How can poverty affect child development

Out: Children's day-care centers currently, KiTa special 2006, No. 4, pp. 4-8. With permission from Wolters Kluwer Germany

Poverty among girls and boys in Germany - definition, scope, impact and approaches

Gerda wood


Who is affected by poverty and who are exposed to particular risks of courtesy?

The term "infantilization of poverty" was coined as early as the 1990s. Today, after more than a decade, we must speak of a perpetuation of the phenomenon: children are still the most common age group affected by poverty. According to official statistics, around 1.12 million minors were living on support for their livelihoods (social assistance) at the end of 2004; this corresponds to 7.5% of all girls and boys under the age of 18 in Germany. Non-Germans are more than twice as likely to be affected (6.5% German vs. 16.1% non-German). In the middle of 2006, around 1.7 million under 15-year-olds were receiving social benefits.

The rate of girls and boys affected by relative income poverty according to the EU definition is between 13% and 19%, depending on the operationalization (1). Depending on the region and location, the quotas vary and tend to increase. In eastern German municipalities, but also in large western German cities and metropolitan areas, every seventh to third minor is affected, depending on the age group. Children of pre-school and elementary school age have the highest risk - the age phase with the greatest potential for developing individual resources and skills.

As causes of poverty among adults apply to (long-term) unemployment and employment at a low time level and with low wages. In addition, the "working poor" is gaining in importance. Separation and divorce as well as over-indebtedness should also be mentioned. Unpaid or poorly paid housework is still rarely discussed - and if then with reference to the problem of "female poverty". The causes of child poverty is that of the family.

The risk Different social groups are subject to poverty differently. In relation to minors, children from families with one of the above employment statuses, with a migration background, from one-parent families and from families with three or more children are at risk of poverty above average. Likewise, children in large cities are more at risk than from rural areas and children in socially segregated neighborhoods. Here are some numbers about the scope:

  • In 2002 around 18% of all families in western Germany and around 22% in eastern Germany belonged to the so-called single-parent families. It can be assumed that there are around 2.4 million single parents (87% of them mothers), and the trend is rising (cf. Federal Statistical Office 2006, pp. 35-36).
  • According to the Socio-Economic Panel 2003, around 32.5% of the under 6-year-olds and around 29% of the 7 to under 10-year-olds have a migration background, and the trend is rising. The largest groups are adolescents from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia (cf. Konsortium Bildungsberichtichten 2006, pp. 141-143).
  • In all of the currently around 12,250 independent towns in Germany - whether rural or urban - there is a socially segregated area, usually referred to as a "social hotspot" or "area with special development needs". If in small towns it is more of a part of a street or a street of streets, in medium-sized and large cities it is limited quarters and / or entire districts. It is characteristic that families with the risk characteristics outlined above live far above average in segregated areas. The proportion of poor girls and boys or those at risk of poverty tends - thus also in the local socialization institutions - to quickly approach 80% to 100%.

The figures show that the problem is nationwide. Everyone is challenged everywhere, because poverty is now a normal part of childhood in Germany.

How can child poverty be defined and measured?

First of all, poverty is defined as relative income poverty. According to the general EU definition, poor people are those who have less than 50% (mean) or 60% (median) of the average net income (weighted according to household size) in the respective country. In concrete figures: The arithmetical poverty line for 2003 is between 938 and 1,100 euros for a household with one adult household member, depending on the calculation basis. Children who grow up in such a family household are poor.

However, poverty cannot be limited to the monetary resource situation alone. There has been proven to be a connection between low income and an increased risk of relative disadvantage and that at the latest from birth. At the same time, poverty represents a specific situation in life (2), which is characterized in many ways by material and immaterial restrictions, social exclusion and experienced social disadvantages.

The AWO-ISS studies (3) provide fundamental theoretical and empirical findings on child-specific forms of poverty. The following statements are essentially based on this. By comparing the living situation of poor and non-poor children, the studies show how strongly the material situation of the family influences the child's situation. The four central ones are used to evaluate the development conditions and opportunities of poor girls and boys compared to economically better-off children Life situation dimensions to consider:

  1. material situation of the child (housing, food, clothing),
  2. Provision in the cultural situation (education, learning and experience opportunities),
  3. in the social situation (social integration, skills) and
  4. in the health situation (state of health, health behavior).

In order to get a comprehensive view of the child's life situation, the four life situation dimensions are summarized in one index, the three child-related life situation types Includes "well-being", "disadvantage" and "multiple deprivation".

