Childhood Poverty

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Poverty denies opportunities to people of all ages. Childhood poverty is however different. Lost opportunities in childhood can often not be regained later in life – childhood is a window of opportunity for development, both physical and mental. Childhood poverty has important physical and emotional costs and affects opportunities in adulthood. Being poor as a child, even for a short period, can have effects on the rest of an individual’s life. Malnutrition, for example, can lead to life-long learning difficulties and poor health. Childhood poverty poses the risk of poverty persisting throughout the course of an individual’s life and across generations.

Poverty, which is associated with deprivations, can be considered to be the negative definition of well-being. Poverty is primarily concerned with those persons identified as poor but there certainly is a link between progress and the incidence, depth and severity of poverty in a society. Childhood poverty in particular influences the long-term viability of our societies and must therefore in some way be part of a measure of societal Progress.

Over 600 million children live in absolute poverty world-wide – one in every four children. In developing countries, more than 60 percent of children may live in households with incomes below international poverty lines. [1] Childhood poverty persists in developing as well as developed countries.

The Millennium Development Goals relevant to child well-being include halving the poverty rates, cutting by two-thirds the deaths of children under five and offering at least a primary education to all children in the world.

Measuring childhood poverty

The dependence of children on their direct environment for the provision of basic needs, child-specific requirements in terms of their basic needs and the specific information necessary for the formulation of child-focused policies are important reasons for developing child-poverty measurement. General poverty measurement does not adequately take sufficiently into account  the importance of some specific inputs like nutrition and education for children’s well-being today which affects their future well-being in adulthood.

The issues of poverty measurement also apply to childhood poverty measurement. They include identification, aggregation and identification. However, these issues require a child-focused discussion.


First of all, the poor have to be identified and a rule found to distinguish the poor from the non-poor. This implies the choice of relevant dimensions and their cut-offs. A person below a  cut-off in a given dimension is dimension-deprived. Approaches such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index only consider people deprived in several dimensions as being poor. Other measures consider everyone deprived in any dimension as poor (union approach).[2] The choice of dimensions, cut-offs and units of analysis always involve a degree of value judgments. However, depending on the purpose of a particular measure for use in advocacy, monitoring or as policy information, some measures are better suited.


The dimensions relevant for childhood poverty measurement refer to those aspects of children’s lives that are deemed capable of matter whether a child is poor or not. Poverty measurement can be uni-dimensional or multidimensional, depending on what the identification of the poor children is based. There is thus a degree of dimensionality of the measures that are convievable. Each measure could be visualized on basis of its dimensionality on a continuum where capture of the complexity of poverty tends to increase with complexity. [3] Traditionally, poverty was measured in monetary terms. However, for a long time, many have advocated to apply a multidimensional approach to poverty measurement. Multidimensionality gained momentum with Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking theory of capabilities (see Development). Different indices use different dimensions. However, choice of dimensions is also influenced by data availability.

Unit of Analysis

When measuring child poverty or well-being, the decision must be made as to whether analyse the child as a member of a household or as an individual unit. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Taking the child as the main unit of analysis ensures that the approach is child-focused and that it measures the situation as it presents itself to the child. When the child is considered as a member of a household, then one is forced to rely on assumptions based on the household distribution of resources. The resources distribution within the household can be a simple division of total household income through the number of household members or be calculated through a (somewhat arbitrary) equivalence scale that attributes adults and children a different share of total household income.

There are theoretical and practical arguments and considerations for either approach. For some scholars, the household provides for the children’s basic needs, while other do not want to rely on any assumption about intra-household distribution and prefer to asses the actual situation from the child’s perspective. Practically, in many, especially developing countries, child-specific information is less available than household level information.[4]


Once the poor have been identified, the individual-level information must be combined to get a picture of total poverty. Measures that provide summary statistics can be used as an important tool for advocacy, communication and monitoring.

Different aggregation methodologies exist. A classification of these methodologies into three categories is suggested by Kettie and Gassman (2008)[5]:

(i) Child poverty count measures: these measures provide a headcount of the number of children below the poverty line (as defined in the identification stage). This measure of incidence can be extended to measure depth and severity of poverty. Information on the distance from which a child finds itself below the poverty line is needed to obtain information of depth and severity of poverty.

(ii) Child poverty index measures: these measures help to compare the performance of various groups with respect to child poverty. Groups can be geographic (communities, regions or countries) or demographic (e.g. ethnic/racial/religious/age groups)

(iii) Holistic child poverty measures: these approaches aim at capturing the whole complexity of child well-being. They might include causes, effects and the dynamics at play. The outcomes of such measures are less straightforward but can provide enriching insights and input into the debate on causes, effects and perceptions of child poverty.

