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South Sudanese children in a Ugandan refugee settlement
18 October 2022

How does poverty affect child development?

From birth to adolescence, what effect does poverty have on child development?

We all know that poverty has damaging effects on people, especially children. However, have you considered the way that it might affect their development? We explain how growing up in poverty can impact a child's development, including their emotions and education. 

What is child poverty?

Child poverty describes when a child lives without the necessary resources that they need to experience life in all its fullness. Globally, the standard measure of poverty is those who are earning under $1.90 a day. However, there are various levels of how poverty is defined around the world, such as relative poverty, which is where a person is earning less compared to their country’s average income.  

Unfortunately, there are many ways that growing up in poverty can affect children's development. However, it’s clear that poverty causes life-long consequences for children, through no fault of their own.

READ MORE: What is child poverty?

What is child development?

Child development refers to the physical, mental, and emotional changes that happen from birth to the end of adolescence. Usually, child development is split into three key stages: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. During each of these phases, the rate and type of development is different...

Early childhood: From birth to six years of age. This is an incredibly significant period for cognitive, emotional and social development; where most children speak their first words, take their first steps and start to develop relationships with family and friends. 

Middle childhood: From six years of age to adolescence. Middle childhood is often thought to be the most crucial years of a child’s life, where not only are they still growing but are also starting to discover themselves and how they fit into the world. 

Adolescence: The teenage years. Infamously challenging for many, as bodies change again, children transition into adults and often they start to find themselves and their place in the world, setting down roots that will influence the course of their lives. 

It’s also important to remember that childhood development doesn’t just start at birth, and the situation and circumstances a child is born into, as well as the situation their mother is in during pregnancy can also have a large effect. 

Rwandan child reading a card with mother
Child Sponsorship has helped Promise, seven, and her family access nutritious food

World Vision is empowering families to overcome poverty

At World Vision, we are focused on working with communities to help children living in poverty. And we’ve been doing it for over 70 years.  

We have supported 200 million children in the last five years by tackling the root causes of poverty. Not only do we respond in disaster situations but we also work to provide access to safe clean water, healthcare, and an education so families are empowered to overcome poverty.

Given the tools, communities and families can lead their own development and build resilience to things like the shocks of climate change.

Saving groups are building community resilience

Families like Mama Angelique’s, 69, are benefiting from World Vision’s saving groups. 

She lives with her two grandchildren, Jephté, eight, and Angelique, 10, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When her husband died, she started growing cassava and peanuts, but this didn't provide enough income.

"Feeding my two grandchildren, making them study and taking them to hospital was a problem," she explains.

Mama Angelique heard about the savings group through her church and their partnership with World Vision. “I participated in the different training sessions that World Vision had organised where I learned how to save, manage money and start a small income,” she explains. “There is also a mutual aid fund that is used in case one of the group members goes through a difficult time. This is when you have to support them.” 

Congolese grandmother and two grandchildren holding their new shoes
Angelique, 10, and Jephté, eight, are delighted with the shoes from their grandmother

Things started to turn around for her family

Taking $25 credit from the fund meant that Mama Angelique could start to grow and sell spring onions. She used the profits from selling spring onions to build a shop, and buy her grandchildren shoes, clothes and pay for them to go to school. 

Jephté passed his school exams because his grandmother was able to pay for his school fees. He says, “I love my grandmother because she knows how to take care of [me] and my big sister.” 

Now, Mama Angelique is self-sufficient 

She is also building a house with two bedrooms to rent to a tenant. Once construction finishes, this will bring her $25 a month. Mama Angelique says, “Now I am very happy because the saving group is a guarantee for my old age and it allows me not to be dependent.” 

World Vision is focused on working with families and communities to provide long-lasting change, so progress is continued long after we’ve left. Through savings groups, families learn to generate an income and become self-sufficient, healthy and thriving.

How does poverty impact child development at each stage? 

How does poverty impact a child before birth?

Before a child is even born, the world they’re going to start their lives in is forming.  