In this way, child poverty can be described as follows define:

  • The starting point is income poverty.
  • The child lives in a low-income family.
  • Child-specific manifestations of poverty emerge in the form of material, cultural, health and social undersupply.
  • The child's developmental conditions are impaired, which may include growing up with a disadvantage or multiple deprivation.
  • The child's future prospects are limited.

How does the child's face of poverty show in preschool age?

Poor children are noticeably burdened by the age of six, as the following figures show.

Tab. 1: Proportion of pre-school children with restrictions in the four central dimensions of life and poverty - 1999

dimensionPoor childrenNon-poor children

Basic material supply



Cultural area



Social area



Health situation



Reading aid: 40% of the poor and "only" 14.5% of the non-poor children show deficiencies in basic services.
N = 893. Source "Poverty in Preschool Age 1999" Cf. Hock / Holz / Wüstendörfer 2000, pp. 33-38.

For basic material supplies: Around 40% of poor children have deficits in material / basic services, but only 15% of non-poor children (Tab. 1). Family poverty was most clearly expressed in the late and irregular payment of meal allowances and other contributions for activities in the day-care center. More often, poor children came to the facility hungry and / or the child lacked physical care. In contrast, a lack of necessary clothing was relatively rare.

To the cultural area: More than half of the poor girls and boys were conspicuous with regard to their play and language behavior, almost half with regard to their work behavior. Poor children were not only postponed from school overall more often than non-poor children, but also with a comparable starting situation or the same level of "abnormalities" they had less chances of regular transfer to mainstream school than non-poor children. For example, "only" 69% of the poor, but around 88% of the non-poor children attended regular school.

To the social area: For example, the poor children were less likely to seek contact with other children in the KiTa, were less active in group activities, were less likely to express their wishes and were less inquisitive than non-poor children. At the same time, an incipient exclusion could be observed: poor children were avoided more often than non-poor children by the other children in the day care center.

On the health situation: Here, too, the poor children showed more restrictions or abnormalities than the non-poor children; the difference, however, is the least pronounced compared to the other three dimensions of life. Poor children were more likely than non-poor children to have health problems or to be retarded in their physical development.

The life situation and the possibilities of the children are already clearly different in preschool age. Poor girls and boys grow up far less well-being and far more often in multiple deprivation. Nonetheless, it also shows that poverty does not necessarily lead to impairments: Around a quarter of the poor children examined lived in well-being (23.6%), so they were not restricted in any of the central dimensions of life. However, twice as many non-poor as poor children belonged to the "well-being" type.

Tab. 2: Child-specific life situations of preschool children - 1999

Life situation typePoor childrenNon-poor childrentotal









Multiple deprivation








Reading aid: 23.6% of poor children and 46.4% of non-poor children grow up well, i.e. without defects.
N = 893. Source: "Poverty in Preschool Age 1999". See Hock / Holz / Wüstendörfer 2000, p. 77.

What long-term effects will be visible by the end of primary school?

The more stable the family's financial situation, the safer the living and development conditions for the girls and boys (cf. Tab. 2). While more than every second poor child experiences restrictions here, none of the children in "secure prosperity" (> 100% of the average equivalent income) is affected. Conversely, the earlier, the more vulnerable and the longer children are exposed to a poverty situation, the more serious the effects, because the restrictions that develop in preschool age become firmly entrenched in primary school.

Tab. 3: Proportion of ten-year-old children with restrictions in the four central dimensions of life and poverty - 2003/04

Life situation dimensionPoor childrenNon-poor children

(< 50%)
More precarious
(50% - 75%)
(75% - 100%)
(> 100%)

Material situation / basic supply





Cultural situation





Social situation





Health situation





N = 500





Reading aid: 51.5% of the poor ten-year-olds have deficiencies in basic services, in contrast to "only" 5.3% of the children who grow up in a non-poor family with an income just below the average net household income
Source: "Late Elementary School Age Poverty 2003/05". See Holz / Richter / Wüstendörfer / Giering 2006, p. 66.

