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Growing up poor: The facts about child poverty

Espresso logo Espresso 11/28/2018

Editor's note: This November, Microsoft News is putting a focus on Poverty in America with a 2-week series examining the root causes of poverty, what poverty really means to the many different kinds of people affected, and what we can do to contribute to the most meaningful solutions. We teamed up with some of our most trusted news partners to bring you custom content and highlight quality journalism that helps us understand these issues. We hope you’ll join us in supporting the organizations that are helping Americans in poverty with both their immediate needs and long-term pathways to more stable and prosperous lives.

Nearly a billion children around the world are living in moderate or extreme poverty, with the damage ranging from poor health and inadequate education to young lives filled with violence, crime, and hopelessness.

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Beyond individual suffering, however, child poverty is a heavy burden for society to bear, owing to the potential it snuffs out and the high cost of dealing with poverty’s harmful effects. What are these effects? Read on to find out.

Multitudes suffering

About one in five children live in households that survive on an average of $1.90 (U.S.) a day per person or less—that’s the definition of extreme poverty—while nearly half of all children get by on less than $3.10 per household member.

Children are disproportionately poor

Adults are about half as likely as children to live in moderate or extreme poverty. Fewer than one in 10 adults live in extreme poverty, while a quarter of adults get by on $3.10 or less.

The United States lags behind

Scandinavian countries have the world’s lowest percentage of children in households that earn less than 50 percent of a country’s median income. Specifically, Denmark sits at 2.4 percent, followed by Finland at 3.4 percent, Norway at 3.6 percent, and Sweden 3.6 percent. Which developed country has the highest rate? The United States, at 21.7 percent.

Low birth weight

The health struggles of children living in poverty often start at birth. They are at increased risk of a low birth weight, with about 16 percent of infants in developing countries born weighing less than 2.5 kilograms. These children are 20 times more likely to die in infancy than heavier babies, and may be more susceptible to infectious diseases, inhibited growth, and delayed cognitive development. They are also more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses later in life.


Poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation all contribute to the impaired growth and development of children known as stunting. This condition is particularly damaging before the age of two, as it can lead to poor cognition and educational performance and, in turn, low adult wages, lost productivity, and a higher risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases.

Diminished brain development

While poverty-related factors such as poor nutrition, language exposure, family stability, and prenatal issues were once blamed for diminished brain development among children, there is a growing amount of scientific evidence that poverty itself may be the root cause.


Poor access to nutritious foods, as well as a lack of fitness-related facilities and fit role models, can lead to overweight children and childhood obesity.


Poverty-related living conditions such as exposure to mold in low-quality housing can cause asthma. The respiratory disease can then be exacerbated by poor access to medication and health care, and lower health literacy.


Living in poverty increases the childhood risk of anemia, a condition caused by a shortage of red blood cells or hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein. Symptoms include an increased heart rate, breathlessness, dizziness, fatigue, and slow or delayed growth and development.


This inflammatory lung condition kills more young children than any other infectious disease, with approximately 2,400 succumbing each day. These deaths are closely tied to poverty-related factors such as poor nutrition, a lack of safe water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, and inadequate access to health care.

Secondhand smoke

Poor children are more likely to live in households where someone smokes. In the United States, for example, nearly half of poor children live with a smoker. The damaging effects of secondhand smoke on children include higher rates of sudden infant death syndrome and respiratory infections.

Early and risky sexual activity

Low household income and community poverty have been linked to teenagers having sex at a younger age, as well as taking part in risky sexual behaviour such as failing to use contraceptives.

Exposure to hazardous materials

Of the hundreds of millions of poor people who live and work near toxic chemicals, children are more likely to be exposed to the most hazardous conditions. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of the developing world’s 250 million working children face this kind of risk.

Unsafe living conditions

With crime and violence being more prevalent in poor communities, children living there face a greater risk of physical injury, disability, and death.


Likewise, exposure to violence places children at greater risk of committing unlawful acts and being incarcerated.

Poor learning skills

The stress linked to living in poverty has been shown to damage children’s ability to concentrate, memory skills, and overall ability to learn. The dropout rate of U.S. students from low-income families, for instance, has been found to be almost five times greater than that of children in higher-income families.

Mental health problems

Poor children are more prone to behavioural and emotional problems such as impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Mental disorders

These mental-health issues often turn into full-fledged disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. Children living in poverty are at greater risk of developing these disorders.

Poor home life

The poverty-related hardships faced by children often cause their parents to suffer chronic stress and depression, which can lead to marital distress and harsher parenting behaviours. This, in turn, can result in negative social and emotional outcomes for children.

Cycle of poverty

Poor children are more likely to become impoverished adults, who in turn raise another generation in poverty. Inadequate education, for instance, fuels this harmful cycle by making it more difficult for low-income kids to escape poverty.


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