Ever since the1979 International Year of the Child, there has been worldwide concern about children and adolescents who use the streets of urban centers as their principal or secondary living space. Some of the initiatives taken in recent decades on behalf of street children include campaigns appealing for international solidarity; experiments with new educational strategies compatible with conditions on the street; establishment of special organizations to assist these youngsters; media reports lamenting their deplorable living conditions; seminars and national and international conferences; and research studies on their demographic profile, ways of dealing with life on the streets, or their family history and educational background. The matter of street children has transcended national borders and cuts across the boundaries of academic disciplines and professional specializations.
In the course of this activity, a body of rhetoric developed about this population group that has captured the imagination of the general public: the world is said to be overrun by millions of street children who represent the poverty of the underdeveloped world. During the 1980s, many disparate and inflated estimates circulated about the number of children and adolescents surviving on the streets of Third World metropolises. These estimates were usually developed using deductive reasoning that assumed a linear relationship between poverty and whether a child does or does not live on the street. In most instances, they were produced with the aim of denouncing the poverty of urban underdevelopment. The basic assumptions were: poor families inevitably abandon, expel, or alienate their children; their exclusion from access to social goods and institutions (school, especially) also inexorably leads to a search for survival on the street; poor families do not control their children and so produce the street urchins today who are the criminals of tomorrow—and, in the case of girls, today’s prostitutes and the mothers of tomorrow’s street children.
Like other researchers and activists involved with the rights of children and adolescents, during the 1980s I analyzed and criticized this approach because I considered it to be: (a) stigmatizing to poor families at a time when a growing number of studies, mainly anthropological, were demonstrating the centrality of the family, real or represented, in the formation of identity among the Brazilian poor (Sarti 1994); (b) the wrong