Poverty and Child Outcomes: A Focus on Jamaican Youth

Article excerpt

The incidence of poverty worldwide is a major concern for social scientists and lay people and a challenge for governments and policy makers. It is estimated that 3 billion people--half of the world's population-are poor. The situation is particularly critical in developing countries where the majority of the poor live. People living in poverty face lasting obstacles that keep them from attaining their most basic human rights and individual potentials (UNICEF, 2004). They olden lack adequate food, shelter, access to education and healthcare, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities. They live from day to day and in constant fear of the future (UNICEF, 2004, 2005a). Poverty depletes families' economic, physical, and psychological resources, drains their coping abilities, and exhausts their social support networks (Ashiabi, 2000). In short, it inhibits families' and communities' ability to care for themselves and their children.

The effects of poverty are particularly devastating for children and youth because it is the root cause of child morbidity and mortality (UNICEF, 2004). Over one billion children worldwide, half of them in developing countries, are severely deprived of the essential goods and services they need to survive, grow, and develop. For example, over 16% of children in the developing world lack adequate nutrition and 13% lack access to education. Poor children disproportionately suffer acute and chronic ill health, malnutrition, and other conditions that blight their physical, cognitive, and mental development (Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Children's Defense Fund, 2004; UNICEF, 2004). Poverty deprives children of their basic human rights and sense of well-being; it weakens their protective environment, and places them at high risk for abuse and exploitation, situations that threaten their survival (UNICEF, 2004, 2005a, 2005b).

Much has been written about the effects of poverty on children's developmental outcomes in industrialized nations such as the United States but little attention has been focused on developing countries such as Jamaica. However, related cross-cultural empirical studies have consistently shown poverty to be associated with a host of maladaptive functioning and behavior problems in children and youth (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Brooks-Gunn, 1997). The purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between poverty and child and adolescent outcomes in the Jamaican context. To this end, we draw on the large volume of relevant cross-cultural research. That body of literature has provided overwhelming evidence indicating that poverty exposes children to a daunting array of adverse conditions that contribute in major ways to their downward developmental trajectory (Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Children's Defense Fund, 2004. The goal is not to paint a purely dismal picture of Jamaican children's existence since many of the social indicators of well-being in Jamaica are comparable to those of industrialized economies. For instance, the average life expectancy in 2002 for Jamaicans was 75.7 years compared with 77.1 years in the United States; poverty has declined substantially since the 1990s; and the majority of Jamaicans have access to clean water (92%) and sanitation (99%) (World Bank, 2004). However, the social conditions of a sizeable proportion of the populace, particularly children and youth, remains dire.

This paper is organized as follows: first, the incidence and correlates of poverty in Jamaica is described. Next, we examine the links between poverty and children's physical well-being, cognitive/academic and emotional/behavioral outcomes with a focus on violence. The implications for human development is examined utilizing a theoretical model that examines the associations among the above outcomes. In conclusion, we discuss policy implications for dealing with the economic and social problems and offer some suggestions.

Jamaica, a small island nation (4,411 square miles) in the Caribbean, with a population of 2. …