“Mum, can we please buy a mango later? It’s still the beginning of the month”. A little boy, probably around 10 years old, asked his mother. “I’m sorry darling, it’s too expensive. I’ll buy some apples.” Answers the mother reluctantly – overheard in a metro in Cologne, Germany, November 2019.
Did you know that every fourth child in Germany lives in poverty? Every fourth. In Germany. In other words, around 4.4 million children in Germany have to cope with that bitter fate. Measured by the GDP, Germany is the 7th richest country within the EU in 2019 and one wouldn’t necessarily expect a high poverty rate. But Germany is not the only country being affected. This sad destiny has become a reality in many European countries. Within the EU 25 million children are living with the risk of poverty or social exclusion. But how do we understand poverty? According to the EU, people are referred to as living in poverty “if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live”. Obviously, this is not comparable to people who are mired in poverty in third world countries. But still, what does it mean for a child to be burdened with financial worries?
Living with financial worries bears challenges on many different levels. Ranging from limited access to education and health care, social exclusion, isolation, insecurity through to problems in everyday life. What does it mean for a child not to be able to participate in social activities? When joining the football club or playing the piano always remains a dream. Engaging in a hobby is something that shapes your character substantially and is often underestimated, but it also gives you the opportunity to establish and discover yourself. You acquire a feeling of belonging to a certain group, you are part of a team. You learn to bear responsibility, you witness appreciation and it boosts your confidence, since you learn what you’re good at. Now imagine missing out on all of that.
However, the problem also becomes apparent in everyday life. You’re invited to your friend’s birthday party and you want to buy a nice present. The next school trip is around the corner and your teacher already reminded you to pay the fees. Your friend asked you to join for a shopping tour. You want to be up to date with the latest fashion and you want to buy the newest brand clothes. You want to watch the award-winning movie in the cinema or go and buy some ice-cream. But if you’re not able to pay for all these expenses and if you can’t live up to the society’s expectations, you feel powerless and excluded. As a consequence, a lot of children might feel ashamed of being poor and it’s hard for them to always say “no”, even though it’s not their `fault´. They feel uncomfortable if they constantly have to turn down offers and it’s tiring for them if they continuously try to find excuses why they can’t join. Living from day to day without any savings or reserves for a rainy day is exhausting.
However, social exclusion is not the only side effect that comes from poverty. How about education and future expectations? In some countries education is for free, but only to a certain extent. School books or extra lessons still have to be paid. Due to their limitations, many children feel discouraged despite their good performance. They can’t make use of their full potential (or are not even aware of it) and stay below their abilities. In addition to that, while fighting against their destiny, they often endure discrimination, are confronted with prejudices and have to deal with stereotypical remarks along the lines of “only lazy people are poor”. The fate of living in poverty can happen to anyone, and it can happen faster than you think. It only requires a few unfortunate unpredictable events and you’re right in there. An accident or a terrible disease which makes it impossible to work, or simply a string of layoffs. Another consequence of this standard of life might be living in unsafe neighbourhoods and being exposed to higher levels of crime.
What does it do to a child growing up under these conditions? It affects their mental health, their confidence, their relations, their possibilities, their futures, and their lives. You don’t have any influence on whether you’re born into a rich or poor family. It’s simply a matter of being `lucky´ or not. I didn’t write this article to try to make anyone feel bad for living a good, maybe even a luxurious, life, but it is important to appreciate every single day we live without any worries. And maybe it helps some people who are better off to stop whining about little things, maybe it offers some motivation to make the best out of every situation and to live every day to its fullest.
Image retrieved from the Borgen Project https://borgenproject.org/increasing-child-poverty-in-germany/