing the economic viability of impoverished families without the stigma of a means tested benefit and secures economic opportunity for children (Lindsey 2009).

The UNICEF Global Study on Child Poverty and Disparities pointed to the following recommendations emerging from national studies:

  • A multifaceted policy response: direct, specific, focused and holistic interventions to enhance child wellbeing

  • Well-designed social protection systems: social protection schemes are effective mechanisms for reducing vulnerabilities and ensuring stabilities

  • Accounting for inequities: inclusive policies, equitable distribution of returns from economic growth and access to social services for the most deprived

  • Safeguarding families most affected by economic crises/shocks: policies to prioritize children at greatest risk of falling into poverty as well as families experiencing structural poverty

Turning to specific theories about poverty approaches that understand poverty as caused by behavior are best framed as individualistic perspectives on why people find it hard to create opportunities and resources to bring themselves out of poverty. These perspectives are often used to argue for minimal state intervention to reduce poverty or to blame ‘excessive’ welfare state spending for de-motivating people to want to work or become economically productive members of society as paid labour. Quotes such as this one are common to the view:

Ironically, but predictably if we read our history, it is the very generosity of the modern welfare state which has prompted the growth of behavioral poverty by releasing individuals from all obligations to look after their own interest to the best of their ability. When there is confidence that the welfare system will rescue them from the consequences of their own actions, the irresponsible and negligent will be more likely to maintain that kind of behavior and to become ‘entangled in dependency (Maley Introduction to Sullivan 2000, p. ix).
This quote invokes the idea of behavioral poverty as poverty being about the self-responsibility and self-management issues of those whose income hovers around the poverty line. Such a view is usually associated with more Right-wing and libertarian views that the State should only intervene to change people’s circumstances when they are ‘deserving’ by right or need. Sullivan takes her criticism further in accusing planners and social workers: ‘There is never a whisper in welfare planning about behavioral components of poverty today, despite the armies of social workers presumably in a position to observe the behavior of the ‘poor’ at second, if not first hand. To mention this would be stigmatization, according to the ethics of the Welfare State’ (Sullivan 2000, p. 7). Sullivan’s work is sponsored by a conservative Melbourne policy think tank, The Centre for Independent Studies, and their policy agenda echoes many of the neo-conservative themes of late twentieth century attack on the welfare state and a retreat to individualism: taxes are a burden on citizens so bring them down, deregulate, liberalize, privatize and take away the middle class welfare state. These views need to be distinguished from more mainstream psychological approaches to poverty and child poverty.

There are a range of explanations from the discipline of psychology that focus on the individual as being responsible for their poverty. Variations of the individual perspective ascribe poverty to inherent genetic characteristics such as intelligence and link poverty to individual abilities and motivation. Intelligence-based psychological theories suggest that individuals’ deficits contribute to their inferior economic and social status, though researchers (Ginsburg 1978; Pearl 1970) question the validity of such claims. Other perspectives with a medicalising orientation view the behaviour of the poor in a framework of psychological disturbance, and from a social selection hypothesis associate such disturbance with the individual’s economic position, a premise challenged by Moreira (2003) who draws attention to the social, economic and political factors implicated in the causes and impact of poverty.

Contemporary psychologists have shifted their thinking on the etiology of poverty to recognise environmental factors implicated in poverty status. Developmental psychologist Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological theory of interacting systems has been used to illuminate the effects of the social environment on the life course of individuals and the multiple systems that can have an impact on the lives of adults and children living in poverty (Fraser 1997). More recent discourses on poverty and its causes and correlates articulated in the APAs Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status acknowledge structural forces and discriminatory practices in the perpetuation of poverty (APA 2000 cited in Turner and Lehning 2007).

Additionally theories of resilience and strength-based perspectives are gaining prominence. Acknowledging the capacities of individuals to overcome the negative impacts of poverty theories of resilience proposed by Garmezy (1985). Masten et al. (1990) draw attention to the strengths, competencies and resilient behaviours of individuals, in contrast to previous pathologising approaches which have been disparaging of the capacities of poor people (Turner and Lehning 2007). Some have drawn on the empowerment oriented conceptualisations of Sen (1999) which emphasise recognition of deprivations arising from individuals’ lack of power and control politically, economically and socially.