The survey from 2003/04 also points to the enormous differences in the material area, which particularly affect children with a migration background above average. An expression of the shortage among 10-year-olds is, for example, not having a room of their own and having to accept restrictions on clothing and / or toys. Large differences between poor and non-poor can also be found in the cultural area. Poor girls and boys have far fewer general and age-appropriate opportunities for learning and experience; e.g. through association membership, participation in voluntary courses inside and outside the school. There are also considerable differences in the social situation: the poor are not only given limited space for social integration, they are at the same time denied the opportunity to acquire broad social skills. Accordingly, the first signs of social deviance are showing. Nevertheless: In the AWO-ISS studies, between 85% and 95% of the girls and boys, depending on the questions, are not socially conspicuous. This also applies to poor children.

Overall, there are strongly divergent life and development courses: Negative courses predominate among poor girls and boys, i.e. an increase in abnormalities in life situations and changes in the type of life situation, e.g. from disadvantage after multiple deprivation. In the case of non-poor children, a steady positive development dominates, e.g. remaining in well-being. At the same time, a high level of dynamism can be observed: more than half of the girls and boys changed their lifestyle between 1999 and 2003/04. Just as "once poor - always poor" does not apply, but neither does "once repeatedly deprived - always multiple deprived". However, the opportunities and risks are clearly distributed.

Can the consequences of poverty be avoided or limited?

Poverty is the greatest risk factor for a child's life chances. The individual, social and cultural resources a child has at their disposal to cope with their effects and which action strategies or which coping actions it develops in the event of stress depends crucially on the situation in life and is based on a large number of intervening variables (personal, family and extra-family type). Extra-family offers and socialization bodies such as daycare centers and the immediate living space are also decisive influencing factors. There you can influence the development of resilience as well as the creation and support of a conducive environment.

The AWO-ISS studies also prove the existence of protective factors - in considerable numbers and effectively. These include, among other things, the (everyday) coping action of parents, learning positive action strategies and successful, because supported, social integration in peer groups as well as the social and school environment [There is a clear connection between the total number of protective factors and the type of life situation. Children growing up in well-being show more protective factors (13.7) than multiple deprived ones (11.3 factors) (4). There is still a connection between the number of protective factors available and the child's developmental course: children who experienced a stable positive development between 1999 and 2003/04 are subject to more protective factors than children who were consistently multiple deprived during the same period (13.6 vs. . 10)]. When the framework conditions of growing up change, this shows a direct effect on the living situation and coping behavior of minors. It is neither individually acquired competencies, nor self-"healing" powers (of the family), but social support, balance and redistribution that open up a real future for children. The knowledge in turn opens up manifold opportunities for social and state action in terms of child-related (poverty) prevention.

What does it take - a social countermeasure?

Basically, poverty is a social phenomenon and has structural causes with individual consequences. Avoidance or limitation of (poverty) consequences also requires a societal countermeasure by providing appropriate social resources and promoting preventive processes. Countermeasures can be taken by strengthening the individual, i.e. promoting his or her resilience, or by changing living conditions, i.e. promoting structural framework conditions to limit the problem. Actors are the individual specialists in their respective work contexts, the institutions and organizations as well as the politically responsible persons at the municipal, state, federal and EU level and combine political, social, educational and planning elements. It is necessary to develop specific concepts for child-related poverty prevention (i.e. at the latest from birth to the longest time to successfully start a career).

What options are there for pedagogues in day care centers and schools?

What has been said so far shows the multitude of consequences of poverty during childhood and adolescence as well as the complexity of the problem. This also opens up the wide range of options for action in terms of personal commitment and professional interaction. What does it take to do this?

First of all, a critical (self-) reflection is necessary on the mission, organization and structures as well as on the organization of everyday life and the results achieved by the education system. This should focus on both your own institution and your personal contribution.

A clarification process must take place in the facility that understands poverty and disadvantage as a social problem with individual consequences for minors and not as individual failure:

  1. The challenge for educational professionals in day care centers, but also schools, is first of all to become sensitive to social conditions in general and in the everyday life of the child in particular (Problem awareness).
  2. They need to know and perceive the risk factors and their unequal distribution among the different groups (Problem perception).
  3. There must be a discussion about how to deal with personal and institutional problems as well as reflection on one's own stake in a consolidation: Is poverty a taboo topic in the daycare or is it discussed, e.g. in team meetings, vis-à-vis the public and politics (Handling of the problem).
  4. Ultimately, it is a matter of implementing your own measures to avoid or reduce disadvantages. Part of this must be to make general resources individually accessible and to create or expand development spaces (Problem solving).

This cannot be done by one person alone and in isolation in one's own institution, but requires opening up to other professions, other institutions and above all to the social space. It doesn't work without that.

