Coming home from school, getting a hot meal, having a quiet place for doing homework or reading, playing a game: these are not comforts to be taken for granted for children living in relative poverty – which is the term used in industrialised countries. Child poverty is considered to be a private problem of families, which limits the possibilities for state and society to remedy the situation. In a research project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF entitled Social Justice and Child Poverty, a team led by principal investigator Gottfried Schweiger, a philosopher and senior scientist at the University of Salzburg, has taken a different perspective. As one of their central questions they ask: is child poverty unjust?
Putting the theory upside down
Seen from the perspective of social justice, society has a greater role to play. In concrete terms: if a child grows up in a socially just society, it can develop all the capabilities required for living an autonomous and “good” life as an adult. To what extent does poverty in childhood stunt this development? And at what point does the disadvantage become too pronounced, in other words unjust? By placing their focus on social justice, the research team broke new ground. In the philosophical tradition of social-contract theory, children and childhood are not “subjects” in their own right, but “controlled” by adults. Because children were considered part of the family, research has not so far been undertaken to analyse what differentiates poverty in childhood from poverty in adult life.
According to the philosopher Gottfried Schweiger, two normative terms are essential in understanding the specific nature and scope of child poverty: vulnerability and autonomy. Unlike adults, children depend on others (supposed) to take care of them. This makes them vulnerable, although the level of vulnerability decreases as they grow up. If children are affected by poverty, there is no certainty that they are looked after, making them more vulnerable than others. “Their families, their immediate environment and the state cannot supply them with everything they need, such as sufficient food, clothing or protection against disease. Poverty means they are generally less protected against care-taking deficiencies”, explains Schweiger.
Developing autonomy is another central aspect. Under favourable conditions, on their way to adulthood, children will acquire all the capabilities required for developing and implementing goals based on reasonable rationales. “Growing up in poverty means having fewer opportunities to develop such autonomy”, notes the researcher. The differences become ethically relevant when society generally fails to do enough for these children as a group. The three-strong research team based its theoretical considerations on a relatively large number of empirical studies, with the main focus on mental and physical health, education and the aspect of poverty being passed on across several generations. The resulting philosophical theory is the first to identify the connection between child poverty and social justice and responsibility.
Health is central
Schweiger emphasises that they were able to “show that child poverty is unjust, because it stunts the development of relevant capabilities in an unjustified manner”. Such capabilities, however, are necessary for leading a good and autonomous life. What does that mean in concrete terms? One example is mental and physical health. Studies on mental disorders show that the risk of being afflicted by depression at some later point is heightened for children affected by poverty. According to Schweiger, the difference arising from poverty in comparison with other children is morally indefensible. Moreover, health is a central prerequisite for developing other skills and using them successfully. Therefore, the forward-looking perspective and the aspect of justice have to be reflected, particularly in the case of children.
Family does not bear sole responsibility
The researchers also placed children at the centre of an actor-centred theory of responsibility. Power, closeness and weighting were central categories used to reveal who was directly or indirectly co-responsible for child poverty – apart from the family. Accordingly, the responsibility to take action against child poverty lies with companies, the state, educational institutions or the health sector. If child poverty is prevented, all nationals of a state have the same chances of developing into autonomous adults. According to the conclusions of this basic research project, anything else is socially unjust.
Gottfried Schweiger has been working at the Centre for Ethics and Poverty Research (ZEA) of the University of Salzburg since 2013. The philosopher is an expert in political philosophy and social philosophy, with research interests including poverty, justice and childhood. Schweiger is also an open-access champion: he is the co-founder of the Zeitschrift für Praktische Philosophie, the first open-access journal in this discipline, an associate editor of Palgrave Communications and co-founder of the [dyo] Open-Access-Philosophieverlag.
Project website Social Justice and Child Poverty