Poverty, particularly child poverty, has many dimensions. If we look only at material measures, we miss key dimensions that matter for children’s experience of poverty as well as the opportunities they will have later in life. Young Lives collects information from children on their values, aspirations, and psychosocial well-being, as well as the traditional indicators of deprivation, so as to construct a holistic understanding of childhood poverty. As part of our qualitative research, our child questionnaires pose a number of questions to allow us to measure perceptions, feelings and attitudes reflecting characteristics such as agency and self-efficacy, self-esteem, aspirations and respect.
Longitudinal research into the links between poverty and psychosocial indicators is a unique feature of Young Lives. By following the same group of children, we can trace how poverties and inequalities affect their well-being, what inequalities exist in children’s health, nutrition and well-being and how they affect their physical, social and cognitive development over time, and so also explore how their aspirations, priorities and strategies change over time and affect their life trajectories.
We also explore what economic, physical, health and psychosocial factors children and their caregivers think are important to well-being. To show subjective well-being, children in the Young Lives survey are asked to think about how they are faring in life and to place themselves on a nine-rung ‘ladder of life’ (where the top rung represents the best life possible and the lowest rung the worst). They are then asked to imagine where they see themselves in four years’ time; we use this as an indicator of children’s sense of optimism.
We have found that both stunting and low spending power of families have further profound impacts on children’s lives and experiences in terms of their self-esteem, sense of shame, respect and of inclusion.
Self-esteem and other related perceptions are connected to many different influences in a child’s life, including the support given by family members, the quality of friendships, cultural values and other factors.
Well-being is, of course, affected by poverty and shocks, but some findings are surprising. For example, while the death of a parent at any age is a significant and distressing event, Young Lives research in Ethiopia finds that the age the child is when a parent dies is important. If a parent dies early on in a child’s life (between ages 0 and 6) then the death per se does not seem to affect children’s sense of optimism or self-esteem at age 12, in part due to the fact that younger children are more likely to be cared for by close relatives. But, if the father dies in middle childhood (between ages 7 and 12) it seems to reduce the child’s sense of optimism.