Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Entwicklung und Humanitäre Hilfe
Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, presented a report on the relationship between poverty and inequality at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. In the report, De Schutter reveals how poverty is being perpetuated in areas of health, housing, education, and employment. Children born into poverty face inequalities of income and wealth which subsequently constrain them to the vicious cycles of poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the Global South, especially since the consequences of the pandemic have forced many into poverty due to obstacles in receiving affordable, accessible healthcare and in finding employment. De Schutter concludes with recommendations on how to break the vicious cycles of poverty.
The impact of inequality on health correlates with poverty as poor health can lead to reduced productivity and high costs of accessing healthcare. Research shows that a high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not automatically guarantee better health access for the population of a country: It is the distribution of wealth that affects levels of health. Not only are those who experience poverty more likely exposed to environmental hazards, they are also faced with financial barriers in accessing healthcare that can lead into other hardships, mostly affecting children within these households. Almost 100 million people are forced into poverty each year due to health expenses (97% are from developing countries in Africa and Asia).
Living in precarious housing and neighborhoods is a contributing factor to poverty especially for children. They are surrounded by poor housing conditions and exposed to polluted and unsafe environments that can affect their health. Overcrowding can result in less quality of sleep, tense family relationships as well as stress and anxiety, which can all affect the childhood and education of these children. Additionally, these neighborhoods usually lack public schools of high quality, decent job opportunities, and proper healthcare services. Many people who live in poverty also live in poor “food environments” which means that they live in an environment that makes it difficult for them to have a nutritious diet as well as the possibilities for physical exercise.
Early childhood education and care plays a vital role when it comes to breaking the cycles of poverty. However, inequalities of income and education put parenting at a disadvantage for families with a low socio-economic background. Parental income and education levels serve as obstacles for children from disadvantaged backgrounds when accessing quality education, because costs for enrolment, learning material and school activities are too high and because these children experience discrimination by peers and school staff. Furthermore, children from high socio-economic backgrounds are better prepared for formal education than children from lower income households, since the level of education of the parents plays a significant role, specifically how much children can benefit from their formal education.
Decent employment that provides a living wage is generally the best way to break the cycles since this would allow workers to provide for and support themselves and their families. However, better schooling does not always guarantee better jobs, since employment opportunities may be insufficient in the labor market, which can discourage parents from investing in their children’s education. Most individuals experiencing poverty are employed, yet they remain in poverty because not all jobs are decent jobs. Employment that requires lower education levels and qualifications mostly means jobs that do not pay “a living wage”, which means the salary is not sufficient to to rise above the poverty line.
Global income inequality has been increasing since 1980, as the rich become richer and the poor get poorer. In 1980, half of the world’s income belonged to the top 10% of earners while the top 1% held 16% of the world’s income which increased to 22% in 2000. The share of the bottom 50% of the population remained at 9%. Global inequality continues to grow as the income for the top 10% is growing faster than for the poorest 10%.
Especially high-income earners often see their success as the result of personal efforts and abilities which leads to the understanding that people in poverty should be blamed for being poor. However, the idea that poverty is caused by personal failings is outdated, on the contrary poverty is caused by structural factors such as high unemployment, stagnating wages and discrimination.
“Equality of opportunities is at the heart of our understanding of a just society. This ideal is based on a simple conviction: no child should be penalized for being born in poverty.” - Olivier De Schutter
Investment in early childhood can help children born in poverty. By supporting families during early childhood, child poverty can be reduced, which could increase children’s chances of improving their livelihoods as adults. Supporting these families with maternity benefits, universal child benefits, and affirmative programs like the desegregation of neighborhoods along with promoting access to higher education, can all contribute to ending the persistence of disadvantages. Improving early childhood education, care, and support for low-income families is crucial to breaking the cycles of poverty.
Inclusive education is needed to provide equal opportunities to disadvantaged children. Learning environments are sometimes biased against low-income children. It is important that inclusive schools value each child for the contribution it makes to the classroom rather than select and assess children based on academic performance.
Basic income for young adults can help to give children from low-income families a chance when they enter adulthood. By providing a provision of a universal basic income from the end of secondary education to the age of 25, the risks associated with means-tested programs (which are social benefits based on a needs-based assessment of the social services) such as stigmatizing the recipients can be avoided. In this way, benefits will be easier and more equally distributed. This could be financed by for example, increasing taxes on inheritance which would also reduce the growth of wealth inequalities.
Placing an emphasis on prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic disadvantage can help break the cycles that perpetuate poverty. Indirect discrimination should be prohibited along with direct discrimination, as it disproportionately affects those in poverty. A right to “reasonable accommodation” should be given to the socio-economically disadvantaged so that their specific circumstances can be considered. The systemic nature of discrimination on grounds of poverty must be addressed through affirmative action programs, since they can support individuals in poverty with access to higher education and to sectors of employment.
It is important to break the vicious cycles of poverty so that society as a whole can tackle the global inequalities that are leaving the poor behind while the world progresses. By investing in early childhood education and care, ensuring inclusive education, providing young adults with basic income, family households with cash transfers, and prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic disadvantage, those who are living in poverty, especially children, can be given a chance to succeed and put an end to poverty.
UN (2021): Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter: The persistence of poverty: how real equality can break the vicious cycles