DR. ALOK RAJOURIA
For Nepal, a country where a quarter of the population is extremely poor and suffers severe deprivation, understanding how poverty affects children can help to formulate policies and programs that effectively break intergenerational poverty. There is an obvious correlation between higher household income and better child outcomes. Now the question is – is poverty alone responsible for worse child outcomes in low-income households? If there are other factors, what are they? There is a dearth of scientific research related to these questions in developing countries, and none was found in Nepal. However we can draw valuable lessons out of literature, albeit from wealthy countries where an extensive body of research exists.
Studies on the consequences of poverty on families that are involuntarily poor have generally found the effects of poverty upon children to be substantial in outcomes such as health, cognitive abilities, school achievement, emotional behavior and teen pregnancy. Furthermore, studies have also confirmed that children are negatively affected by both duration of the period they are in poverty and
the timing. While children who were in poverty for multiple years suffered the worst consequences, children who experienced extreme poverty during pre-school or early school years had lower rates of school completion than children who were in poverty during later years.
Economic hardship influences parental behavior and affects interaction between parents and their children. The behavior of low income mothers, which is associated with stress, poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care, has been the focus of many studies. Similarly, the behavior of fathers during economically stressful times and its impact upon children has also been a subject of study. These studies conclude that poverty-induced stress often influences parental behavior. For example, mothers and fathers experiencing hardships due to loss of job or loss of their traditional role as breadwinner frequently engage in punitive parenting. Low income has been found to be more problematic when there is lack of social support for parents. Studies generally observe that under economically hard-pressed conditions, parenting is likely to be less child-centered and more parent-centered, rejecting and inconsistent.
Another variable that can affect a child’s upbringing is the potential negative effects poverty can have upon a child’s home environment. A study on poverty and its effects on home environment, which includes physical environment, provision of learning experiences and warmth of the mother, found that home environment was adversely affected by family poverty, irrespective of the size of the household.
Intergenerational correlation of income in the case of the United States of America shows that, generally, children of all socioeconomic backgrounds have incomes resembling their parents. It is postulated that the main cause behind intergenerational poverty is the parents’ lack of economic resources which translates into their inability to invest in the human capital development of children, consequently keeping the children in low-paying jobs. The case for childhood poverty being the main cause for adult poverty is strong.
If mere lack of resources were key to intergenerational poverty, could simple cash transfer programs be the answer? In her influential book What Money Can’t Buy, Susan E. Mayer of the University of Chicago presents an assessment of the effect of parental income on children. The author found that child outcomes from rich families were better than from poor families, but parental characteristics such as skills and education, honesty, good health, and reliability also have bearings upon the children’s life chances. In fact, children of parents with such characteristics could do well even when the parents did not have much income. Therefore, non-economic factors like parent’s behavior, home environment, family structure and psychological distress also play a role in keeping poor children in poverty even when they grow up.
Poverty influences the behavior of adults which in turn affects children in the household. Poverty often worsens parental behavior, which is detrimental to child well-being. Research findings support the notion that during hard economic times parental stress diminishes the parental ability
of parents. Similarly, poverty can also affect a child’s
well-being by deteriorating the quality of home
environment and family structure. The concept of
intergenerational poverty is also closely related to the effects of poverty on children because children of poor parents have fewer resources available that would enable them to get off poverty during adulthood. Considering these research findings, government policies aimed at elimination of poverty alone may not be adequate to produce improved child outcomes and break intergenerational poverty. Mere cash handouts to low-income families may only have marginal positive effect on the outcomes of children. Since children are influenced by adult behavior in the household and the overall household environment, poverty alleviation programs must include elements to improve parenting skills and home environments.