Invisible Children

Children Growing Up in Extreme Poverty

Poverty, regardless of its origins, exacts a huge toll on the young. Each year more than 27 million babies are born into extreme poverty worldwide. No continent is spared. Extreme poverty exists in the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, in the crowded, sprawling slums of South Asia, in the barrios of Latin America, the hovels of the Caribbean and the squalor of North American cities and towns. Poverty is not the sole province of either urban or rural populations; we can find children on the bare margins of survival in the North African deserts as well as the Cairo slums, in the Mississippi delta as well as the streets of Chicago. What children born to poverty share, regardless of their setting, is limited educational opportunities, reduced access to quality health care, higher rates of abuse, a greater risk of exposure to violence, and reduced physical, emotional and mental development. Annually we consign millions of children to these struggles.

The impact of extreme poverty on the lives of the children born into it is comprehensive, touching upon indices measuring educational access, health, sanitation, and physical development. Most of the under-five mortality figures cited earlier are derivative of the conditions of extreme poverty, and the correlation between poor economic indicators and poor under-five mortality indices is clear.

Dangers imposed by the conditions of extreme poverty take many forms. A lack of safe drinking water, open defecation, and poor hygiene are significant threats to child survival.[i] Even through the best efforts, immunizations fail to reach at least a fifth of all vulnerable children, who are inaccessible by any broad-based assistance program.[ii] Cycles of poverty are difficult to break. Studies have shown irrefutably that children born to mothers without a basic education are at greater risk of dying before age five.[iii]

Children in extremely poverty are vulnerable to many diseases that can be prevented or mitigated through well-established vaccinations and treatments. For example, rheumatic heart disease is caused by a common streptococcal virus, the same family that triggers strep throat, and can be treated with antibiotics. Failure to do so causes the heart to deteriorate, often resulting in heart failure. Children who cannot access these antibiotics pay a steep price: as many as 15 million are affected by the disease, which can require hospitalization and corrective surgery. More than 230,000 die annually. Up to 1 per cent of all school children in Africa, Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean and Latin America show signs of the disease.[iv]

Intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms and whipworms, are a fact of life for too many children, with profound consequences. Parasites are readily ingested from contaminated food or infected soil, and can undermine a child’s nutritional status, affecting his or her cognitive processes, induce tissue reactions, such as granuloma, and provoke intestinal obstruction or rectal prolapse. These conditions reduce school attendance and can lead to death. And all of this could be prevented through improved sanitation, health education and simple low-cost drug treatments.[v]

Quantifying the number of children caught in extreme poverty, defined as living below $1.25 per day, is difficult at best. Indices compiled by the World Bank indicate the percentage of people living in extreme poverty in the developing world has fallen by less than one-third over the past three decades, but most of that reduction has stemmed from gains made in the fast-growing economies of India and China. Factoring out those two countries, indices are almost identical to what they were 30 years ago. In fact, excluding those two countries, the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty in the developing world actually increased by 103 million during this period. Half of all children in low-income countries live in extreme poverty, and more than one-third of all people living in extreme poverty globally are under age 13 – that is over 400 million children.[vi]

Nor is the developing world the sole province of the conditions of extreme poverty. In the 35 richest countries, more than 30 million children are caught in the deepest levels of poverty.[vii] Among these 35 countries, the United States has the second highest level of children living below the poverty line – 23.1 per cent - encompassing more than 16 million children, and second only to Romania at 25.5 per cent.[viii]

One of the most insidious impacts of extreme poverty is the effect on a child’s likelihood to go to school. Currently there are an estimated 57 million primary school-aged children who are not in school. This number has dropped from higher estimates of 120 million ten years ago. While this improvement is welcome, it cannot obscure the problems that remain, especially among the most marginalized who constitute the overwhelming majority of this 57 million. In 2011, 137 million children began school worldwide. Of this total, at least 34 million are projected to drop out before finishing primary school. This translates to a dropout rate of roughly 25 per cent, the same level as in the year 2000. Clearly, although progress has been made in introducing young people to schools, much is left to be done to keep them there.[ix]

The rates reflecting lack of access to and attendance at secondary schools are significant. Only 60 per cent of secondary school age children globally are currently enrolled, and this already low figure is buttressed by high rates in wealthy countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than one third of all secondary school age children are attending any type of school, and this rate is worsening rather than improving.[x] In Eastern Europe, Roma children are only one-fifth as likely as others to transition from primary to secondary education.[xi] In all, more than 71 million young people of lower secondary school age are not in school. Literacy rates in areas where secondary schooling opportunities are limited run low. Of the 127 million illiterate youth in the world, 90 per cent live in South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.[xii]
Extreme poverty is itself a gateway to the many manifestations of abuse, neglect and marginalization that make children invisible. A child in poverty may drop out of school to become a bonded laborer, or he or she might run from a family unable to provide nourishment and care, and so become a street-connected child. A rural young girl in poverty might be sent to the city by her parents to earn money, and so end up trafficked for sexual purposes. A child in poverty might seek to dull his or her despair by sniffing glue or learning to drink before learning to read. And uneducated, unemployed young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do might act out their despair in anger and violence. Poverty itself weaves together conditions of desperation that ensnare millions of children in all manner of ways.

[i] UNICEF, 2013. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013, p. 30
[ii] UNICEF, 2013. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013, p. 30
[iii] UNICEF, 2013. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013, p. 29
[iv] World Heart Federation, “Rheumatic Heart Disease,”
[v] World Health Organization,
[vi] Pedro Olinto et al, “The State of the Poor: Where Are the Poor, Where is Extreme Poverty Harder to End, and What is the Current Profile of the World’s Poor?” Economic Premise, World Bank, October 2013, no. 125, p. 3
[vii] Poverty in this context is measured in relative terms, as living below 50 per cent of a country’s median income level.
[viii] Peter Adamson, “Measuring Child Poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries,” Innocenti Report Card 10, UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, 2012, p. 3, referenced in: Knafo, Saki, 2012. “US Child Poverty Second Highest Among Developed Nations” Huffington Post, May 30 2012.
[x] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 13-14.
[xi] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 16
[xii] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 13-14.

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

Demographics of Invisibility