The behavioral poverty view is the most individualizing and potentially stigmatizing view of poverty. This view claims that individuals rather than their social or economic context is what explains why poor people and children as dependents on these people are in such vulnerable and deprived circumstances People are unemployed or live in deprived circumstances because they have a low work ethic or are lazy, and do not want to change or challenge their own circumstances. There are related concepts in social science such as ‘learned helplessness’ or ‘dependency’ on social security benefits that can be mistakenly used to justify this viewpoint. These later concepts however engage with more accepted notions that poor people, as all citizens of a liberal democratic society have social agency over their lived conditions and circumstance. In this view understanding behavioural poverty is often now associated with right wing ideology that tends to ‘blame the poor’ for their plight. Poverty occurs because of people’s behaviour – people make their own poverty.

Explicitly recognizing this view is important in terms of challenging how popular, media and public attitudes to poverty tend in many ways to individualize social problems such as poverty and place responsibility for social conditions and circumstance back on the individual commonly demonizing ‘the victims’ or ‘have nots’ of modern society. These behavioral views are sometimes related to the notion of ‘concentrated poverty’ in that poverty can be intensified in local and neighborhood areas by the attitudes and lack of resources in any one community (see also poverty as culture below). As a socio-spatial phenomena, economically depressed communities are vulnerable to deeper levels of poverty, violence and crime due to perhaps the notion of concentrated poverty. This is especially the case in regional, rural and remote communities.

A range of programs directed at reducing poverty reflect the individual deficiency perspective explicitly or implicitly using punitive approaches to change behaviour. From this perspective policies to restrict periods for which and individuals can receive public assistance, withhold benefits to families when children are not attending school, substitute goods and services for cash assistance, provision of shelters for the homeless in lieu of subsidies to pay for housing are cited as strategies to remedy poverty based on individual deficiency and culpability (Bradshaw 2006). Similarly, providing cash benefits and other support to low income and single mother families on a transitional basis contingent on their participation in work and work related activities reflect this perspective. The thrust of antipoverty efforts is to intervene to modify the culture. Zigler and Styfco (1996) note the success of Head Start and other educational programs in providing among other things different socialisation to reduce poverty. There are also promising programs that work within the culture to develop culturally appropriate strategies to build on strengths and assets such as micro enterprise.

One area where such notions of controlling behavior to help to push people out of poverty is in budgeting programs that are provided through non-profit, for profit and government programs. These programs have shifted in Australia in more recent years from voluntary to involuntary for clients, and to ineffectual and disciplining income management programs according to peak welfare bodies and indigenous criticism that surrounds the Northern Territory interventions (ACOSS 2011). The justification behind them is often to keep children from harm in terms of extreme poverty by helping to manage parents’ and guardians’ finances. The financial moralism, regulation and control underlying these programs have become increasingly significant in public policy making as social welfare expenditure is underpinned by times of austerity. Income management programs in Australia under social security legislation are also dealing with budgeting which prior to the introduction of such management was usually the province of non-profit counseling agencies for lower income people. The issues this raises about a new state sanctioned moralism around who are ‘the deserving poor’ and the stigma associated with being unemployed and poor is a worrying development for the quality of life of low income people in Australia.

Poverty when seen as arising from people’s cultural conditions or situation uses the lens of cultural processes and content in understanding why people are in poverty. The culture of poverty school of thought asserts that poverty is caused by cultural belief systems that support subcultures of poverty. The essence of the theory is that poverty is transmitted over generations through beliefs, values and skills that are socially generated and individually held (Bradshaw 2006). Gould (1999) notes the culture of poverty theory encapsulates low educational attainment and financial aspirations but argues these are a rational accommodation to the poverty experience and are amenable to change with access to opportunities and resources.

The term ‘culture of poverty’ emanated from the seminal work of Lewis (1961) who maintained that attitudes and behaviours learned in childhood can contribute to multigenerational poverty. The culture of poverty school of thought has come under controversy by scholars who ascribed socio economic poverty to class differences arguing that behaviours and beliefs displayed by the poor are reflective of their adaptation to their disadvantaged environment (Parker and Kleiner 1970; Valentine 1968). Application of the culture of poverty argument overlooks the significant norms and aspirations that poor people share with the rest of society (Valentine 1968).

Two important studies that helped initiate these traditions were Oscar Lewis’s American studies of ghetto poverty in his 1961 The Children of Sanchez and Lee Rainwater’s 1967 And the Poor Get children. Such books represented a growing academic and political anti-poverty movement during the 1960s that provided impetus for the USA’s 1966 ‘War on Poverty’ that developed a raft of social programs to combat poverty during the latter half of that decade, some successfully but many falling short of lifting people out of poverty. These views have had their critiques (Valentine 1968

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