Childhood is a time most vulnerable to poverty. It is difficult to grow up healthily if one suffers a poverty-stricken childhood. Poor children lack basic nutrition, education, and medical care. They adversely impact their physiological and psychological development. Underprivileged children usually lack self-confidence, find it difficult to socialize, and are deprived of the equal right to social participation. It is likely that, as they grow, they would continue being trapped in poverty, thus making for intergenerational poverty.
For the majority of Chinese poverty-stricken families, whether their children can grow up in a healthy way with channels to improve their social status is a key factor in working to shake off poverty. Essentially, child poverty is an issue about development of human beings. The reasons for poverty will be eliminated only when there are effective constitutional guarantees for the growth and development of impoverished children. Guaranteeing poor children’s right to subsistence and development, and reducing and even ending intergenerational poverty is the only way to sustainable economic development and social progress.
Ending intergenerational poverty and promoting development of children are the fundamental way for child poverty alleviation. In recent years, China has adhered to the principle of “priority to children” in poverty relief and paid great attention to the development of children, which has proven effective in overall poverty alleviation. The Chinese mode of child poverty alleviation is helping impoverished children develop through the agency of both governmental and nongovernmental forces. Measures were taken to increase medical subvention for severe diseases, gradually raise per capita education expenditure for special schools, and facilitate the spread of free compulsory education. Services provided by the government and services purchased from social organizations were combined to give full play to market forces and mobilize participation for offering (health) care and (education) guarantee to impoverished children from birth till completion of compulsory education.
In the 30 years since the Law on Compulsory Education of the People’s Republic of China was enacted in 1986, the historic mission to popularize the nine-year compulsory education and eliminate illiteracy among young adults has been completed. Moreover, underprivileged children’s right to basic education is guaranteed. In 2014, under the nine-year compulsory education, the enrollment ratio of primary schools reached 99.8 percent and that of junior high schools nearly 100 percent. That year, the infant mortality rate dropped to 0.89 percent, and the mortality rate of children under age five was 1.17 percent. The same year, more than 32 million rural students under compulsory education benefited from the Nutrition Improvement Program, and 50,000 students obtained aid from the Directed Student Enrollment Program for Poverty-stricken Areas.
In 2014, China formulated the National Plan for the Development of Children in Poverty-stricken Areas (2014-2020), the first such strategic plan. According to the Plan, targeted and practical measures are to be taken to promote child development in poverty-stricken rural areas with a focus on addressing key shortcomings. The Plan stresses measures to guarantee the health and education of children in rural areas, thus ensuring a safety net for healthy development of impoverished children.
Further, great importance is attached to preventing malnutrition. The Plan has formulated a family poverty-reduction policy with children at the core and nutrition supply as an integral part of basic public health services. Moreover, it favors increased budgets for improving women and child health; structured management of medical human resources; a development and cultivation mechanism in rural areas that is led by the government; and, integration of sectors and departments including public health, human resources and social security, finance, and hospital facilities.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also played a vital role in reducing child poverty. China has formulated policies to encourage market forces and social organizations to participate in poverty reduction.
In April 2011, hundreds of volunteers including journalist Deng Fei, as well as dozens of mainstream media organizations, launched the Free Lunch program together with the China Social Welfare Foundation. The program calls for donating three yuan each day to provide free lunch for a student in poverty-stricken areas. To guarantee its transparent implementation, volunteers helped schools included into the program set up Weibo (Chinese equivalent of Twitter) accounts to openly post information about donation revenue and expenditure. Meanwhile, they invite local governments, media organizations, NGOs, parents, and netizens to participate in supervision. Relying on such a combined social force, the program raised donations totaling 46 million yuan from April 2011 to April 2013 for providing free lunch in more than 200 schools.
Currently, charity programs such as the Free Lunch, Rural Kindergartens, Nutrition Improvement Program for Students in Rural Boarding Schools, Sunshine School Dinner Network, Nutrition Package, and Early Childhood Education have mushroomed in poverty-stricken areas, thereby enriching children development modes.
Broad Principles for Poverty Alleviation
The Chinese government has promised that by 2020 it would lift 70.17 million in rural areas above the poverty line. Of this target population, 7.1 million are children.
The government should understand and make surveys of child poverty from the perspective of incomes, education, and nutrition; improve the quality of public services including education and medical care; carry out new, appropriate institutional schemes for relieving child poverty; help impoverished children develop as human capital; and, end intergenerational poverty.
The method adopted by the government of Yina Town in Weining County, Guizhou Province, is worth learning. Here, impoverished households are identified with reference to the conditions of their housing, grain stock, labor force, and children’s education. By examining their living, land ownership, and production conditions, and educational level and assessing whether family members are capable, disabled or sick, an estimate is made of the households’ potential for development and educational expenditure.
Social security measures should be further refined. Currently, there are no specialized policies for child poverty relief. Despite the fact that almost all local governments have formulated policies to provide different social security measures for different groups of people, it is hard to identify different groups of people in practice. Therefore, groups of people in need should be further categorized and standardized. China can draw lessons from the categorization methods of some Latin American countries, based on which the government can implement conditional transfer of funds.
Social organizations must be encouraged to participate in poverty reduction. Compared to the uniform social security system adopted by the government, NGOs are more flexible and can better mobilize public welfare organizations and volunteers to participate in relief campaigns, thus maximizing the efficacy of poverty relief efforts. Usually, the NGOs carry out specialized programs targeting different groups, and these are more interactive. The participation of social organizations will help supplement precision poverty alleviation.
The author, a Ph.D. in economics and professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development of Renmin University of China, has long been engaged in research on issues related to agriculture, farmers and rural areas.
Published in the ISSUE 3 of CHINA-INDIA DIALOGUE