Data requirements

An important constraint in practice is the availability and quality of data for the desired dimensions and indicators. Theoretically based choice of dimensions and of the unit of analysis might need to be reviewed when it comes to the practical implementation of a poverty measure. Typically, household level data is more readily available and regularly updated than child-specific measures. Child poverty count measures require micro/data on the situation of the children. Child poverty index measures can be based on micro- as well as macro-data. Finally, holistic child poverty measures tend to require much quantitative and qualitative information.

Simple and practical vs. complex, inclusive and informative measurement?

There is probably no perfect approach to measuring child poverty. Choices of dimensions, unit of analysis and aggregation methodology are co-determined by data availability and the purpose of the measure. A certain trade-off must certainly be made between inclusiveness of the measure, representing the complexity of poverty, and the transmission and simplicity of the measure.

When relating childhood poverty to the measurement of societal progress, one must take into account the long-term consequences of deprivations experienced in childhood that will affect the grown-ups individually and the society as a whole.

Trends in child poverty measurement

Child poverty measures are subject to overall trends in thinking about child well-being. For UNICEF, scholar Ben-Arieh identified a switch of focus  from the survival rate in 1979 to a more holistic understanding of child well-being today.[6]

Monetary poverty

A monetary measure of poverty is based either on income or on consumption. Low household income is considered to have a strong influence on the well-being of Children and their opportunities of development. Monetary measures are uni-dimensional as they consider only one dimension of a child’s live.

Two main forms of monetary poverty lines exist, absolute and relative poverty lines.

An absolute poverty line is based on the ability to purchase a certain quantity of goods and services and is most commonly calculated from a “basket” of ordinarily consumed goods and services that a household should be able to purchase. Low and middle income countries frequently determine two poverty lines: one based on a minimum food basket identifying the extremely poor, and a slightly higher poverty line including some other basic goods. These national standards are not appropriate for cross-country comparisons of poverty, so the internationally known absolute poverty lines, such as the one-dollar-per-day poverty line are commonly applied.

A relative poverty line is defined relative to the standard of living in a specific country. Therefore, they more effectively take into account time and place of their use and change in accordance with the national level of monetary well-being. The EU commonly uses relative poverty lines for their poverty monitoring. For instance, the Laeken Indicators on poverty and social exclusion defined relative poverty lines at 50% and 60% of median income (defined at the European Council, December 2001).

Monetary poverty measures give a summary of statistics for incidence, depth and severity of poverty which allows policy targeting, policy monitoring and international comparisons. However, the measure is uni-dimensional which does not adequately reflect the specific needs of a child. Furthermore, the intra-household distribution and thus the income available for the child’s well-being needs is based on the strong assumption as presented above. Also an important issue is that these measures rely on household data which per definition do not include some of the most vulnerable groups of children such as orphans, abandoned children, children from illegal immigrants or street children.[7]

Aggregation and Data requirements

The monetary approach counts the number of children living in households below the poverty line and determines poverty incidence (headcount), poverty gap and severity. The poverty gap is obtained by  multiplying the incidence rate with the shortfall from the poverty line. The severity of child poverty can be calculated by squaring the poverty gap. This gives larger shortfalls greater weight.

The calculation of monetary child poverty requires information about the exact income and consumption pattern, as typically obtained through household budget and living standard surveys. In order to monitor and analyse poverty, a majority of countries conduct these surveys, despite them being time-consuming and costly, .[8]


Measurement Initiatives

Young Lives is a 15-year international study of childhood poverty following the changing lives of 12,000 children in 4 countries (Ethiopia, India, Peru, Vietnam).


Papers and Publications

See also


Child Material Well-being

Material Well-Being

Child well-being


Access to Services

Young Lives


  2. Alkire, S. and J. Foster (2011). “Counting and Multidimensional Poverty
    Measurement”, Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, Journal of Public Economics, 95, Issues 7-8, p.476-487. Available at:
  3. Roelen, Keetie and Gassman, Franziska (2008), “Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review”, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht. Available at:
  4. Roelen, Keetie and Gassman, Franziska (2008), “Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review”, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht. Available at:
  5. Roelen, Keetie and Gassman, Franziska (2008), “Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review”, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht. Available at:
  6. Ben-Arieh, A. (2000). “Beyond Welfare: measuring and monitoring the state of
    children – new trends and domains.” Social Indicators Research 52: 235-257. Available at:
  7. Roelen, Keetie and Gassman, Franziska (2008), “Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review”, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht. Available at:
  8. Roelen, Keetie and Gassman, Franziska (2008), “Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review”, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht. Available at:


Papers and Publications

The Children Left Behind: A league table of inequality in child well-being in the world’s rich countries, 2010, UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, Report Card 9

Income Shocks and Adolscent Mental Health, S. Baird, J. de Hoop, B. Özler, World Bank Research Paper, April. -> Malawi


External links

Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre

Measuring Child Poverty and Well-Being: a literature review – Maastricht University, January 2008.

Link collection on Child Poverty on Childwatch International Research Network