The high price of inequality: lessons on the costs and consequences of child poverty in advanced societies
Childhood is the key period for people’s development. Experiences in the early years of life condition the levels of well- being that are achieved in adult age in all aspects: work, health, social integration, etc. Therefore, fighting against and preventing child poverty is a cornerstone in the fight against inequality, a crucial fight to promote justice and fairness, social cohesion, efficiency and competitiveness, as well as intergenerational solidarity. For decades now, scientists have been paying special attention to the determinants and characteristics of child poverty and inequality. The books we review here offer two perspectives on this problem: a general one and a more specific one.
The essay by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is easy to read and studies how the consequences associated to inequality are not limited to a lack of material assets, more limiting educational opportunities or a lower probability of climbing the social ladder, but also include other less obvious aspects, such as their effects on physical and mental health.
They start with an analysis of macro factors, for example, inequality based on the distribution of all the income in a country, to explain how this affects the residents of each country in terms of their health and individual well-being. The aim of the book is to show how, right from childhood, social class marks the development of one’s life course and, more importantly, how the greater the inequality, the more this difference is marked.
The authors carry out a detailed study by compiling empirical studies on the anxiety produced by the existence of social hierarchies and the awareness of individuals of falling short and feeling obliged to compete for status. This affects the probability of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, shyness and the lack of friendships derived from this and, in the final instance, loneliness as a disease. It reviews the message of Durkheim’s concept which in the 19th century already spoke of anomie: the feeling of not belonging to your environment.
As far as infancy is concerned, the consequences of inequality on the development of children are permanent. For example, by analysing the plasticity of the brain, they show that stress during pregnancy or complicated family situations influence the child’s cerebral development. These situations are more frequently found in poor families and in countries in which the concern about social status is greater. Under these circumstances, the meritocratic ideal that any child can climb the social ladder if they propose to do so will be hard put to happen, as children who grow up in poor families carry an inevitable burden with them
In particular, the “Pygmalion effect” is important, according to which the qualifications of children are related to the expectations their teachers have of them. Wilkinson and Pickett insist, in this point, on the importance of reinforcement programmes during the early educational stages as a progressive investment in terms of their redistributive consequences, as well as on the training of teaching staff to include the perspective of class when analysing differences in the classroom.
The second book, Children of Austerity, offers a global view of the impact of the Great Recession (2009-2014) on childhood through a selection of 10 developed countries, including Spain. The book shows how, country by country, children have suffered from the consequences of the economic crisis and the cutbacks, enabling us to conclude that this impact was not the same in every country. Each chapter offers the analysis and the diagnosis of each country’s public policies to fight against child poverty. The book, published in 2017, analyses up until 2014, therefore does not include the study of the last four years. In the case of Spain, this final period is a key one, as due to our specific situation, we took longer to get out of the economic crisis, and it was precisely 2017 that was the worst year for children in terms of relative child poverty levels.
In addition, evolution indicators regarding the material aspect of child poverty are given for Spain. The results are alarming in as much as not only do they show a worsening of the situation of children (for example, from 2009 to 2014, the number of children living in families who could not afford to pay for after-school activities doubled), but they also show that the situation of those who suffer from poverty has become worse, with greater increments (in 2014, one out of every four children was unable to go on school trips for economic reasons).
The reading of the various cases shows a general chart of more or less common causes of child poverty in western societies. One of them is obviously unemployment, but not the only one. More important yet is the phenomenon of children who live in families of poor workers, which is related not only to low salaries, but also to low intensity at work: these are the households in which the parents do not work a full day, either due to the precarious nature of the job or the low employment of women. Not working full-time, with frequent comings and goings on the labour market, leads to low salaries and a deficient, if not nonexistent, social protection coverage system, due to low contribution bases.
The book also particularly mentions single parent families, mostly headed by women, in which the incidence of child poverty is systematically greater than the average. Life in these homes is more difficult for the children, as mentioned by Wilkinson and Pickett. To the consequences of the previously mentioned stress (lower cognitive development), the effect of self-stigma in childhood should also be added: being aware that being in an inferior position influences the school performance of adolescents and, as far as friends are concerned, for example, not inviting them home through the shame of “not being presentable”.
Children of Austerity is a catalogue of the existing public policies aimed at vulnerable families and at the fight against child poverty, from direct monetary transfers to alleviate the lack of resources through to providing direct services such as school from 0 to 3 years of age to promote equal opportunities. To this end, the book works as a practical manual as to what has been done in the area of childhood, analysing whether these policies have worked or not. It is a good complement to Igualdad, which, with its more general approach, does not provide specific proposals in the fight against inequality in specific age groups. Nevertheless, its authors do offer proposals to fight against inequality and precariousness in the employment market that could have a positive effect on children’s living conditions.
In short, both texts propose two complementary factors regarding child poverty: one focused on the evolution and the causes of the economic crisis, and the other on the consequences of the economic inequality of a country in diverse areas of its citizens’ lives. Readers can consult Igualdad to understand why it is important for everyone, and not just for the most vulnerable sections, to achieve more equal societies. On the other hand, Children of Austerity is a manual and introductory guide to the problem of child poverty. The barrage of data and bibliography it offers open the door to a very detailed study of the phenomenon in developed countries. The characteristics of inequality and poverty in these countries are the focus of both books, which is why we would have liked at least one chapter dedicated to the specific characteristics of these phenomena in developed countries.