The involvement of others, the definition of common goals, the development of a common concept and its implementation with others are an expression of a complex understanding of the problem, a high sense of responsibility and an appropriate professional approach. This in turn requires a procedure based on verifiable sub-goals or milestones - which makes the selective and integrative effects of your own actions and your own institution recognizable in an excellent way. Goal and effect-oriented work is on the one hand a general quality standard and on the other hand an immeasurably valuable orientation aid on the way to opening up real future opportunities for all young people.


Concrete measures and instruments that benefit poor and / or socially disadvantaged children include the following:

  • The systematic preparation and accompaniment of the transitions (primary / elementary / secondary level, etc.).
  • Working with individual support plans based on educational documentation - created in the KiTa and continued by the school - geared towards individual support goals and ensuring successful educational careers.
  • The implementation of individual and group support for poor and / or disadvantaged groups through the involvement of resident therapists, school social workers, committed people from the school environment, etc.
  • Cooperation with other institutions as an important pillar of your own facility concept and its implementation.
  • The expansion of a differently designed collaboration with stressed and disadvantaged parents. This depends crucially on a basis of trust created by the specialists, is determined by tangible and visible appreciation as well as a constantly new initiated personal approach and personal contact. The experience of socially disadvantaged people is characterized by permanent devaluation, exclusion, prejudice, etc. by others. This cannot be resolved by a one-off approach, general parents 'evenings, office hours organized parents' consultation or written contact. Rather, personal commitment, respectful interaction, perseverance, the ability to be frustrated, small measures that can be successfully mastered by those affected and the recognition of (small) progress are decisive. The recurring initiative for this is a professional task and lies with the pedagogues (see also Ekrowski 2006).
  • Being active in the social space and at the communal level. Socialization facilities are not only a central place in the living environment of young people, but also part of the social space and building blocks of the infrastructure of a municipality. Participation in networks, round tables, working groups or regular reporting on the interests of the institution, for example in the school and youth welfare committee of the respective municipality, are part of the educational mandate

Even this short and rough list of approaches makes it clear: there is a lot to be done, a lot can be done and, above all, a lot can be achieved.


  1. See Federal Employment Agency 2006; Federal Statistical Office 2006; Holz / Richter / Wüstendörfer / Giering 2006, pp. 53-54.
  2. The term describes the life situation of people in biological, psychological and social terms. It aims to determine the "life situation as total life opportunity" of the individual. The individual development of interests and their realization are defined by the quantitative and qualitative nature and the design of various areas of life - such as care, social contacts, education, regeneration and participation. This makes different (action) scope recognizable. Chassé, Zander and Rasch (2003) transferred this play space concept to children and made it clear that when referring to children's basic needs it is important to distinguish between different types of needs on the one hand and to ask from which perspective (adults or children) on the other hand are formulated or are defined.
  3. The AWO-ISS studies - the results of which are the essential basis for further explanations - opened up child-related poverty research through a combination of resource and living conditions. For this purpose, quantitative and qualitative surveys were carried out between 1997 and 2005 on behalf of the workers' welfare organization. See Hock / Holz / Wüstendörfer 2000; Holz / Skoluda 2003; Holz / Richter / Wüstendörfer / Giering 2006.
  4. See Holz / Richter / Wüstendörfer / Giering 2006, pp. 191-200 (number in brackets = arithmetic mean).


Federal Employment Agency (2006): Basic security for job seekers. Development until July 2006. Nuremberg.

Chassé, K.A./ Zander, M. / Rasch, K. (2003): My family is poor: How primary school children experience and cope with poverty. Opladen.

Ekrowski, B. (2006): Reaching parents who are otherwise unreachable - but how? Jugendhilfe aktuell 3, pp. 20-23.

Hock, B. / Holz, G. / Wüstendörfer, W. (2000): "Early consequences - long-term consequences?" Poverty and disadvantage in preschool age. Frankfurt am Main.

Holz, G. / Skoluda, S. (2003): Poverty in early primary school age ". Living situation, resources and coping actions of children. Frankfurt am Main.

Holz, G. / Richter, A. / Wüstendörfer, W. / Giering, D. (2006): Future opportunities for children !? - Impact of poverty up to the end of primary school. Frankfurt am Main.

Consortium Education Reporting (2006): Education in Germany. Gutersloh.

Federal Statistical Office (ed.) (2006): Children in social welfare 2004. Wiesbaden.


Gerda wood
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Tel .: 069/592874
Email: [email protected]