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Rusty Stewart

What inequality means for children

Paul Dornan | 21 May 2013

Inequality of opportunity provides a helpful way of framing the debate, particularly so as it shows the agreement that circumstances should not prohibit the fulfillment of talent. For children, early inequalities in learning or nutrition have serious life long (sometimes life shortening) consequences. Getting to zero on goals such as hunger or sanitation are vital, but engaging with inequality gives a route toward that goal.

In a previous contribution to this thread Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva notes the underlying debate between those who argue that inequality rewards effort, and those who either note it frequently does not, or that inequality produces inefficient/damaging results. The concept of (in)equality of opportunity helps cut through these debates: whatever the debate on economic inequality few would (openly) justify that there was somehow an acceptable level to which a child’s parents or background should prefigure his or her later opportunity. Linking in neatly, Francisco Ferreira highlights a way of measuring inequalities in opportunity – arguing group based differences in income levels (based on social groups or where people live) provide a way to identify non-merit based inequalities which could then be used in a new framework. Ferreira also  poses the central question of 'inequality of what' - here the focus is inequalities in the achievement of many of the MDG domains (nutrition, learning etc), not only absolute poverty, but it seems clear that income inequalities relates closely to much of this.

Stepping back from this to consider the processes by which inequalities within societies are reproduced/ entrenched we synthesized evidence from the Young Lives four-country longitudinal study of childhood poverty in low and middle income countries. By tracing the interconnected nature of disadvantage we show, for example, that inequalities are frequently related, poor children also being more likely to be in rural areas and with parents who have themselves had lower levels of education. Inequalities are cumulative – poorer children typically have lower access to pre-school and were likely to leave formal school earlier. Plus access and quality of services frequently maps onto household disadvantage, with the quality of access to services lower for poorer children, even though they stand to benefit more.

Just to draw out a couple of conclusions for the inequality discussion. First with the development of public services in many countries, the inequality challenge has been shifting from exclusion from systems to difference of experience within systems and so quality/outcomes are increasingly important indicators of experience. Second the multidimensional nature of disadvantage highlights that disadvantage in one area of a child’s life has consequences for other aspects of his or her development. Since poorer children frequently experience multiple disadvantages, the additive impact of inequalities should be a particular concern. So since social policy areas interact, plugging gaps in provision or quality has particular potential to create virtuous circles for the poorest children, where better preventative health access supports children staying on in schools etc (therefore systems approaches are helpful).

There is also some discussion about whether inequality goals are needed if ‘getting to zero goals’ can be put in place, David Cameron seems to be pushing this case (at least for income inequality) as one of the co-chairs of the panel. But that should not be an ‘either/or’ option. If, say, a getting to zero target was created for child malnutrition by 2030 that might eventually require policy makers to focus on the poorest children (those with highest rates of malnutrition), but it does not mean policy makers would focus on these groups anytime soon - the can could still be kicked down the road with a focus on those easiest to help now. If marginalisation gets further entrenched with the poorest households left further behind, then the policy objective itself may get harder to achieve on time. An inequality focus itself gives a better route to get to zero.

Photo credit main picture: Rusty Stewart