Blog: Child poverty: An interview with Mahesh Patel, UNICEF Regional Social Policy Adviser


By Geoffrey Keele, Communication Specialist, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific

“A newly unemployed adult is likely to eventually find work. A child who does not eat enough will be stunted for life.  A child who drops out of school will probably never resume their education.”
Mahesh Patel

The World Bank measures poverty as living on less than US$1.25 per day. In the European Union, the poverty threshold is set at 60 per cent of the median income. But for children, what is an accurate measure of poverty? Can we measure a child’s experience of poverty through their parents’ income?

The short answer is no. While parents’ income has a direct impact on children, it does not provide a complete picture of child poverty. A new UNICEF study analysing child poverty emphasizes that family poverty often affects children most directly through their access to shelter, food, water, sanitation, education, health and information. When a child is deprived of one or more of these, their experience of poverty deepens.

For example, in Lao PDR, while 38 per cent of children are assessed as income poor, as many as 75 per cent are assessed as living in poverty, based on this broader – and increasingly recognized – measure of child poverty. As a result, policy makers need to look beyond family income indicators to gain a more complete picture of poverty and the deprivations children experience.

The UNICEF study pulls together the results from seven country reports from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Philippines Vanuatu and Viet Nam. Research is ongoing in China, Indonesia, Kiribati, Malaysia and Myanmar but is not yet complete.

Some of the key findings of the study show that inequalities in the region are a major contributing factor to child poverty. For example, in Viet Nam, children from ethnic minority groups are 11 times more likely to suffer from multiple severe deprivations than children from ethnic majority groups – an unfortunate pattern found in many other countries. Child poverty was 30 per cent higher in rural Cambodia than in urban areas, 60 per cent higher in rural Thailand and 130 per cent higher in rural Philippines. So tackling child poverty will also mean talking inequity and exclusion.

In an interview with Karen Emmons, Mahesh Patel, UNICEF’s Social Policy Advisor for East Asia and the Pacific, says the findings suggest that child poverty needs to be a central component of national poverty reduction plans because the effects of poverty “on children are more serious and more likely to be permanent”.


© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1467/Giacomo Pirozzi
Boys float on rafts amid debris in a stagnant pond in Barangay Apelo, a slum area in Pasay City near Manila, Philippines. They are collecting plastic to sell. Some 6,000 people live along the stagnant pond.

Karen Emmons: In the report, UNICEF claims that children experience poverty differently from adults and that governments need to be responsive to the different nature of child poverty. How is child poverty distinctive?

Mahesh Patel: Children experience poverty very differently than adults do. UNICEF learned this in talking with children. While adults experience poverty primarily as a lack of income, children told us that poverty for them was not having enough to eat or not being able to go to school.

This difference has implications for policy-making. If we look at child poverty versus income poverty we’re led to different policy conclusions. The work on poverty reduction strategies focuses on employment and things that would boost adult income. If were looking at child poverty, we need to look at specific policies that promote child education and child immunization and that promote adequate nutrition for children.

KE: In researching this, what do you see as the main findings?

MP: The report uses what we call a multidimensional measure of child poverty, a measure that includes all the seven essential elements of food, water, shelter, health, sanitation, education and information. With that measure, each country analysis counted the number of deprivations children experience by asking, for example, are children immunized, do they go to school, do they have enough to eat?

This report synthesizes the findings and tells us that from 2000 to 2006 the rate of child poverty in the region, based on this measure of deprivations, declined by over one third from 56% of children to 36%. It also tells us that despite this progress, in 2006, more than 30 million children across these seven countries still suffered at least one severe deprivation and over 13 million children experienced two or more severe deprivations.

Even in countries with low rates of child poverty, children in certain provinces, those belonging to ethnic minorities, can be five times more likely to experience severe deprivations.  Serious deprivations in health and sanitation are found in many countries in the region. Additionally, in several countries, the income measure underestimates child poverty compared to the multidimensional measure. 

KE: So what significance do you feel this report has for the region?

MP: This is a very timely report – the global financial crisis has forced countries into fiscal policies that are protective of economic growth, similar to what happened here in 1998. Although the situation of children in East Asia and the Pacific Islands has improved dramatically over the past two decades, these improvements are again under threat.

It is also the first report to use a multidimensional approach to examine child poverty and child well-being across several countries in the region and as well as progress. In these ways, it provides a deeper and more complete understanding of the deprivations experienced by children.

The report examines child poverty, or deprivations, at the subnational level – across households of different characteristics, in rural and urban areas, and across provinces. In doing so, it sheds new light on the nature and extent of inequalities within countries, complementing what is already known in terms of widening income gaps. As a region characterized by rapid economic growth, where many governments have the resources needed to address child poverty, it is vital to understand which children suffer most from deprivations.

KE: Is this the first time a study of this nature has been carried out?

MP: Before 2003 nobody was really looking at child poverty – it was assumed to be just part of household poverty. And household poverty was measured in terms of the income of adults. So looking at child poverty is a relatively new approach. Academic research started in 2003 with the Bristol University study multidimensional child poverty. In 2007 governmental work started when UNICEF launched the Global Study on Child Poverty and Disparities. Through that process, about 50 countries engaged in research; about half have completed their national reports. This is the first time that countries in East Asia and the Pacific have systematically analysed child poverty.

KE: How widely accepted is this broader measure of child poverty?

MP: In the 2010 Human Development Report, Oxford University started looking at adult poverty in this way, using a multidimensional poverty index that actually includes most of the measures that UNICEF originally proposed. Also, most of the 27 countries that have completed their national studies have held major governmental meetings to examine their findings and discuss possible policy responses based on this approach. Governments of several countries, including Viet Nam and Mexico, have institutionalized the routine measurement of multidimensional poverty.

Having an integrated measure of child poverty helps us to understand in which areas policy failure occurs in a country. In one country it might be failure to immunize children. In another the most common deprivation for children might be deprivation of shelter or in another it might be deprivation of water. Having this awareness enables us to compare countries and to identify in a country which aspect of child poverty is the most important one and in which communities or provinces children suffer deprivations the most.

KE: If you wanted to leave governments of the region with one message about this report, what would it be?

MP: We want governments to know that child poverty can have long-lasting consequences, not only for the development of the individual child but also for the persistence of poverty in societies. A child who doesn’t have enough to eat will be permanently stunted. A child who drops out of school will be extremely unlikely to go back to school.

In preparing their fiscal policy responses to the economic crisis, governments should remember that almost half the people affected by the crisis are children and that their needs are different from those of adults. Effects on children are more serious, and more likely to be permanent.  A newly unemployed adult is likely to eventually find work. A child who does not eat enough will be stunted for life.  A child who drops out of school will probably never resume their education.

In a time of fiscal crises, we rely on governments to safeguard our investments in children because children need protection and because our own futures depend on our investments in our children. So poverty-reduction policies need to be designed bearing in mind that the needs of children are different than the needs of adults. 

 

 

 

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