Poverty – an Inter-generational Perspective

The Poverty Conundrum

Extract from Statement to the 55th Session of the UN Commission for Social Development:

“UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have highlighted the central role of Education and Early Childhood Development across all UN Sustainable Development Goals. No child should be left behind. As such, it is a critical factor for enabling societies to alleviate poverty by improving productivity through the formation of human capital. The logic is simple: alleviating poverty in societies is linked to economic prosperity, which requires a productive population, which in turn is dependent on quality education.

Unfortunately this cause and effect chain works in both directions. While education is key to the eradication of poverty – hunger, malnutrition and ill health (often tied to poverty), obstruct education – and this in turn limits human productivity growth thereby perpetuating poverty.

An Inter-generational perspective

A solution to this conundrum requires an inter-generational perspective on poverty. An inter-generational perspective looks at the cause and effect chain across generations. It examines how interventions in one generation can avoid harm being perpetuated in future generations. And nowhere is the evidence more conclusive than interventions providing support and education for mothers during pregnancy and throughout their children’s early years.

If the importance of a healthy lifestyle, good nutrition and health during pregnancy and early childhood is well recognized, the potential impact of a mother’s mental and emotional health on her children’s future outcome is not yet fully acknowledged and adequately integrated into policy making.

Adversity during pregnancy and early childhood

Neurosciences have recently confirmed that a baby’s brain development is shaped by their earliest experiences, including during pregnancy. In particular, a baby’s exposure to stress from any cause within the family – such as parental mental illness, neglect, mistreatment, domestic violence or simply poverty-related stress – can significantly affect their brain development. On the other hand, loving relationships and care, nurture and early stimulation support a healthy brain development and increase the chances that the child will achieve their full potential later in life.

In other words, early parenting and early childhood care and education can have a lifelong impact on a child’s mental and emotional health and affect their physical, social and intellectual development – starting with their readiness for pre-school. Evidence in developed countries shows that a child who is not ready for pre-school education is less likely to succeed later in primary and secondary education.

Benefits to society as a whole

Further, in addition to benefiting children (and their parents), the benefits of early education extend to society as a whole. Such so-called “positive externalities”, include reductions in crime, and lower expenditures on health care and on remedial education.

A number of economic studies have shown that investing in early parenting and early childhood care and education is 5-6 times more effective than intervening to solve problems later in life. A recent prospective analysis of comprehensive preconception care found that for every $1 spent on preconception care, $1.60 is saved in maternal and fetal care costs. Other studies have shown that preconception care can save as much as $5.19 for every $1 invested. (Healthy Pregnancy and Healthy Children: Opportunities and Challenges for Employers – The Business Case for Promoting Healthy Pregnancy – National Business Group on Health, USA).

The cost of inaction

More recently in October 2016, The Lancet has launched a new Early Childhood Development Series that highlights the high cost of inaction – an estimated 250 million children aged under five are now at risk of sub-optimal development – and the need to support families to provide nurturing care from the very start of a child’s life.

Early parenting is key since parents, both mother and father, provide the immediate physical, emotional and cognitive environment that will be the foundation for a child’s development.

Morevover, women’s empowerment matters: the 2007 UNICEF “State of the World’s Children” Report notes that “gender equality produces a double dividend: It benefits both women and children. Healthy, educated and empowered women have healthy, educated and confident daughters and sons”.

Statement to 55th Session of the UN Commission for Social Development (CSocD55)
Priority theme: “Strategies for the eradication of poverty to achieve sustainable development for all.”

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