Cost-of-living crisis hurts the well-being of children worldwide
Millions of children and young people are at an increased risk of losing the care of their families due to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
Climate change, COVID-19 and the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine have dealt a heavy blow to the global economy, triggering the one of the worst crises in recent history.
“Cost of living” is the term economists use for the amount money families need to cover essential living expenses.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came at a time when the global food and fuel prices were already rising, and made a bad situation worse, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
Russia and Ukraine are both producers of food staples. Together, they export 25% of the global wheat supply. Ukraine alone exports 14% of corn supply. Russia is among the world’s top three largest suppliers of crude oil and the second largest producer and exporter of natural gas used to produce ammonia, a key ingredient in nitrogen fertiliser.
The war has hindered the production and flow of these commodities, making them less available, and pushing the prices of food, fuel and fertilizer up.
Although everyone everywhere has felt the pinch of the crisis, the greatest burden has fallen on families living in poverty, struggling to keep their children well fed, and on children and young people growing up without adequate care and support.
Precious Zikhali, a senior economist at World Bank Kenya, says the pass-through of food prices to consumer prices is high:
“Inflationary pressures tend to disproportionately affect low-income households because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food, and therefore rising food inflation leads to elevated food insecurity."
“They tend to be hardest hit because they have limited coping mechanisms. As a result, they tend to cut back consumption in the face of crises, with long-term impacts on human capital accumulation,” Ms. Zikhali says. She adds that, although most governments have introduced measures to cushion their populations from the impacts, the coverage and benefit levels tend to be limited amid a tight economic space.
Muthoni’s* seven children, aged 6 months to 17 years, eat once a day. She serves them smaller portions to make the food supplies last longer.
She earns a living washing clothes, but these days she doesn't get to work as often as before. The high cost of living is biting hard on every family in Kenya: resources are limited, and families can no longer afford to hire her on a regular basis.
Muthoni has reduced her budget to a bare minimum, and it is still not enough.
Prices of staples like maize flour (2kg) has gone up 8% from 87 to 94 Euro. Cooking oil (one litre) up 33%, cabbage (1kg) from 27 to 37 Euro, up 28%.
"Yesterday, we did not have any food, so I went to borrow from a neighbour,” says Muthoni. “But he got offended. He told me to go away anduse my own hands to put food on the table," she says. “We are suffering a lot.”
Muthoni’s children no longer go to school and are suffering from malnutrition.
The climate-induced drought in the Horn of Africa has exacerbated 37-year-old Muthoni's problems. A few years ago, she fed her children with corn and vegetables she grew on her farm - this is no longer possible with the worst drought in 40 years affecting the region.
Poverty is dangerous for children
Almost 60% of people living in extreme poverty, who spend the lion’s share of their income on food, live in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2022, the World Bank estimated that the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity in the region exceeded 140 million - nearly 24 million increase since 2021.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in just three months following March 2022, the increase in global food and energy prices pushed 71 million people from low and middle-income countries into poverty. The war in Ukraine has had a much faster impact on poverty rates than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Poverty is one of the risk factors for unnecessary family separation. The more crises families living in fragile situations deal with, the more their resilience is weakened.
Precise statistical data on the global situation of children growing up in fragile family environments or without parental care is not available. SOS Children’s Villages estimates that one in ten children around the world has lost or is at risk of losing parental care.
Estimates further suggest that 140 million children have lost one or both parents. Tens of millions of children are living on the streets.
The core focus of SOS Children’s Villages' work is keeping families together by supporting children and young people who lack stable and caring environments and live in circumstances that expose them to harm.
In 2021, the SOS Children's Villages family strengthening programmes helped 88,800 families to stay together. This is a 14% increase compared to the previous year.
A United Nations' report indicates that almost three quarters of the Lebanese population are experiencing poverty. The Lebanese pound has lost 95% of its value.
This currency devaluation, as well as supply-chain disruptions and fuel shortages caused food prices to increase by 483% in January 2022 compared to 2021, and remained high at 332% as of June 2022.
The worth of wages has reduced dramatically, forcing families to look for new ways to survive. The crisis has had a devastating impact on education, security, and health.
“Lebanese families are searching for new ways to increase their income,” says Carla Choueifaty, an SOS Children’s Villages family strengthening programme coordinator.
“One income is not enough anymore to meet the needs of a family. At least two people need to work. Salaries paid in foreign currencies are also necessary with the fast devaluation of our local currency. Caregivers who used to work in the mornings are trying to find additional work in the afternoons or evenings.
“Many children are now left at home alone without any adult supervision, and sometimes without eating or studying, because the caregivers are out trying to provide for the family. Desperate families are trying to place their children in alternative care, where their basic needs can be met. We receive requests almost on a daily basis,” she says.
In Asia, 24 million people were affected by the food crisis in 2022. Out of the global average of 6.7 million children who suffered wasting due to food insufficiency, 3.8 million were from Asia-Pacific according to a joint report by UNICEF, FAO, WFP and WHO.
Sri Lanka has officially stepped in to hyperinflation. The records of the country’s Central Bank show the headline inflation is 54.6%, mostly due to high food ( 80%) and transport (128%) costs inflation.
The government ran out of the foreign exchange needed to pay for food and fuel imports and to service external debt. The rupee devalued and imports reduced sharply. The country is grappling with shortages of food, energy, and medical supplies.
Divakar Ratnadurai, National Director of SOS Children’s Village in Sri Lanka, says extra hardship brought about by the rising cost of living has left many children exposed to the risk of losing the care and protection of their families.
“The unprecedented economic hardship in Sri Lanka has pushed our beneficiaries and staff to the brink,” says Mr. Ratnadurai. “During the last 12 months, we have seen an over 40% increase in new child admissions to our family-like care programme. Many parents, single parents and guardians express their inability to look after their children and want us to intervene.
“The parents tell us providing an egg, a cup of milk or a simple meal has become impossible, forcing them to reduce their food and nutrition intake in order to survive. Empty lunch boxes among school children and discontinuing of nutrition programmes run by the Ministry of Health has created serious malnutrition issues among infants, toddlers, children and pregnant women,” says Mr. Ratnadurai.
SOS Children’s Villages strengthens families at risk of breakdown to prevent the need for alternative care. The main reason families with children need family strengthening services are: poverty (49%), death of a parent (17%), and displacement (14%). Others include instabilities in a parent's relationship (7%) and their poor health (6%).
Invest to make families stronger
The overlapping crises have reversed 25 years of steady progress in poverty reduction, challenging the prospect of ending global poverty by 2030.
Families that had worked so hard to lift themselves out of poverty are sliding backwards. This means millions of children around the world will fall further into difficult living conditions, where they are at risk of abandonment, violence, abuse and neglect.
The recent Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report documents how the COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine triggered an outright reversal in progress in reducing poverty.
“Nearly 7% of the world’s population will still be living on less than US$2.15 a day in 2030, with most in Africa,” says Ms. Zikhali, the senior economist at the World Bank Kenya.
“Slowing economic growth will further slow poverty reduction. The recovery of the per capita income growth rate still falls short of putting the continent back on the pre-pandemic path of poverty reduction. Consistent with rising poverty rates, inequality within countries in the region has widened because high food and fuel prices typically hit the most vulnerable households hardest,” she says.
The cost-of-living crisis does, however, provides opportunities for policy makers in developing economies to step up the fight against poverty and inequality. Scaling up dynamic, child-sensitive social protection measures that address the key drivers of child-family separation would help children living in difficult environments.
Text by Anne Kahura