We often talk about the cycle of poverty and how a child who is born into poverty is more likely to live in poverty for their lives. But the effects can start to manifest during pregnancy. 

A child’s development can be affected by the environment in which they are carried. Independent studies found that a child is more likely to suffer from emotional issues if the mother is stressed during pregnancy - this is especially likely for mothers living in poverty. 

What’s more, if a mother is unable to access a healthy diet, the risk of malnutrition could affect both her and the baby she is carrying. UNICEF explains the effects of a poor diet during pregnancy: “Poor diets lacking in key nutrients – like iodine, iron, folate, calcium and zinc – can cause anaemia, pre-eclampsia, haemorrhage and death in mothers. They can also lead to stillbirth, low birthweight, wasting and developmental delays for children.” 

How does child poverty impact early childhood?

No toddler should have to fight for their place in this world. But unfortunately, that’s the situation many young children are faced with, due to extreme poverty. 

The link between poverty and young children dying is clear. For example, in South Sudan where 80% of the population live in extreme poverty, 11% of children will die before they are five. 

For the children who survive their first five years of life, it might still be at the expense of their overall health and growth. Poverty can quickly lead to malnutrition due to a lack of access to food which is detrimental for children who are growing. A child might experience stunting, which is when a child doesn’t grow properly as a result of disease, poor health and malnutrition. These effects are often irreversible. 

The first five years of a child’s life are incredibly crucial. The high risk of malnutrition is another issue that adds to it. The World Health Organisation predicts that “around 45% of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to undernutrition.” 

During this period, you would expect a child to start passing milestones and even reading and writing at a basic level. Yet this is not the case for many poor children around the world. The World Bank reports: “53% of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school.” Covid has only deepened this issue, with learning poverty estimated to rise to 63%. 

53% of children in low and middle-income countries cannot read by the age of 10 

How does child poverty impact middle childhood?

Middle childhood is when developmental gaps start to become clear within their performance at school, and the way the child acts in social situations. They may be unable to keep up with classmates or are falling behind in their work. This is especially noticeable for children who are living in poverty in middle- or high-income countries.  

But, what about children whose whole community is experiencing the same situation? For them, staying in school is a harder task. 

UNESCO found that Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, two world regions that experience the highest levels of poverty, are also the two areas with the most children out of education. This might be because they lack the funds to pay for attending school and school supplies, they are relied upon by family or that they are entering the world of work in order to bring money home. 

READ MORE: Tackling child poverty and inequality 

How does child poverty impact adolescence?

Teenagers will still find that their education levels are negatively impacted by poverty. Adolescents are likely to perform lower than a child who is living comfortably. There is also an increased risk that they give up on education altogether in order to work and earn money to help their family. 

It isn’t just education levels that are a concern at this stage, as children reach adolescence, they become more likely to be placed in dangerous situations, often out of their own control, like early marriage or conflict.

Poverty forces children into armed conflict

Across the globe, children are ending up in violent, dangerous and psychologically harmful situations, including war. In 2022, around 460 million children were living in areas affected by armed conflict, meaning that the practice of child soldier recruitment is still a real danger to many.  

When living in poverty, children may feel they have no choice but to put themselves into conflict situations in order to get access to necessities like a warm bed and food. Many children are forcibly recruited as child soldiers through kidnapping or because of threats to family members' lives.

Learn more about child soldiers.

Poverty is driving the hunger crisis

At least 783 million people are facing hunger. Covid has driven food prices to their highest in a decade. Droughts have destroyed crops. Floods have destroyed homes. Farming communities are facing unprecedented pressure. Continued conflict has displaced thousands. Those who fled from bullets now face starvation. 

Learn more about the effects of child hunger.

How you can help families overcome poverty

As a Christian charity, World Vision helps children of all faiths and none, even in the most dangerous places. By supporting World Vision, you can help give vulnerable children and communities the tools and education they need to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. 

Together we can ensure children are protected and empowered. Sponsor a child today to help end child poverty.

Learn more