In the face of poverty

November 20, 2022

Lack of social mobility condemns children of poor parents to poverty

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educing poverty is the first major goal of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For its part, Pakistan must reduce its headcount poverty level by half: from 24.3 percent to 12 percent by 2030. According to the World Bank, the lower-middle-income poverty rate ($3.2 per day) in Pakistan stood at 39.3 percent in 2020-21 and was projected to remain at 39.2 percent in 2021-22. It might come down to 37.9 percent by 2022-23. The upper middle-income poverty rate ($5.5 per day) stood at 78.4 percent in 2020-21 and would be standing at 78.3 percent in 2021-22. It was projected to come down to 77.5 percent in 2022-23.

Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon that affects households, women and children unequally. It changes the way people go about their day-to-day lives in terms of expenditure and consumption patterns of households and decreases their well-being, leading to negative health outcomes, particularly for women and children.

On the gender dimension, the impact of poverty is more pronounced in female-headed households. While the percentage of women-headed households increased by 7.5 percent from 1991 to 2018, the state of poverty in women-headed households did not change much. Severity of poverty, according to the 2001-2004 PSLM Survey, increased from 0.87 to 1.36 percent in female-head households while they struggled to make ends meet, reducing their access to health, education and empowerment.

Most notably, poverty affects children over generation-long periods. Not only does poverty affect children’s health, education and employment opportunities, it also hampers their social, emotional and cognitive development. Children born to poor parents are likely to remain poor.

A PIDE study conducted in 2013 (by the second writer of this piece) shows that in countries like Pakistan – where access to education, health and employment are inequitably distributed — half of the fate of a child’s life outcomes is decided on the day of birth. A child born to poor parents has a 50 percent chance to remain poor.

Poverty keeps children of poor parents poor in the next generation. The said study shows that there is a 42 percent chance that the son of an illiterate father will never go to school. And there is 72 percent chance that a son born to a father working in elementary occupations will end up employed in the same category.

Putting it in words, out of one hundred children born to poor parents, 72 will work in low-productivity jobs. Alarmingly, out of 100 children born to the poorest households, 44 will live and die poor.

The adverse impacts of poverty on children are even harder in rural areas. At present, Pakistan can provide access to necessities to only 20.88 percent of children in urban areas. Much of the population of Pakistan that is living below the poverty line is the rural population. With less-than-ideal conditions, the children belonging to rural areas are deprived of necessities like safe drinking water, access to food, education and health services.

The impact of childhood poverty on health outcomes is exacerbated during adulthood. One out of five children die before the age of five in Pakistan due to malnutrition and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Around 30 percent of children in Pakistan are underweight, more than 50 percent suffer from stunted growth and around 9 percent from emaciation.

One of the curses of poverty is child labour. Poor parents send their children to work instead of school. Currently, 12 million children are part of child labour performing domestic tasks and working in agriculture and the textile industry. They work in conditions hazardous to their health, causing them to suffer from respiratory diseases, vision problems and spinal cord deformities. More importantly, these jobs are low paid.

With their childhood deprived, health and education compromised they are left with little to no opportunities to step out of the spiral of poverty. Child labour has often been described as a product of poverty. According to Reuters, “Pakistan’s Labour Force Survey, showed that of the children aged between 10 and 14 years active in child labour, 61 percent were boys and 88 percent came from rural areas.”

Evidence suggests that education reduces poverty rates. Investing in education increases human capital and brightens the children’s prospects. An increase in income has been associated with educational achievements and the emotional and physical well-being of children.

Children with education and educational achievements tend to secure better-paying jobs, attract more employment opportunities and develop better skills over time. On the contrary, at the primary level, Pakistan’s net attendance ratio is very low, 59.9 percent, with 5 million children already out of primary school. The primary school completion rate is even lower, 52 percent.

To ensure well-being, adequate nutrition is important for the development of a child, the lack of which might lead to cognitive impairments in case of chronic poverty. Therefore, the provision of nutrition at the right time is imperative for a child’s survival, health and development.

Growing up in an impoverished environment can damage a child’s well-being and future prospects. Children from impoverished backgrounds tend to suffer because of poor living standards, developing fewer skills for the workforce. This affects their wages negatively. Generally, the well-being of households is measured through the level of income, education, standard of living and health indicators. But poverty decreases access to better incomes, education, health and maintaining a standard of living.

Poverty over a long period increases socioeconomic vulnerabilities and lack of access to education, health and sanitation. More so, it reduces the ability of parents to provide food, clean drinking water, a good standard of living and quality education to their children. It also hinders the socioeconomic development of a country. To secure the rights of children careful context-specific interventions and policies should be made to facilitate the needs of children in the face of poverty.


Maria Ali is a senior research associate at the SDPI. Sajid Amin Javed is a research fellow at the SDPI.



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